Hill House and Adaptations: Happy Halloween ’18!

 

I’m not sure when October became Halloween month, but I’ve decided it’s not such a bad thing. Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten lots of good recommendations for scary books and films. My husband and I made it a point to watch some beloved old-school scary films together, including The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), The Sentinel, and Rosemary’s Baby.

We also watched the television series, The Haunting of Hill House, the Netflix adaptation *cough cough* of Jackson’s novel. Ahem…

Have you read the 1959 novel? If you haven’t, then I’ll wait here while you do. Don’t worry. It’s long, but I promise you’ll speed right through it. But if you’re too busy, here’s the premise: University professor studying psychic phenomena gains access to a reputedly haunted house called Hill House, and brings along a presumed psychic (Theo), a disturbed young woman (Eleanor) who ostensibly caused rocks to rain on her house, and a young man (Luke) who is a descendent of the ill-fated family who built the house. They investigate over a period of a few days, and Many Scary Things happen. Someone dies.

I LOVE THIS BOOK. It’s also beloved by legions of fans. It’s nuanced and original, yet also and comfortingly familiar, with its haunting tropes like creepy statuary, darkness, unidentified banging, unsettling architecture, mysterious writing on the walls, a harrowing origin story, and bizarre servants who won’t stay after dark. But the true strength of the novel is that it is less a horror story than a tale of psychological suspense and festering fears and tensions. In fact, it was nominated for the National Book Award.

The 1963 black-and-white film adaptation adheres pretty closely to the book, and Julie Harris is brilliant as the fragile virgin, Eleanor.

We only speak in hushed, abashed tones about the 1999 Catherine Zeta Jones remake.

Husband and I began watching the Netflix series set in both the present and the 90s with heightened expectations. Then we almost didn’t make it through the first hour. I confess, we were pretty angry. Nothing felt right, and very little felt familiar. For openers, the house is ostensibly being renovated in order to be flipped by the Crain family. Um, what? There are five children in the family, and Timothy Hutton and Carla Gugino play the Crain parents. The children are named Steven, Luke, Nell, Theo, and Shirley. Again, what? The adult Steven Crain is a bestselling writer who made a bajillion dollars telling the family’s darkest stories in his novels. Shirley is an undertaker, Luke, a heroin addict, Theo, a psychotherapist, and Nell–well I can’t remember, but it was something innocuous. They’re estranged from their father, and their mother is dead.

Thank goodness for terrific child actors–the kids who play the young Crains were very, very good.

The two story lines eventually bear each other out. We discover why the mother died, and how she was killed. We learn what’s truly wrong with the house. But very, very little of this plot has anything to do with the book or the 1963 film. It’s as though the creator were a magpie who took all the sparkly bits of the novel and sprinkled them through an entirely new story.

Forgive my being vague, but I want to avoid spoilers in case you want to watch it. Which you should! It’s very good if you simply dismiss any notions you have about the book or the 1963 film. It does stand on its own beautifully. And, in my opinion, it should just be called The Forever House. But no one asked me, darn it.

So, has anyone else seen the series? Read the book? Seen the 1963 or 1979 films? If so, what do you think of them?

Something else to consider: What adaptations of your favorite novels elicit strong opinions from you, either way.

 

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The Best Book…Ever…

(c) Copyright 2017, Annalisa Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

I read the best book ever last week. The book in question is titled Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella. It is written for elementary school readers by my daughter, Annalisa Hartlaub, who self-published it with a limited print run for a specific purpose. More on that in a moment.

Please let me explain who “Dr. Sticksel” is. He is Dr. Phil Sticksel, a highly regarded meteorologist who worked worldwide for Battelle Memorial Institute, a science and technology research organization based in the Columbus, Ohio. Battelle partnered with Longfellow Elementary Math and Science Magnet School in Westerville, Ohio, which Annalisa attended. A major element of that partnership involved Battelle providing past and present personnel to Longfellow to assist with its science program. My first contact with Dr. Sticksel was at a school function during Annalisa’s first-grade year at Longfellow. He told me by way of introduction that Annalisa was functioning at genius level and was destined for amazing things. He mentored her through elementary school and beyond. He was (to name but one instance) in attendance when Annalisa, at the time a sixteen-year-old high school student, presented a research paper at The Ohio State University School of Medicine. Dr. Sticksel, now well into his eighties, has experienced some decline in health in the last few years but still stays mentally active and has continued through me to keep up to date on Annalisa. He was thrilled to learn that she presented another research paper this past September at the 2017 IEEE VIS Conference in Phoenix. She was the only attendee to do so who did not have a degree. “One of MY students did that?!” Dr. Sticksel asked. Yes, Sir. One of your students.

Annalisa at age twenty will be closing her career at The Ohio State University in three weeks by earning a degree in neuroscience. She did, however, take the time to fulfill a long-held dream. With the assistance of a grant from OSU’s STEP program, Annalisa wrote Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella, the book I mentioned at the beginning of this bit of logorrhea. Yes, I might be prejudiced, but it is wonderful. It tells the story of a meteorologist who, with his pet opossum, has a lucky umbrella that keeps the rain away. Every word is true, to one degree or another. Annalisa put it all together — text, artwork, and all — and had the books printed by the fine folks at bookbaby. When the books arrived we took Annalisa several miles north to Dr. Sticksel’s home and surprised him with several copies. He was stunned, overjoyed, and surprised. It is of equal importance to note that, after Annalisa slips a copy or two of Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella to Mom and Dad, the remaining copies of the books are being donated to the Westerville Elementary school library system. Dr. Sticksel may be retired, but he will live on in the halls of the Westerville schools and in the hearts and minds of the students for years to come.

Annalisa’s father, of course, sees this new book as the springboard for sorts of potential projects. “What about a Dr. Sticksel series, like Rotten Ralph?! A cartoon show on Netflix! Action figures! A four cup cineplex movie! Greeting cards! Video games! Graphic novels!” Annalisa doesn’t want to hear it, at least not now. Perhaps she will in six months, at which point she’ll convince herself that a spinoff project is her idea. For now, however, she concurs with the observation I made as we drove away from Dr. Sticksel’s home. “You know,” I said, “I think you made him really, really happy.” Annalisa responded, “That’s all I wanted to do.” Amen to that. I can’t think of a better reason to write a book.

Photo (c) Copyright 2017, Lisa O. Hartlaub

So…authors…when the rubber hits the road, why do you write? Other than for filthy lucre, of course?  And readers…why do you read? I mean, really? What is it about reading that entertains you? Tell us, please. And Happy Thanksgiving, from my house to yours.

 

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The Legos Theory of Storytelling as Applied to Turkish Television. Seriously.

Happy 2017! I spent the holidays reading almost nothing, writing a lot, and engaging for better or worse in self-reflection.  I concluded that the best thing I could do for myself and for my work was to go back to basics.

What follows is aimed more at those folks in our audience who are struggling with getting that first novel done. It is easy enough to explain in the context of childhood: rather than struggling to build a motorized crane using an Eitech Erector Set, I need to grab a box of Legos and start building little cars and and people and such, working my way forward by starting with the small and simple and building gradually, but steadily.

I came to this conclusion after watching two television series. You’ve almost certainly heard of one, and probably have never heard of the other. Our own Kathryn Lilley discussed Westworld on this blog a few weeks back. It was beautifully filmed, intricately plotted, startling, and full of surprises. The major rub against it was that it was difficult to understand what was going on from episode to episode. I still have a little callus on my thumb from rewinding it to pick up certain plot nuances that I missed. There were several — maybe a dozen — plot lines that spun off in different directions, some of which were relevant to the story, others which seemed to have been included simply to create a mood. All of them were interesting, but only a few minutes were devoted to each at any one time. Characters? More characters had been introduced by Episode Three than I could keep track of. I found it to be worth working through it — it raises some stunning and yes, frightening issues concerning reality, mortality, and other areas — but the general consensus seems to be that it arguably is a series that more people heard about than actually watched.

The anti-Westworld, if you will, is a series available on Netflix called Kacak (“The Fugitive”). If Westworld  is the result of the Eitech erector set I referenced at the beginning of this post, Kacak comes from the basic box of Legos, and it is wonderful. Kacak is a genre-blurring television series produced in Turkey, throwing together elements of thriller, suspense, romance, drama, and yes, a bit of comedy to create a slow-boil story that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. It is subtitled, but the story is simple enough, and the acting is good enough, that one could glean the context without it. It begins in a remote Turkish village where a man named Serhat operates a tea shop. He is loved by everyone around him, and one gets the sense of “why” from his interaction with his clientele and another shopkeeper. For his own part, Serhat is devoted to his wife and their young son, who somehow in a few moments becomes the cutest little guy to ever walk the face of the earth. All of this communicated with a few minutes of interaction here and there over the course of a day or so. Just when you think you’ve stumbled into an episode of Lassie, however, Serhat interjects himself quite forcefully into a dangerous situation. He is immediately hailed as a hero throughout his village; when news of Serhat’s heroism spreads to Istanbul, however, a danger from his past — a past of which even his beloved wife knows nothing — quickly intrudes and irrevocably blows up Serhat’s perfect life. Does this sound familiar? Sure. The movie A History of Violence explores a similar theme, as does Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Kacak goes further, however. Serhat vows revenge. As Serhat carries out his plan — and attempts to put what is left of life back together — the audience learns about his past, in dribs and drabs, not in meal courses but in tapas or dim sum, small portions which are easily digestible and brought out over the course of the very long meal, where the surprises keep coming. To put it another way: just when you think you’ve reached the smallest Russian nesting doll, there’s another one within.

Kacak does all of this without a big budget, or, interestingly enough, without nudity, graphic sex, or (much) gratuitous violence. Some of the acting is a bit stilted, and there are momentary but noticeable lapses of continuity, to the extent that on occasion the series is unintentionally funny. That is part of the charm of it, however. It isn’t subtle or nuanced for the most part. What it does, however, and does very well, is tell a story.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not much of a teacher. If I have a strength in the area of education it’s the ability to point people to something that will illustrate, quickly, how something is done. If you are having trouble getting your story off of the ground, or that you are getting bogged down under the weight of your own plot, or are having trouble keeping your characters straight, hijack the family Netflix account from your teenager and watch at least the first few episodes of Kacak. I have watched the first ten — Netflix lists fifty — but you can learn a lot just by watching and studying the first three or four. I think, however, that you will want to eventually watch the whole series, which takes that little box of Legos and slowly builds from it, using just a few parts at a time.

My question for you: is there a television series you use to jumpstart your writing, to clear the cobwebs, whatever? My own answer: in addition to Kacak…True Detective: Season One, which I have practically committed to memory (time, indeed, is a flat circle). You?

 

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Showing and Telling for Thanksgiving

kristy

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! That said, I have to say that it is extremely inconsiderate of Abraham Lincoln to have scheduled a time-consuming national holiday near the closing stretch of everyone’s NaNoWriMo effort (I mean, the nerve!).  I do, however, have an entertaining suggestion to get you back on your creative track after you have finished dinner. It is also a very basic but extremely well done example of showing instead of telling.

Show, not tell. How often we hear those three words. We often find ourselves telling instead of showing, however, during our writing. It’s understandable because more it’s easier to write “Jack is tall” as opposed to “Jack was easy to spot. To say he looked like Gulliver among a roomful of Lilliputians would be an exaggeration, but not by much”  is harder, but it reads better and begins to set up the locale of your story. That isn’t the post-Thanksgiving creative jumper and example I was talking about, however; no, that would be a film titled Kristy, a slasher film for folks who don’t like slasher films.

Kristy is a very low budget holiday horror film (currently streaming on Netflix) that gets its money’s worth out of every production dime it spent.  The film stars Haley Bennett, who is currently prominently featured in the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train. If I were pitching the idea for Kristy I would call it “Die Hard goes to school.” The premise is fairly basic. A young woman named Justine unexpectedly finds herself alone on her small, rural college campus (but for a couple of  policemen) over the Thanksgiving holiday when she is unexpectedly pursued with great malice and bad intent by a group of masked individuals who insist on calling her “Kristy.” It’s a slow boil for the first half or so of the film, as we watch Justine bid her friends farewell and  go through the paces of studying, getting dinner from a vending machine, doing laundry, and some other mundane things. That first half is also the most important part of the movie, because we learn about Justine. I could tell you, but Kristy SHOWS you what she is studying and what one of her extracurricular activities is (two things that become very important during the second half of the film). Examples abound. The body language between Justine and Aaron, her boyfriend, during the short course of their post, pre-holiday boombah shows two people who aren’t quite on the same page of their relationship without a word being mentioned. Justine conveys compassion, courtesy, and angst with a sentence or a look; the long camera shots up the (initially) quiet and secluded dormitory corridors, with room doors cheerfully decorated create an atmosphere of solitude and loneliness. By the time that Justine attracts the attention of a group of murderous sleazoids when she makes a trip to a local convenience store we pretty much know that she is not the daughter of an Army Ranger who taught her everything she knew.  That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know anything about defending herself. She just needs to apply what she knows to the matter of defending herself…if she can. If you pay attention to the first half of the movie, you’ll know what she can do, if the creeps don’t get her first.

Yes, there is violence during Kristy, but it’s not gratuitous (well, not entirely). While I wouldn’t let the youngsters watch it I wouldn’t let them watch Old Yeller, either. Kristy has a happier ending. Oh, and if you hate movies where a guy comes in and saves the damsel in distress you will absolutely love Kristy. The reason that I mention it here, however, is that it’s instructive in showing rather than telling, and entertaining too. The reason that I mention it now is that…well, it’s a Thanksgiving  holiday movie with a warm ending. Heh heh heh.

Again, Happy Thanksgiving, whether you take my recommendation or otherwise. Your turn now. What was your best or worst Thanksgiving? My best was in 2006 when my granddaughter was born. My worst was in 1994 when I set my kitchen on fire making dinner. You? And if you have had a Thanksgiving holiday like Justine, please share.

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Flipping the Script by Joe Hartlaub

 

City of the sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 2016! I plan on having a successful one and hope that you do as well. Let me start the year off with an example of how we both might do that.

The tale concerns an author named David Levien. The name might not mean anything to you. His work will. David co-wrote the screenplays for the films Ocean’s Thirteen and Runaway Jury, as well as the less known but nonetheless riveting Rounders. He also is the author of a series of novels — a series which I hope and pray will continue — about a troubled ex-cop named Frank Behr who works as a private investigator in Indianapolis. The books in the Behr series — City of the Sun, Where the Dead Lay, 13 Million Dollar Pop (also known as The Contract), and Signature Kill, are full of rough streets, dark alleys, and grim characters with nothing to lose. They are each and all critically acclaimed, but have not had the commercial success to match.

billions

That may change, and very shortly. Levien has in a way flipped the script with his latest project, one which has garnered a great number of well-deserved pre-release accolades.  It is a series for Showtime called Billions, and it premieres tomorrow, Sunday, January 17, 2016, though you can find the first episode online if you know where to look. Billions contains no Indianapolis, no alleys, no fisticuffs, no guys with nothing left to lose. We instead get New York and high rises, raised voices but no violence (other than that between consenting adults), and guys with everything to lose.  Billions, you see, is about winning. It pits a driven, obsessive U.S. Attorney named Chuck Rhoades against a likable hedge fund billionaire named Bobby “Axe” Axelrod. Rhoades has an enviable win record in bringing down successful Wall Street brokers and traders because, in his own words, he only prosecutes cases that he can win. Rhoades believes that Axelrod’s success is the result of insider trading. Axelrod will tell you — and he does — that he simply reads the market better than anyone else. Who is right will be played out, no doubt, over the course of the series, which gets rolling over the purchase of a house. Is it a seventy-eight room house that costs fifty-eight million dollars, or a fifty-eight room house that costs…well, things get rolling because of the purchase of a house. Frank Behr can barely make the nut on his apartment every month. As I said, Levien, with his co-creators, has flipped the script. And with that, came up with what may well be the best line of dialogue I’ve heard in years, if not a decade or two. Watch the first episode of Billions. It will jump out at you. It might also encourage you to read one or more of those Frank Behr books, which are very different from their brother Billions but are just as well-written.

What does this mean for you? And for me? Just this: try flipping your script once in awhile. If you’re writing a cop story, try your hand at a romance or science fiction. And vice-versa. I had a guy pitch a novel to me yesterday that was so different from what he’s been doing, and yet so unique and original, that I was left silent. For a whole ten fifteen seconds. That’s a new record. Anyway, give it a shot. You might not get a series on Showtime or Netflix or even Starz, but you might surprise yourself. And maybe even the world.
Can you think of an author who changed genres or styles for better or worse, for one project or more? I’ve got a couple. One is John Jakes, who wrote science fiction novels without success but wrote a series of best-selling historical novels which, among other things, were adapted for television. I can’t read Misery by Stephen King without thinking of Jakes. That’s the better. For the worse: Samuel R. Delany, a highly respected, critically acclaimed and commercially successful science-fiction author who felt compelled to write, among other things, pornography. That’s his description. I would agree. Yikes. NSFO, or anywhere else. Anyway, can you think of anyone? Have you tried the flip? And do you plan to watch Billions?

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