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The Hollywood director Howard Hawks was once asked what he believed made a good film, and his no-nonsense reply is the title of this post: “Three good scenes, and no bad ones.” And while I’m by no means an aficionado of Mr Hawk’s filmography (which is pretty stellar), I’m using his criteria to back me up when I Reckon that Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies”  (henceforth BotFA) is not a good film.

I am a massive fan of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s epic world-building like nothing else, with a superlative attention to detail, vision, social and cultural history, language, and design. JRR Tolkein gave him a lot to work with, but Jackson and the teams from Weta Workshop delivered a masterpiece trilogy, up there with the best cinema of recent times. I’ve devoured the massive library of DVD Extras, marvelled over the differences between Elvish and Dwarf armour, and I love revisiting the films with (or without) my daughters.

I was a bit sceptical of The Hobbit trilogy as soon as I heard about it. I won’t retread all the arguments made by so many about the length etc; suffice to say my elder daughter can read the novel quicker than she can watch the three films. During the first two films in the series I just about managed to suspend my disbelief, and, like Dorothy in Oz, kept thinking “This is not a film of the book of The Hobbit” (repeat until nearly convinced).

Wes Anderson’s brilliant Fantastic Mr Fox brings grown-up existential angst to a cartoonish children’s hero. Peter Jackson has added hundreds of years of Tolkein’s lore that hardly anyone has ever read to the slight but charming tale of a Hobbit-creature and created a sprawling mess that is often fabulous to look at, but is ultimately diminishing returns writ very large, and very, very long. I don’t like to reference the two Star Wars trilogies, because (whispers) I’m not such a massive fan of the first three; let’s face it, they’re more than a bit clunky, there’s barely any story and the script is appalling. Empire Strikes Back is great, though… But I have to fight hard not to think The Hobbit diminishes and tarnishes the Middle Earth cinema for which Jackson has been so widely and rightly lauded.

The Hobbit Dwarves

How many could you name without the captions?

Too many characters, not enough time…

Some of Jackson’s problems do come from the text. There are thirteen dwarves on this quest to recover their homeland, or steal treasure, or whatever. And as is the preference of their proud race, their names are often very similar. And while the film-makers went to extraordinary lengths to create specific hairstyles and elaborate beards, most of the time I couldn’t recall who was who, or why. Thorin and Kili aside, they have a collective story-arc rather than anything personal to their character, which meant I simply couldn’t care about them as individuals. Except for James Nesbitt, I love him.

At the same time, so many of the other characters they meet are poorly drawn or don’t get enough screentime for me to care about them either. The Goblin King in the first film is a grotesque creation who actually has some terrific lines, but he’s gone, slaughtered almost as soon as we start to appreciate him. Despite virtually 9 hours of story-telling, there are hardly any characters I care about, and most of them are also in the LoTR films, meaning I brought my baggage with me.

It’s not about the book…

It’s often a fatal flaw of film reviews to compare the cinematic version, but I’m going to take that risk. I don’t object per se to Jackson’s expansion of the tale of Bilbo and the Dwarves’ quest to The Lonely Mountain with legend and lore from previous centuries of Middle Earth, and looking forward to the LotR stories and the return of Sauron.

BUT (and you knew this was coming) in order to shoe-horn in the antagonists of Azog and Bolg, he had to radically rework aspects of Tolkien’s history to meet the needs of the film. I’ve complained about this before, and it still riles me. Leave bits out, be biased in highlighting themes or characters, but don’t just make sh*t up because it suits you. If you want to make stuff up, write an original screenplay.

Azog is a Tolkien creation, but he was killed in battle hundreds of years earlier. Tauriel the elf is an entirely new creation simply to bring an actual female character into the story (or else, you know, women and girls wouldn’t buy tickets). And of course, if there’s a gorgeous female character, she surely has to be the love-interest for one of the men (why couldn’t she just be heroic and strong on her own terms?), which means creating a whole new story arc for Kili (or was it Fili?). And so eventually poor old Kili (I think) gets killed by a created enemy defending a created love-interest in a (very impressive) sequence that lasts at least 15 minutes.

Fili Kili Dwarves The Hobbit

Fili and Kili, or Kili and Fili? Ant and Dec?

And given that the entire quest for the gold beneath The Lonely Mountain is about Thorin Oakenshield reclaiming his ancestral home and kingdom, it beggars belief that Jackson, such a passionate devotee to the spirit of Tolkien and Middle Earth, would omit the chance to dramatise Thorin’s ceremonial burial that could bring a close to the whole quest, instead glossing over it in a thrown-away line.

Spectacle over Substance

The LotR trilogy was made over a decade ago, yet its effects look just as good as those in The Hobbit. Increasingly as the trilogy goes on, it felt like Jackson was simply skipping from one tentpole effects sequence  to the next, many of which felt like a video game.

In LotR, we saw how individuals were swept up in massive events. At Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, we followed Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn, or Pippin, Merry and Gandalf as they were caught up in a war for the future of the world. Here we just get hordes of men / orcs / elves / dwarves swarming over a landscape fighting for a lot of gold (I think) but nothing much besides, and the individuals (if we can even remember their names) are completely lost. Billy Connolly rides in on the back of a giant boar, says a few things in broad Scottish (so Dwarves are basically Celts? Gimli was Welsh, if I recall), swings a big hammer, then vanishes from the plot.

And after hours of Jackson creating ‘authentic’ battle scenes and world-building, we get the deus ex machina to end them all, the bloody eagles, who having allowed the slaughter of thousands, turn up at the end to apparently end the battle in a matter of minutes. 25 eagles defeat whole armies. Whatever.

Let me be clear, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies has at least three good scenes. Every moment with Martin Freeman, the whole sequence of Smaug destroying Laketown, and the sequence at Dol Guldur are all terrific.

Galadriel Cate Blanchett The Hobbit

Not just a pretty face

But there are lots of bad scenes, huge plot holes, terrible script decisions, and a real loss of character humanity that was never a problem in Lord of the Rings. I’m sure this was Peter Jackson’s dream to fully realise Middle Earth, but I Reckon he should have been more careful what he wished for. This is often spectacular to behold, but ultimately to almost no effect.

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I like to think I’m enough of a cinephile / film bore to understand that adapting a book for the screen isn’t simply a case of summarising the key bits of character, plot and action for a handy 110 minute run-time. Two of my favourite books are The Road and Cloud Atlas; both generally considered unfilmable (including by me) until John Hilcoat made a very decent stab at the former, staying true to the book’s core. Then the Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer took on David Mitchell’s sprawling, complex novel and made (by all accounts, I’ve not seen it yet) a noble failure / flawed but heroic effort.

I was pretty excited when I started reading Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook. The blurb promised good things, and I knew a lot about the basic plot from hearing many good reviews of the film adaptation, directed by David O Russell and starring  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The story sounded interesting, and I was keen to see the much-lauded and awarded film.

silver linings playbook book cover

I really like the book. I love the narrative voice of Pat Peoples. I love the way his history is revealed slowly as his memories return and his denial of earlier events recedes. I love how we only gradually and partially learn about other characters, through his own limited cognitive and social skills. I love that we know more than he does through the way he describes other characters’ behaviour. It’s funny, touching and often subtle. It can be pretty dark, the family dynamics are complex and not always/often tinged with the titular Silver Linings. And the ending, while it could class as a Silver Lining, is only because of the clouds that still threaten and swirl above…

I also understand that reading a book and then seeing a film requires some sort of critical distancing: judge the book as a book, and the film as a film. And I like to think I can usually achieve this; but not this time. I Reckon Mr ‘O Russell’ has made a whole raft of choices about his adaptation, and virtually none of them work. Worse, I Reckon that most of them weren’t even necessary.

This post contains detailed plot spoilers to both the film and novel of The Silver Linings Playbook.

If you intend to read the book, don’t read the rest of this post. If you intend to see the film, I recommend you read the book instead…

Silver Linings Playbook Bradley Cooper

8 months is nothing like more than 4 years…

Pat Peoples, the narrator of the novel of The Silver Linings Playbook, has been away. He’s been recovering from an intially unnamed breakdown, and it’s soon apparent he has been away for more than 4 years. The Philadelphia Eagles have an entirely new stadium, friends have got married and had children. At the start of the film, Bradley Cooper is plucked from the hospital by his mother, after (just) 8 months. This huge difference changes all sorts of dynamics in the relationships between characters; most specifically his wife Nikki, who is clearly still a target for Film Pat, and seems almost a possibility. But Novel-Pat later learns that Nikki has divorced him and remarried already… Clearly David O Russell and the studio didn’t want to make his goal seem quite so delusional, because that would, you know, be a real downer for the audience. So they made some shit up.

Silver Linings Playbook Robert De Niro

Who IS that man pretending to be Patrick Peoples Senior?

In the novel, Pat Peoples Snr is a tactiturn, withdrawn man. We learn he has mental health problems of his own, albeit possibly undiagnosed or at least untreated. He often retreats from his family to the solitude of his study. He offers little or no physical affection to his wife or children and is utterly self-absorbed in himself and the fortunes of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, whose results influence his entire state of mind.

I can only assume that DOR had Robert De Niro in mind, or somehow Mr De Niro got involved to shape the character, or the money men did, or something…! Film-Pat Snr is not Patrick Peoples, but Patrick Sollitano. You’ve got De Niro, you might as well make his character Italian-American… he’s not sullen and withdrawn, he’s a massive presence in the household, talking 13-to-the-dozen whenever he’s on screen. As I say, you’ve got De Niro… He hugs his children frequently, he offers fatherly advice to Pat. The extent of his own mental issues seem to stretch not much further than  a mild OCD about remote controls. He has plans to open a restaurant, he’s a bookie. WHAT?

Ahhhhhhhhhh… E! A! G! L! E! S!

American Football and the Philadelphia Eagles play a massive part in the novel, with repeated detailed descriptions of game days, the games themselves, and especially Pat’s favourite players. Pat Snr’s entire state of being seems influenced by the results, which in turn influences the whole family. Pat Jnr is able to harness his love of The Eagles with his family to start ‘becoming normal’, and there are frequent tailgating parties. I Reckon about 70% of this is missing in the film, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but what’s also missing are the beers. When they tailgate at the stadium, or even when they’re at home, a lot of beers are drunk. Apparently the NFL weren’t happy about what was in the film, with its depiction of beer-swilling couch potatoes or tribal fans spoiling for a fight. Another artistic decision taken with an accountant’s pen…

Are you dancing?

Just as the (almost wholly masculine, beer-fuelled) Football sequences are largely excised from the screenplay, so the dance competition is blown out of all proportion. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Much more appealing to women, shows the characters growing and developing, feel-good action, glitzy location, costumes, extras, soundtrack, it proves the climax and focus for the 2nd half of the film in a way that’s utterly unlike the novel. There is a competition in the book, but it’s actually a very small event for people recovering from mental health problems. There’s no real prizes, almost no real stakes in it (except Pat takes the training seriously). It’s not a vehicle for his relationship with Tiffany, it’s not a metaphor for his recovery, at least not like in the film. It’s a part of something much more complex and human. But DOR and the film don’t do complex. They think they do, but they don’t. Novel-Pat even offers DOR a solution for treating the dancing, in that he devotes a chapter to describing their preparation in the form of a film montage. He actually narrates how different scenes could merge and be juxtaposed, showing their training, the ups and downs. For some reason, DOR ignores it.

Silver Linings Playbook Dance Competition

I could go on…

There are many more details (and more significant issues), for example…

  • The ‘incident’ that causes Pat to be incarcerated is kept secret in the novel until quite near the end. We know it must be Something Bad, and has something to do with Nikki, but we’re never sure. It comes as quite a shock when the details are revealed and does make us reassess our reactions to Pat. The film chooses to blurt this out in the first Act, which then clouds our judgement for the rest of the film. We’re afraid of Pat’s temper, but he’s definitely a wronged hero.
  • The book never describes or diagnoses Pat’s condition. But upfront the film declares him to be ‘bipolar’, perhaps an “accessible” mental health problem for the audience that enables DOR to bypass any more nuanced depiction of Pat’s state of mind, and for Bradley Cooper to display all the standard tropes of manic energy (relentless jogging) and occasional downers. Sheesh.
  • Much of the ‘interactions’ between Tiffany and Pat while jogging takes place in silence. She ‘appears’ when he’s out running, runs behind him in silence, then disappears. Of course this isn’t exactly cinematic. but the rat-a-tat dialogue that DOR inserts is just out of character. So many words saying so little… (like this blog, I hear you thinking to yourself!)
  • Novel-Pat has a bad reaction to Kenny G. I know the feeling. Did Mr G complain? What did poor old Stevie Wonder do to deserve singling out as the wedding song that now triggers Pat’s episodes?

I loved David O Russell’s film Three Kings; it’s a brutal, original depiction of the conflict in Iraq. This film is a pale shadow of that earlier work. Despite an excellent performance from Jennifer Lawrence who deservedly won awards for her layered depiction of the damaged Tiffany, this film diminishes its source material in ways I Reckon are completely unnecessary. Critics praised the film for its presentation of mental health issues; but I Reckon if this is the best Hollywood can do, that’s a very poor show. Read the novel, please. It’s more subtle, more human, more profound.

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The 100th Tour de France starts this weekend, and I am very excited. I’m keen to see whether Chris Froome – seemingly transformed from a taciturn rabbit in the media headlights into a formidable Tour favourite in barely 18 months – can lead Team Sky to a famous victory. I’m excited to watch my favourite riders like David Millar and Jens Voigt. I’m positively salivating to watch Peter Sagan boss his way around France, and Mark Cavendish sprint along finishing straights from the prologue in Corsica to Paris at twilight in 3 weeks’ time. In an alternative universe I would love to be a helicopter cameraman for the Tour de France. But this post isn’t about the Tour de France.

4 Privet Drive Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour

In another alternative universe I would work on film sets. I would be a prop maker, a production designer, a set creator, a world-builder (mwah ha ha ha…!). Last month we finally made a family pilgrimage to the Harry Potter Studio Experience just outside London. Our family are pretty fanatical about the whole ‘franchise’. Hannah (11 this weekend) is mid-way through her third reading of the entire series of books and has seen all the films multiple times. Eleanor (7) is currently reading Book 3 (Prisoner of Azkaban) and has seen all the films up to #5 (Order of the Phoenix). Rachel and I have been involved since the first books were published.

Much as when we went to Legoland a couple of years ago, I drove into the carpark with trepidation. Just how soulless or corporate would it be? Friends had spoken positively, but warned about the shop: I feared for a London Eye experience. And it is quite corporate, in the way that the branding is amazingly controlled throughout, in the way the shop sells every possible type of merchandise, way beyond what you might have thought beforehand, in the way that your entrance into the studios is managed into groups, with introductory film clips and montages from the films to remind you of all the sets you’re about to see.

Hogawarts Model Warner Brothers Studio Tour

But it is also utterly breathtaking, authentic beyond imagination. The experience is controlled, but at every stage it has the fans in mind. The control means you get plenty of time to marvel at the environment and costumes in the Great Hall, one of the smaller and restricted sets, before entering the wide-open hangars beyond. The costumes keep coming, and with every new revelation or surprise, we were gasping with delight: Hermione’s ballgown, (Hello to) Jason Isaacs’ long blonde Lucius Malfoy wig; the potions classroom, the models of goblins, Dolores Umbridge’s collection of cat plates, the triple-decker Knight Bus, the entire Diagon Alley, and the final masterpiece, the massive scale model of Hogwarts.

polyjuice potion

I wanted to climb over the barriers and examine every potion bottle. I wanted to read every wizarding magazine, poster and newspaper. The intricacies in the prop design were jaw-dropping, the details in every character’s wands, the huge scale of the Ministry of Magic and the ‘Magic is Might’ statue just astonishing. The audio guide has all sorts of extra nuggets and insights; it’s a huge film geek treasure trove, like a live DVD extra box set that just keeps going and going.

Death Eater Mask Warner Brothers Studio Tour Harry Potter

It’s an utterly different experience from our journey around the Parisian sites from Amélie, but no less captivating. We were there for hours and could have stayed longer. Warner Brothers have got this brilliantly right. I can’t wait to go back.

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Both before and after our fantastic trip to Dorset a couple of weeks ago, I seemed to find plenty of reasons to be downcast. But in the big scheme of things, my life is pretty OK, really. I have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. I have a job I enjoy, working with people I like and respect, a load of great friends and a terrific family. And I get wonderful things from my daughters like this, that I was given on Fathers’ Day last weekend…

BecauseyouaremydadAnd so I should be grateful for what’s still around, and all the things I’ve been privileged to experience in the last couple of years, that I’ve been able to write about in this blog…

I’ve been to some pretty amazing places…

The Alhambra, the Orangerie & Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Swimming in lakes and rivers in France, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of camping and basking in the sunshine of the Jurassic Coast in Dorset

I’ve experienced some fabulous events…

More than 11 years after the first time, I saw Radiohead in concert, Thomas Voeckler at the Quillan Criterium, and marvelled at the delicate beauty of the songs of The Bookshop Band (twice)

I’m proud to be a cinephile and aficionado of classy TV…

We rewatched then entire 7 series of The West Wing, we roared with laughter at Green Wing & Horrible Histories. We’ve rejoiced in the surreal joys of Amélie, gasped at the spectacle of Skyfall

All this, plus I’ve become a bit of a MAGA (middle-aged gym addict)… I feel fitter than I have in years, and have lost (and kept off) the 25lbs I promised myself I would at the start of 2011.

So, in all, not too bad. Consider this the start of me getting over myself.

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We recently bought my Father-in-Law a Kindle as an early Christmas present. He’s been a voracious reader all his life, and he loves it. In part, this is because he’s nearly 82 years old, and his eyesight’s not what it used to be, so he likes that he can enlarge the text size. We bought it ‘early’ as he was going on holiday to Spain, and could take with him a number of books all in the one slimline device. I’m telling you all this to demonstrate that I’m not a complete Luddite who rejects the concept of e-readers.

On the other hand, I bloody love physical products like books, DVDs and CDs. If I really want the whole album, I’ll definitely buy the CD. Similarly, I’d much rather watch a DVD than simply stream a film. And as for books…

Permanence

Maybe I’m just old-school or old-fashioned, but the sensory physicality of books (and CDs/DVDs) pleases me. The sight of a well-stacked shelf with interesting colours & typography sparks my curiosity. I want to reach out and touch, run my fingers along the list of titles until I choose one for further inspection or inspiration. I equally like a pristine spine or a well-thumbed, creased book cover. And while my CD collection is definitely alphabetised (why wouldn’t it be?!), my books aren’t even organised in any way, except (perhaps…) by size on the shelf, and by author (but not alphabetically!). In days gone by, a man / church / institution could be judged by the size and quality of his library, as miles of floor-to-ceiling shelves in stately homes around the country still bear witness.

Personality

There’s something very beautiful and intimate about a person’s bookshelves (or CD & DVD racks). They can be extraordinarily revealing, not only about our personal choices and preferences, but also our history. Personal dedications inside the covers identify presents or love tokens, or place them in time. For a number of years I wrote my name, the date, and where I was living at the time inside all my books. Thinking back now, I don’t know why I stopped.

Our shelves include out-of-date politics textbooks from my degree, densely-printed music tomes from Rachel’s and indeed box files of sheet music, a shelf of French language novels including Albert Camus & Milan Kundera. We’ve got everything by Iain Banks and Jane Austen, lots of Bret Easton Ellis, Cormac McCarthy, Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan. There are lots of gardening ‘manuals’, travel guides from to some far-off places from the days Before Children and a very old but still priceless edition of The Readers Digest DIY ‘Bible’.

Marginalia

Apparently Vladimir Nabokov claimed his favourite reader was someone with a dictionary and a pencil. As this excellent homage to marginalia suggests, it’s not only the bookshelves that contain personal treasures. Scribbles, notes, underlining, highlighted passages all reveal significance and meaning to their owner, which would otherwise be long-since lost. Fermat’s Last Theorem, one of the great mathematical puzzles, was apparently once just a boastful aside in a margin too-small to contain the full description.

I recently read the excellent Into The Wild, which tells the baffling tale of Chris McCandless, who after graduating from college, roamed the vast spaces of the US, before dying of starvation in an abandoned bus, miles from anywhere in the Alaskan wilderness. When his body was found, the bus also contained books by Thoreau and Jack London into which he had written countless comments, responses and thoughts. Without these, his apparent motivation and state of mind would have been lost forever.

Bookshops

In recent weeks, the (still) largest chain of UK booksellers, Waterstones, has started to sell Amazon e-readers in its stores. I realise some commentators applaud it as a (last-gasp?) attempt to retain customers coming into the stores, but I tend to agree with this article. I can’t believe that any good will come of it. It’s already causing problems (if we believe the press) with staff having to sell something they’re not really informed to sell, and while it might attract customers in the run-up to Christmas, I Reckon those people will be snuggled up in front of their laptops come January, downloading new titles for their new devices, and not many of them will be at Waterstones’ website.

The Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury

I’ve already waxed lyrical about our local bookshop, but it’s everything I love about a great bookshop. The staff really care about books, they have opinions about what they like, they care about what their customers like, they don’t mind (much) if you go in to escape the rain for 15 minutes and don’t buy anything. They will order pretty much anything for you and it arrives in 48 hours. And while I do buy books from Amazon as well as from them, I’m holding out against the Kindle and its kind. Books are important.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry crept into my consciousness earlier this summer when I noticed a tweet by Tetbury’s very excellent independent Yellow Lighted Bookshop. A few weeks later, my lovely family took me to an intimate gig by The Bookshop Band, which itself had been organised by the bookshop. The band had written a couple of songs inspired by the book, and they performed them to an audience of barely 35 people, among whom was Harold Fry’s author, Rachel Joyce. It was a remarkable experience being able to watch her reaction to their interpretation of her début novel.

The songs were lovely, but I couldn’t connect them to anything. Rachel (my wife) bought the book after the gig, and for the next couple of weeks she was transfixed, reading every day, often sniffling, occasionally laughing. She quite clearly loved it, and so I dove in.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The frontispiece to the novel quotes John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the words of my primary school hymn, celebrating the valour, constancy and commitment of the pilgrim. There’s apparently no discouraging pilgrims.

Then the first sentences reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984.

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings.

Harold and Maureen Fry have been married for decades, living apparently normal lives in a normal town in South Devon. Out of the blue Harold receives a letter from an ex-colleague he hasn’t heard of in years. Queenie tells him in unsentimental tones that she has cancer and is dying. He is somewhat overcome and immediately pens a response, but is dissatisfied. He seems to feel he owes her something better than that. He sets off down the road to the postbox, but before posting the letter, he instead commits to deliver it in person. He starts to walk to see her. But Queenie is over 600 miles away, in Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Scottish borders.

Harold doesn’t go back home to change, put on suitable boots, collect a change of clothes or even tell his wife. There’s nothing conscious about the start of his pilgrimage. Over the course of his journey, we unravel all the details of Harold & Maureen’s past, his childhood, their courtship and early marriage, his working lifetime at the brewery.

We learn that Harold struggled being a father to his son, David, and that something to do with David may have been a catalyst to a breakdown in Harold & Maureen’s marriage. None of this is clear at first, it’s fairly gently revealed in nuggets and hints throughout. It’s as though their very happy marriage de-volved or corroded over time into a distant companionship. They close themselves off in separate bedrooms. Maureen shuts out the world with (or hides from it behind) net curtains.

At first Maureen is furious, abandoned, despairing (we feel this is simply another reason for her to resent or be disappointed in him). But very quickly these feelings shift, and in a chapter of devastating intensity, it becomes clear that

The reason she had stayed with Harold all these years was not David. It wasn’t even because she felt sorry for her husband. She had stayed with him because, however lonely she was with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate.

On the surface The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry depicts ordinary people in ordinary houses. But it unpeels, often very delicately, what lies beneath, the truly extraordinary depth and breadth of human existence. On his journey, Harold meets countless people who open themselves up to him. Some of these encounters are heartwarming, others are disturbing; the girl at the garage, the cycling mother with scars on her arm, the immigrant nurse waiting for her boyfriend to return. Harold realises it is part of his pilgrimage that he has to accept and even embrace this diversity.

It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.

Harold walks and meets in others the same belief, that they can make things better. He seems to hope that by walking to Queenie, he can keep her alive. The girl in the garage talks about her aunt who is also suffering. Maureen talks to David in a way she seems unable or unwilling to communicate with her husband. Both Harold and Maureen discover that sometimes this sort of abstract faith actually ignores the here-and-now, the everyday, the all-around-us.

Almost inevitably Harold’s quest becomes public property, and for a while the serene isolation in which he has been treading through the country is invaded by the outside world, by people living vicariously through him. He becomes their search for meaning, they try to ascribe a universal importance and meaning to what he is doing, when in fact it is entirely personal. They receive no catharsis from sharing and eventually taking over his quest, because the quest is not theirs to own.

After sequences of great poignancy and sadness throughout the journey, the end of the novel is, if anything, even more tragic. But it comes with its own redemption, acceptance and optimism for the future.

It’s true that Rachel Joyce often aims to evoke a reaction, and her book is, in that sense, manipulative. But it never took me anywhere I didn’t want to go, or anywhere that it hadn’t earned through the authenticity of the relationships and characters it depicts. The characters of Harold and Maureen are as rich and human as anything I’ve read in a long, long time.

And those songs by The Bookshop Band they’re wonderful.

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There’s a scene fairly early on in Michael Morpurgo’s excellent book for children “War Horse”, when two English soldiers are training horses they have recently bought from villages and farms around the countryside, preparing them for the imminent battles ahead. In this scene, they start talking about the titular ‘hero’ of the novel, Joey the gallant horse.

‘Is he not the finest mount in the entire squadron? I’ve never seen a horse so well put together as he is, have you?’

‘Oh he’s special enough to look at, sir,’ said the Corporal of Horse. Even his voice put my ears back. There was a thin, acid tone to it that I dreaded. ‘I grant you that, but looks aren’t everything, are they, sir?

This snippet of dialogue sums up for me Stephen Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse. It’s beautifully made with great technical skill and no little visual flair. It’s very, very ‘well put together’, it certainly is ‘special enough to look at’. But the Corporal of Horse is right to be suspicious. Looks aren’t everything.

Indeed, I found this film very disappointing. It seems a long, long way from earlier masterpieces like Jaws, Raiders and ET. This is schlocky film-making par excellence. It’s true there are some terrific moments; when the cavalry emerge from the cornfield for their first battle-charge, when Joey runs amok through the trenches and into No-Mans-Land, and the scene at the windmill. However, too much else is hackneyed, manipulative, sentimental tripe, and there are so many irritating and unnecessary changes to the book I almost lost count. But more about those in a moment…

war horse movie cornfield battle scene

A moment of Spielbergian magic. But don’t get your hopes up…

Throughout the film, the score is overpoweringly loud, and signposts almost minutes in advance what to expect and feel. It’s a constant Fantasia on Themes by Ralph Vaughan Williams, folk tunes and a smattering of Aaron Copland harmonies (presumably to keep it familiar for a US audience). The film tries desperately to make Wiltshire (the actual village) and Dartmoor (the fields and landscape) look similar, despite an entirely different geography, stone, trees, grass. The lighting choices often beggar belief with ‘golden’ sunlight like I’ve never seen in the UK. Why they couldn’t find a suitable village location in Devon I’ll never know, but honestly I don’t really care.

war horse final scene dartmoor

If anyone’s ever seen a tropical sunset like this on Dartmoor, please let me know…

The adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s brilliant children’s novel is pretty awful. He’s written on several occasions about the impact of war on children, families and communities, and in this story he uses a truly innocent observer, a horse, as the narrator. Joey doesn’t judge humans except by their behaviour. There’s no difference between a kind German and a kind Englishman. He describes what he sees, and trusts the intelligence of his reader (whether s/he is 9, 19 or 99 years old) to draw conclusions.

The film, on the other hand, manipulates and signposts even minor points at every stage. More significantly, it attributes human virtues to Joey at every possible opportunity. Where the book simply describes Joey’s feats and allows us to interpret them for ourselves, the films smacks us in the face and expects us to be grateful. Joey is repeatedly described as a marvel, a gem, a horse like no other. Again and again shots linger on Joey’s glistening flanks or his deep, deep eyes. Meanwhile, John Williams tells us what really lies behind those eyes with his surging / limpid / heroic score.

The story is altered throughout: the father’s back-story is rewritten completely, which changes the whole set-up of his debt problems. It also tries to justify his drinking problem with a military history and traumas that are entirely absent from the novel. Spielberg and his screenwriter Richard Curtis also introduce a ‘baddy’ in David Thewlis who isn’t in the book, and set up a ridiculous ploughing sequence that’s ludicrous in the extreme. There’s a comedy goose I can’t even begin to explain.

After 50 minutes we finally make it to France (it takes fewer than 50 fairly short pages in the book), and then the war is condensed into a series of episodes that feel like they take about 6 weeks when in fact the story unfolds over more than 3 years. The war scenes and the horses are generally excellent, although that constant ascribing of human emotions to the animals really becomes annoying in the extreme. At one point Joey runs more than 50 yards uphill to save his ‘friend’ from a brutal job hauling guns in a way that would stretch credibility if they had all been human. The whole sequence at a farm is twisted around, changing the meaning from the source material. Horses apparently walk upstairs in a tiny low-ceilinged cottage without any difficulty or noise. One of the best sequences in the film is entirely invented, but seems not to serve any purpose except to demonstrate (again – in case we hadn’t noticed) that war is bad and lots of children got killed.

war horse book cover

Read this. Don’t watch the film.

Please – do yourself (and your kids) a favour. Read the very, very good book, which skips by in barely 180 well-spaced pages, while the film is much, much too long at 2 hours & 20 minutes. The film is schmaltzy and over-wrought where the book is disarmingly simple and honest. The film looks fine indeed, but it’s ultimately manipulative, lightweight and hollow, where the book encourages you to think, and leaves a deep impression that is as surprising as it is meaningful.

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