TBT: She’s the Man (2006)

modernisation, Shakespeare, TBT, teen movie

I got the idea to review this modern Shakespeare film after I shamefully clicked on an article about actors hooking up on set. Two revelations came from this simple act: Firstly, when I’m bored enough I’ll click on any old shit and, secondly, Channing Tatum must be super glad the Amanda Bynes things didn’t work out. So this Twelfth Night update has been in my head for a while and, as someone who loves to talk about shitty updated Shakespeare films, I sort of wanted the chance to revisit it. However, it was only once I’d started writing that I realised it might be a bit misjudged when taken alongside my Tuesday review. Talking about real-life trans woman Lili Elbe alongside a film called She’s the Man might seem at best stupid and at worst offensive. Still, it’s too late to go back so I’ll have to hope I’m just being a little too neurotic.

She’s the Man updates Shakespeare’s tale of cross-dressing twins. However, instead of a court in Illyria the action centres around the soccer team of an elite boarding school. When he high school girl’s team is disbanded due to lack of funds, Viola makes the unusual and fucking drastic decision to pretend to be her twin brother, Sebastian, so she can play for a male team instead. Even though it’s bizarrely easy for Viola to convince everyone she’s actually a teenage boy, she does run into some issues along the way.

In keeping with the original she unwittingly enters into a weird love triangle. Turns out Sebastian’s roommate is the incredibly hot and often shirtless Duke (Channing Tatum) and Viola struggles to keep her attraction a secret. Duke is in turn after Olivia (Laura Ramsey) who actually has a thing for her science partner, Sebastian. There’s a lot of misunderstandings, hijinks and cosume changes in there keep the film going for that little bit longer than it needed to. It’s safe to say there is a lot of unnecessary game playing and twists in the narrative before we arrive at the inevitable happy ending.

She’s the Man isn’t just a bad adaptation of a Shakespeare play; it’s a bad film. There is very little to rave about here and during most of my time watching I was just fucking aghast that we were expected to believe Amanda Bynes can pass for a boy. We’re meant to accept that when her actual brother shows up nobody seems concerned that Sebastian starts to look and act completely different.

Everything about this narrative is horrible. There is no real thought process going on here. It’s literally just dumped Shakespeare’s narrative in an American high school and let things go whichever way they please. The narrative just runs away with itself and there was clearly nobody able to control it. It got to the point where the writer’s felt they were doing their job properly as long as everyone interacts with each other at some point.

The main performance by Bynes, in both roles, is just over-the-top and a massive assault on your senses. The comedy is driven through completely misguided attempts at slapstick and an obnoxious use of gender stereotypes. Bynes’ presence on screen is just very big and very bad. You can see that she’s trying to play it for laughs but nothing ever pans out. She’s not a natural comedian and her physical comedy is just a little too on the side of awkward to really land.

Of all the plays to adapt, Twelfth Night is one of the stupidest. It’s always been a bit of stretch even compared to his most ridiculous cross-dressing plots. At least the original has enough wit within its script to obscure the daft premise. She’s the Man has nothing to fall back on. It isn’t winning with its narrative or screenplay. It also fails to draw you in on an emotional level. It’s obvious that the two main characters are destined to end up together but there’s nothing about them that makes you give a damn. It’s all just vacuous, high school movie nonsense… and I say that as someone who’s standards are pretty fucking low when it comes to teen movies.

TBT – Sherlock: A Study in Pink

Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Gatiss, Martin Freeman, modernisation, Sherlock Holmes, TBT, television

Today is New Year’s Eve and people all around the world are excitedly waiting for the biggest event in the calendar. Yes, we are a few hours away from the Sherlock special. The first episode in almost a year, which is admittedly less time than we’ve been kept waiting in the past. An episode that take us back to the world of the books and places Tumblr’s favourite Otter in Victorian England. It’s an exciting concept and has allowed Martin Freeman to sport a much more impressive moustache than the last one. Now, I’ve not always been on board with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern Sherlock and still only really like a couple of episodes in seasons 1 and 2 and all of season 3. I just feel like they keep mixing up Arthur Conan Doyle with Doctor Who and it’s really fucking annoying. I understand the logic: you want to persuade your already loyal Whovians to follow your new series so you make it so fucking familiar its like their watching the same show. It makes sense. It just doesn’t always feel right to me. I know it’s a modern interpretation but Sherlock is sometimes too quirky for my liking. I like my Holmes to be more stiff-upper-lipped than bouncy.

Still, back in 2010 I eagerly watched the first episode along with the rest of my family. Being major fans of the books, my father and I felt like we had a lot riding on this. To be honest, I liked the first episode. It struggled from the usual first episode problems but was promising. It was the second episode that stopped me watching. In fact it wasn’t until a good couple of years later that I finished series 1 and series 2. The scene in where Sherlock looks for clues in the office just pissed me off. That’s not Sherlock: that’s the Doctor.

It’s not even the fact that I’m a stubborn purist, The idea of modernising Sherlock Holmes was a fantastic one and the casting was superb. I’ll forget about any original material when something well-written and enjoyable is on offer, ‘The Blind Banker’ is one of the shittest things I’ve ever seen. You know how Star Wars purists feels about the prequels? Yeah, that’s how I feel about series 1 episode 2 of Sherlock.

Anyway, I’ve since changed my mind… at least partially. It’s all thanks to Mark Gatiss really. His Hounds of the Baskerville episode is the best thing in the entire fucking series, That man is one of the best television writers we have at our disposal and I always look forward to anything he’s helped to craft. It’s equally telling that the best episode of series 1 is also written by Gatiss. I dread to think what Sherlock would have been like without him.

But I digress. Before we see a more traditional version of the character we have come to know and love, I think it’s prudent to look back at the Cumberbatch’s first outing as the great detective. There was a lot of pressure all round when ‘Study in Pink’ first aired. How well would the modernisation work without the whole thing feeling like a bit of a gimmick? How well would the stories translate into a modern setting? And, most importantly of all, who would play the wiseman?

‘Study in Pink’ may not have fully proved that the new series was destined for greatness it certainly showed there was great potential. The use of social media and new mobile technology were used greatly and the graphics on screen allowed them to fit into the narrative. It is no new idea that Sherlock liked to be ahead of the times and loved to play with gadgets. It fits in with his character that he would utilise the internet and smartphones in his investigation.

As for the story, the plot isn’t the greatest crime mystery ever crafted but it works. There are few unanswered questions and a few dodgy moments but, in the end, it holds up. Obviously, the first episode of any series has the awkward task of introducing the concept and the characters. It had to bring our main characters together and create the dynamic duo. It had to quickly allow the audience to get to grips with Sherlock’s character and his history with the supporting cast. The actual case is neither here nor there but it has all the hallmarks of a traditional Holmesian tale.

What really made the series great was the casting. The supporting cast is amazing with Lousie Brealey, Mark Gastiss and Una Stubbs standing out. Although, for my part, I’ll always have a soft-spot for Rupert Graves’ Lestrade. Not only is he astoundingly handsome but is a bloody good actor. Of course the main event is in the casting of Holmes and Watson themselves. Bringing together Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is quite honestly the greatest thing that Steven Moffat has ever done. It’s no wonder that Tumblr have accept the pair as a tried and tested ship. You can tell the success of a television pairing by the number of people drawing pictures of them in romantic situations and writing fanfiction about them adopting children together.

‘A Study in Pink’ deserved a much better follow-up than ‘The Blind Banker’. It’s a smart and stylish episode that showcases the talents of its actors. It is a strong opening episode that hinted at great things to come. You can tell that Gatiss and Moffat know their stuff in terms of Conan Doyle law and truly enjoyed updating the tales. It’s just as obvious that all the actors involved relish their roles and loved making the series. I’ll never be truly convinced that this is absolute greatest adaptation of the tales we’ll ever see but I’ve come around to the idea that it’s the best we’ve got at the moment.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

books, Jane Austen, modernisation, review, rom-com

Last year, HarperCollins launched their Austen Project with the release of Joanna Trollope’s updated version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The project was clearly born out of a well-thought out marketing strategy to take the hard earned pennies off both the modern writer’s pre-existing fans and Austen lovers whilst introducing her works to people scared of dipping their toes into Romantic era prose. However, the publication of the first in the series didn’t offer the resounding success that the firm were clearly hoping for. The major reaction tended to be that, whilst the novel was fairly well written and very tounge-in-cheek, it was all a bit pointless. Back in March this year, the second modernisation was released: an update of the under-appreciated Northanger Abbey, a novel Austen wrote in her youth, by crime writer Val McDermid. Northanger Abbeyis my favourite Jane Austen novel (not that it means a lot coming from an Austen cynic such as myself) so there was a lot more riding on this than the previous attempt.

Northanger Abbeywas the story of the young and sheltered Catherine Morland who, after indulging in a youth of exciting literature, is introduced to high society with fairly disastrous consequences. The novel offered the usual portrait of a society obsessed with finding the right husband whilst also introducing a comedic element revolving around the relationship between fact and fiction in the minds of young women. The first half fits the mould that became the standard for her later work but the second half is an incredibly witty satire of the much feared Gothic writing that was popular with young people at the time.
In her rewriting of the classic, Val McDermid, seasoned crime writer, makes the inspired decision to transport the action over the Scottish borders and have the Edinburgh festival stand in for the pump room in Bath. Her Catherine becomes Cat who finds the move from sleepy Piddle Valley to the vibrant festival circuit a revelation that she continually shares via her social media accounts. Along the way she meets and falls head over heels for the mysterious lawyer Henry Tilney who has pretty much descended into an amalgamation of every character Hugh Grant played in the 90s and early 00s. With few friends in her home town, Cat is delighted to make the acquaintance of flashy Bella Thorpe but, in order to keep her friend happy, she must put up with her obnoxious, self-obsessed brother Johnny (basically Spencer Matthews from Made in Chelsea).
As in Trollope’s rewriting, the novel stays extremely close to the original and there are moments when McDermid copies scenes word-for-word from Austen’s text. For the most part it feels like she isn’t really bothering to try. There is hardly anything within this update that will keep people aware of Austen’s novel gripped to the tale. There is only one occasion where the author is forced to deviate from the original and, I have to admit, it was a fairly interesting way of dealing with General Tilney’s sudden change of heart.  
 Aside from this brief moment, there has been no real effort made to update the text and it still fails to fully fit into its new setting. To balance this discomfort, there are copious references to the modern world and the teenage Cat is never without her smart phone and posts selfies to her Facebook account any chance that she gets. This raises problems of its own, however, when problems arise that could easily be solved with a simple text or phone call. McDermid is forced to make odd choices in order to ensure that the novel progresses as it did in the original.
Despite all of these incessant references and in-jokes, there still remains the problem that modern teenage girls don’t have the same worries as they did in Austen’s day. Relationships may still be a core issue but marriage and planning for the future are less vital. The Cat Morland of McDermid’s novel is a stranger to both 19th century society and the society that the author is trying to emulate. The way that she talks and acts just seem slightly alien and even the way she falls for Henry has an incredibly old-fashioned edge to it.  She can use the word “totes” as many times as she likes but McDermid has failed to get into the head of a teenage girl in 2014.
Now this isn’t an issue that I’m blaming McDermid for: I just think it’s nearly impossible for an adult author to write completely accurate teenage characters. It was a problem that I found with John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars when I finally jumped on the bandwagon. Now I am loathe to criticise Green because I have adored him since my first viewing of VlogBrothers. However, I found his teenagers just felt unnatural. The best moments in my opinion were the one concerning Hazel’s parents, which is probably because that is the perspective that John Green has.
Without wishing to criticise the skill of Val McDermid too much, I found her attempt to portray teenage girls at best humorously bad and at worst cringey. The relationship between Cat and Bella pretty much descends into the pair talking referring to each other as “girlfriend” which, unless I’m mistaken, has real validity outside of these characters race. You wouldn’t meet this version of Cat, Bella or Elinor in the modern world because they have been lifted from a strange alternate reality where technology advanced but social structures, beliefs and sensibilities stayed in the 19th century.  
Considering what a fantastic character Austen’s Catherine was McDermid really ruined her for me. Cat spends most of the first half getting a bitcarried away but it isn’t until the second section that the character really beings to unravel. The contemporary author really struggles to translate the Gothic satire into her modern setting. There would have been adequate opportunity for McDermid to call on her experience with crime fiction to transpose Catherine’s imagined murder mystery into a contemporary setting. Unfortunately, where Catherine Morland devoured Ann Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho (an excellent if challenging read if I may say so), Cat Morland reads Twilight and other teenage fantasy romance. Clearly McDermid is having her own fun with modern YA fiction but the narrative progression creates problems.
The plot demands that Cat is shown to have become so engrossed with these tales that they take control of her unworldly imagination. We are expected to believe that Cat is so taken with these works that she readily believes that the youthful General Tinley, a Falklands veteran, is in fact a vampire. In fact, that his whole family, including the dreamy Henry, are vampires. Now I could easily handle Catherine Morland letting her imagination run wild in the desolate and Gothic Abbey after reading too much Radcliffe. However, I refuse to believe that anyone, even a teenager in 2014, would happily hypothesise that mysterious people are vampires.
Simply put, McDermid has made the fatal mistake of turning the once naive and trusting Catherine Morland into the unforgivably stupid Cat. I’m so fucking mad.
Northanger Abbeyis a readable novel, sure, but there is the unshakable sense that McDermid simply isn’t trying. These authors are probably too good to really give a damn about copying old novels whilst introducing a few modern ideas to the mix. I read it. I didn’t completely hate it but I just didn’t care. If the point of this project was to push people back into the safe embrace of Jane Austen’s originals then well done to HarperCollins but if not it has been a thoroughly pointless affair.

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

books, Jane Austen, modernisation, review, rom-com, women

A few years ago it was announced that The Austen Project would task six bestselling contemporary writers with updating one of Jane Austen’s novels. Most probably in an attempt to introduce modern readers to one of England’s most loved authors and to prove that her work is still relevant within today’s society. The news was received with the inevitable dismay of her many fans who think it sacrilegious to mess with the words of their beloved novelist. To the chagrin of my Romanticism professors, I have never been a major fan of Austen: in fact I can only really admit to actually fully enjoying Northanger Abbey, which is simply because the second half of the book is batshit crazy and Gothic. It’s always seemed to me that Austen was writing Bridget Jones’ Diary with added corsets which meant that women of every generation have lapped up the hopelessly romantic journeys of her heroines whilst still feeling as though they are enjoying some sort of feminist doctrine. 

Now I’m not trying to say that she isn’t talented and there is real evidence within her novels that she was clever and very witty. However, no amount of random and bitchy tangents can change the fact that she is the grandmother of chick-lit and I’ll never be able to get excited reading the tales of annoying girls falling in love with utterly objectionable men. Regardless, I was interested in this modernisation plan because when it is done well it can be fantastic. For example, Emma may be my dad’s favourite Austen novel but you can just give me Clueless any day of the week. Plus, no matter what I may have just said, I don’t really mind Sense and Sensibility but that is mainly thanks to Emma Thompson’s lovely adaptation. So, as soon as I could find a cheap enough version, I set about to see whether Trollope had pulled off a Clueless or a She’s the Man.

One thing I can’t criticise is the choice of author. No matter what I think of Joanna Trollope in the grand scheme of things she does understand the world that Austen was concerned with and she certainly knows the novel inside and out. In terms of her rewriting, she stays very close to the original plot: the level-headed and stoic Elinor becomes an architecture student whilst the emotional and dramatic Marianne is a layabout guitarist with asthma. Along with their family, the sisters must leave their beloved home to start a new life with no money and no real idea about romantic entanglements.

Trollope’s rewriting is an unchallenging piece where Austen’s archetypes are placed into a weird Made in Chelsea world of abbreviations, social media and, most shockingly of all for Austen fans, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The plot meanders along fairly easily but it often finds itself coming undone thanks to clumsy exposition, awful romantic-comedy clichés and cringey toff stereotypes. It is easy to get caught up in the tale but there are far too many moments when it is painfully clear that Trollope took the easy way out and the whole thing seems a little uninspired.
Although, the modernisation of the characters, for the most part, works quite well and I particularly enjoyed the stroppy teenage Margaret with her iPod constantly attached to her head. Trollope’s focus on well-rounded characters works in her favour and she is able to give new life to those that Austen kept more in the shadows. In the original both Brandon and Edward are horrendously eclipsed by Willoughby in order to highlight his overwhelming appeal but here they are given new life and more weight. Hell, Trollope even managed to make the girls’ awful mother seem like a real person and that is certainly something worth celebrating.
Then again, Marianne is a bit more of a problem here as you can’t really exchange the curse of sensibility with having asthma. In the original she falls into a depression because she is utterly destroyed by her first love: a full physical and mental breakdown brought on by her excessive sensibility. Her pain is complex and far deeper than the updated M is ever allowed to be. Austen was attempting to discuss a serious side effect of the cult of sensibility that was raging through society but Trollope has, for her own reasons, decided to ignore the psychological ramifications for modern teenagers. Her M remains an annoying hipster-ish girl who is rude and outrageous as a weird act of social revolution. No matter how awful the original Marianne may be you still care: Trollope’s version was a lazy, self-centred young girl who spent time she should have been using to help her family playing Taylor Swift songs. It feels like a bit of a waste.
Nevertheless, there are some other fantastic moments where the modern world comes crashing into Austen’s original. Take the moment when Marianne’s humiliation at the hands of Wills is posted to YouTube so all the world can be a part of her emotional downfall. Then we have the awful Nancy Steele channelling the ultimate Sloane ranger whilst Robert Ferrars, the closeted party planner brother of Edward, is pure Marc-Francis from Made In Chelsea. There are some joyous moments of real-life situations that fit the novel perfectly and Trollope has clearly enjoyed updating the novel. The rewrite of Willoughby’s past turns him from being a mere libertine to something much more sinister and, quite frankly, he needed it.
However, as wonderful as Austenites may find Trollope’s dedication to the original, I think the decision to stick to it so closely is the novel’s ultimate undoing. It was always going to be a tricky task to update a novel in which everything revolves around love and marriage. The world of country houses, inheritances and marriages as a necessity just doesn’t exist in the same way it did in Austen’s time. Women of 2013 have so many options and the idea that three intelligent and capable women would be unable to cope on their own is frankly ludicrous. Elinor aside, the women flounder when it comes to financial independence and, for some undefined reason, are unable to seek work. Trollope’s novel is full of problems arising that simply wouldn’t be as much of an issue today and it takes a great deal of suspension of your disbelief to stick with it. Rather than feeling like a modern novel this feels like a novel of the 1800s that has been badly transferred into a modern setting. It’s strange and jarring as you move deeper into the narrative. In order to make this exercise seem worthwhile Trollope needed to take a few more risks.
At one stage in the novel, and in a failed moment of self-awareness, Mrs Jennings is accused of having the attitude one would normally find in a 19th century novel where a girl’s only ambition is to marry. Her response is: “people pretend things have changed, but have they, really?” Trollope may be trying to convince us that they haven’t but, if Sense & Sensibility has taught us anything, it’s that they most certainly have.