Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: Winter's Tale

So I just finished Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale two days ago.

And I watched Akiva Goldsman’s filmic adaptation last night.

Where do I even start with this?

It’ll have to be with my own discovery of the story. I first learnt about the existence of Winter’s Tale through the trailers for the film, which promised...what exactly? Jessica Findlay Brown as the female lead. New York at the turn of the century and after the millennium. Russell Crowe as an Irish Javert. Music and dialogue that sounded treacly enough to rot my teeth, but visuals so lovely that I’d probably be willing to put up with it. And apparently a new twist on the angels versus demons conflict in which the emphasis was on individual souls rather than world domination.

I mentioned it to my friend Helen, who had a copy of Helprin’s book to lend me. I was surprised on two points, first that it was so long (I envisioned something about the size of The Time Traveller’s Wife) and second that it was older than I expected (published the year before I was born).

And then I started reading. I tried to average a chapter a night, got stymied twice, read at least a dozen other books in the meanwhile, and eventually buckled down to get through the final two-thirds in the three days before my scheduled lunch with Helen. In short, it was a challenge.

The only other reading experience I can compare it to would be Little, Big by John Crowley. Both books are doorstoppers, each are set in or around New York, both are quasi-fairytales, both are seeped in magic realism, each one favours setting over character, and both utilize poetic-prose as dense as anything in Dickens – but so beautiful that there were times I’d stop reading in order to savour a particular sentence or passage.

And like Little, Big it’s fairly inscrutable. Seriously, I have no idea what it was about. Ask anyone who has read Winter’s Tale to give a brief summary of the plot, and I guarantee their first words will be: “aah...err...umm...”

As far as genre goes, I’d tentatively say contemporary fantasy with a heavy dose of surrealism, romanticism, and/or magic realism. Confused? Let’s just say there’s a white horse that I think is meant to be an angel disguised as a dog disguised as a horse.

Set in New York City between (roughly) 1895 and 2000 (which was still a few decades away when the book was first published in 1983), the main character (again, roughly) is Peter Lake, whose immigrant parents are denied admission at Ellis Island and so are forced to cast their infant son adrift in a small model ship called City of Justice.

Like Moses in the bulrushes, he’s found and raised by the Baymen of Bayonne Marsh, only to be sent to Manhattan once he’s reached manhood to seek his fortune.

There he becomes an accomplished mechanic, though he also runs afoul of Pearly Soames and the Short Tails Gang, who rope him into their circle of thieves. Soon enough he’s as accomplished in pick-pocketing as he is at fixing machines, but it’s only after breaking into an Upper West Side mansion that Peter falls in love for the first time.

It’s here we meet Beverly Penn. How to describe Beverly Penn? Well, I quite like this review’s summation of her:

She insists on always being in freezing temperatures, is ethereal in her beauty, writes equations she thinks describe the movements of the universe despite having no training in the sciences, and although she is young and terminally ill, she is Wise Beyond Her Years and lives on an actual pedestal on the roof of the house.

Yeah, she pretty much takes the Mary Sue litmus test to a whole new level. Slowly dying of consumption, she quite matter-of-factly falls in love with Peter, operating under the logic that if he doesn’t love her, no one ever will (seriously, that’s actually what she says to him – the line is in the trailer and everything). They go to the Penn family holiday home at the Lake of the Coheeries, Peter meets her father, they go to a New Year’s dance together, they consummate their love on the rooftop, and a few pages later, Beverly dies. Spoiler.

Seriously though, it’s not a spoiler, as at a generous estimate we’re only about one-third of the way through the book. So what fills up the rest of the pages?

Um...stuff. About a dozen new characters are introduced, all journeying to New York and each one with an above-average chance of falling in love once they’ve arrived. There’s a mysterious "cloud wall" that lingers at the edges of human habitation and occasionally swallows people up. Two daily newspapers war with each other for supremacy over their readership. The aforementioned white horse occasionally comes to the aid of those in desperate need. There are some vague stirrings of an apocalyptic event on the horizon, one which may sweep the city into a Golden Age or destroy it entirely.

Oh, and plenty of descriptions of winter. At least fifty of ‘em, and vivid enough to make you feel physically cold whilst reading. But if you were to ask me what actually *happened* in this book... well, that's where I got a bit lost.

I feel safest when I’m lauding Helprin’s poetic-prose, whether it’s describing subterranean caves...

They felt vast space above and to the sides, and no matter which way they walked they found no walls but only level floor of rock and earth. They crossed small well-behaved streams as warm as bathwater and saw in them glowing chains of phosphorescent creatures.

Or complex philosophical notions...

If there were one great equality, one fine universal balance that he could understand, then he would know that there were others, and that someday the curtain of the world would lift onto a sunny spring-like stillness and reveal that nothing - nothing - had been for nought, neither the suffering of all the children that he had seen suffering, nor the agony of the child in the doorway, nor love that ends in death: nothing.

Or, you know, winter...

Outside, the wind picked up in a sudden clear gale that had come unflinchingly from the north, descending quite easily from the pole, because all the ground between it and New York was white and windblown. On nights of arch cold and blazing stars, when the moon was in league with the snow, Beverly sometimes wondered why white bears did not arrive on the river ice, prowling silently in the silver light.

Nearly everything he writes is conveyed so beautifully that even when I didn’t know exactly what was happening (which was often), I couldn't help but love the *way* it was happening. Even little observations (when a cat walked in the snow, it walked like an exiled queen, the epitome of caution and pride) and throwaway lines of characterization (he was full of laughter that gurgled from his nose and throat like water going down a stuffed drain) fill me with frustrated writer’s envy.

I really have no idea who to or to what extent I should recommend Winter’s Tale. It’s weird, it’s frustrating, it’s beautiful, it’s long and it’s fairly inexplicable. I loved the writing, but I just couldn’t grasp the narrative, and though I compared it to Little, Big there is one fundamental difference between the two. I know that one day I’ll return to John Crowley’s novel and be excited to read it again with fresh eyes. Though complex and virtually impenetrable at times, there was an underlying theme that slowly took shape over its course, one that unified the proceedings and excited my imagination.

But if there was such a thing in Winter’s Tale, I’m afraid I was too dense to find it. That’s as good an excuse as any to end with an appropriately-themed analogy: I skated happily over the book’s surface, but never found a way to crack the ice.


And then there’s the film.

Imagine this scene: a woman falls down a staircase accompanied by several unpleasant sound-effects that convey the snapping of bones and the weight of her falling body.

Now imagine the same woman falling down a staircase to the sound of canned laughter.
The same thing occurs in both scenarios, but the tone is so drastically different that they are completely divorced of all similarities.

It’s a florid analogy, but it’s the best way I can illustrate the profound disconnect between book and film. In fact, I can imagine a lot of viewers eagerly rushing out to buy a copy of the book (which has been re-released with movie-themed covers) only to end up as bewildered and angry as all those teenage girls who read Wuthering Heights on the recommendation of Edward Cullen in Twilight.

Case in point: both the book and film has Beverly seduce Peter with the line: “if you don’t love me now, no one ever will.” In the book, it’s stated comically matter-of-factly (I can’t recall whether it was in the text or just my imagination that Beverly casually flips her hair while saying it), whilst in the film, the line is delivered with earnest, breathy sincerity by Jessica Findlay Brown.

Book and film are only tangentially related, with writer/director Akiva Goldsman taking a few of Helprin’s characters and the basic premise of two lovers separated by time and death, to craft his own tale into something that’s rather like Love Story meets Paradise Lost. Gone are most of the book’s secondary characters and bizarre concepts – though the film has plenty of its own to make up for it.

The biggest change (aside from all the omissions and the shift in tone) is in giving Pearly Soames a demonic background and a vested interest in Peter Lake, something that is only ever-so-vaguely hinted at in the book, and which changes the entire narrative into a romance set against a backdrop of warring demons and angels.

It’s... hard to know what to make of it. The film was a box-office flop and critics completely savaged it (the Rotten Tomatoes rating is currently at 13%) but I think it might find a second life on DVD – it certainly has all the prerequisites (that is, weirdness) of a cult classic.

As in the book, Peter Lake arrives in New York in a tiny model ship called City of Justice, the final desperate act of his parents who are denied entrance at Ellis Island. He grows up off-screen into Colin Farrell, and when we see him again in 1916 he’s being pursued by Pearly Soames (a nearly unintelligible Russell Crowe) and the Short Tails Gang, only to escape on a mysterious white horse that can clear six foot fences.

Deciding to steal what he needs from some Upper West Side mansions before getting out of New York for a while, he breaks into the home of Isaac Penn, whose daughter Beverly is dying of consumption. Symptoms include great hair, perfect skin, and the occasional hot flush which requires a sensual dip in a cold bath or whimsically walking barefoot through the snow. More amusingly, she’s played by Jessica Brown Findlay, who presumably died on Downton Abbey just so she could come die in Winter’s Tale.

She's alone in the house when Peter breaks in, but after an unorthodox meet-cute the two of them realize their mutual attraction. A tentative romance blossoms, but Pearly is incensed at their connection, certain that it foreshadows an impending miracle – something that he's determined to prevent.

From this point it’s all chase scenes, declarations of love, unadulterated melodrama, and stuff that’s undeniable Narm, from the fairy wings that sprout from the horse’s back, to the Littlest Cancer Patient bumping into a complete stranger and asking his name, to Beverly dying seconds (literally seconds) after she and Peter consummate their love. In the immortal words of Paul Scheer: “this is going to sound vulgar...was his dick too warm?” There are stock characters (the black best friend, the Native American mentor, the precocious children, a confused-looking Jennifer Connelly), and arbitrary rules concerning destiny and miracles.

Oh, and when is entertainment going to retire the voice-over narration? It’s always unbearably trite, even when it’s recited in Jessica Findlay Brown’s lovely voice. But honestly, who can repeat this without sounding utterly banal:

What if, once upon a time, there were no stars in the sky at all? What if the stars are not what we think? What if the light from afar doesn’t come from the rays of distant suns, but from the light of our wings as we turn into angels? Destiny calls to each of us, and there is a world behind the world where we are all connected, all part of a great and moving plan. Magic is everywhere around us, you just have to look. Look, look closely – for even time and distance are not what they appear to be.

Compare that to the passages quoted above and try to grasp that they belong to the same story. Shifting Helprin’s sardonic prose into pure sentimentality means that the tone of the films that's just all wrong.

But here’s the thing. Throughout its run-time, all I could think about was how much I would have loved this as a fourteen year old. Seriously, it would have been my favourite movie. I would have adored every second of it. For that reason I walked away with a certain amount of affection for it, as well as appreciation for its visuals, soundtrack and Jessica Findlay Brown in period gowns.

Miscellaneous Observations:

I wanted to like Will Smith’s cameo as Lucifier, I really did, but it ends up being the weirdest part of the movie – even more than the flying horse. I think Viggo Mortensen has ruined all Lucifer cameos for me.

Lucy Griffiths (Marian from the BBC’s Robin Hood) also had a small role near the beginning as Peter’s mother, even though her consumption made her look wane instead of radiant. So I guess Jessica Findlay Brown wore the disease better?

More great lines from the book:

Though the portraits had been mostly of happy or contented faces, years and years of silence and stillness had given those who were portrayed the hurt expressions of abandoned ghosts. They seemed to resent that they had been forgotten, and were perhaps horrified that the wizened old man now walking among them with a torch had been at one time a young child in whom they placed their hope.

Emerging from the darkness for a second or two, the portraits seemed bitter and angry that they had been condemned to stillness forever and ever, and that, despite their sacrifice and concern for future generations, their house had been abandoned to the wind and night.

As compared to dialogue from the film:

I’ve had no memory for as long as I remember. Maybe there was once a blow on the head but I can’t find a scar. And the whole world seems like a deep fog that’s only just beginning to lift. Although not fast enough for my liking. I’ve become convinced that if I can just learn what this Coheeries is it may help jog my memory. But now they’re telling me that I have to wait two weeks and that I need to have two forms of ID that I don’t have just to even get back there. Although I have a growing suspicion that I may be able to get to what I need faster as soon as everybody goes home for the night. If only I knew what a microfiche looked like.

It’s raw, untreated exposition delivered to a complete stranger. Oy.

Oh, and what was up with the doorman with the stitched-up mouth?

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