Category Archives: Flashback Fridays

Flashback Fridays: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night . . .

You’re a girl whose father has gone missing and who just can’t seem to fit in anywhere.  You don’t see yourself as pretty or smart or anything like that.  You wear glasses and have braces and get in fights when other kids provoke you.  But now strange forces are gathering, and they want you and your little brother to go on a quest across the universe to rescue your father . . .

Do you remember:

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1962)

It’s finally that time when I can take one of my favorite, Newbery award winning novels off the shelf and read it aloud to my son.  I’ve planned to read it since he was born, but couldn’t be sure when he’d be ready.  At nearly 8 years old, he seems to be ready.

I remember my own encounters with this story, way back when I was in fifth grade,  devouring anything set before me with words.  This was–startlingly different.  I’d read fantasy books.  I’d read science fiction works.  But I’d never read anything that deftly combined the two into one breathtaking whole.  I’d never read anything in science fiction or fantasy that had a character with glasses and braces like me.  Meg was so much like me . . . except that her thing was math and mine was words.  But we were both out of step with the ordinary, but not really at peace with the extraordinary either.  Meg didn’t have superpowers that saw her through her adventure–she had only herself.  And that was enough.

Reading this to my son is the first time I’m hearing the text aloud–and so it’s a reintroduction for me that’s made me realize several things.  The first is that my beloved book has some startlingly dated  word choices.  The most notable of these is the use of the world “tramp” to describe a wandering homeless person who may or may not be a threat.  I found myself reading over that word with some discomfort and having to explain its meaning to my son.  The other word that came up a lot was moron, which is still used some times, but I found it painful when Meg used it to describe herself.  There are other little things that date the book, of course.  At over 50 years old, it hardly exists in a complete vacuum.

Still for all that it’s dated, that only colors the work so far.  My best advice for new readers encountering this book?  Get through the introductory three chapters–once you hit the fourth chapter, the words start to forge themselves into amazing narrative landscapes and story.  Despite the opening line, I found by reading the book aloud that the author really hits her stride by the fourth chapter.  Reading it aloud becomes easier, and more interesting.  Once our characters are set on their journey, things just flow.

Out of all the books, this one remains my fast favorite.  But the Time Trilogy, as it is often termed, is all excellent.  Granted, the books may not be for everyone.  L’Engle willingly and freely combines Christian mysticism with science concepts to come up with her own brand of story, something that may be uncomfortable for those favoring a stricter Christian interpretation or a  purely science and fact approach to story.  But I feel there’s lots of room for a middle ground.  Stories do not have to fall into strict definition of genre in order to be great stories.  Madeleine L’Engle was writing at a time when women writing science fiction at all was unusual.  When having a female protagonist was far from the norm.  And she made it exceptional enough to win the Newbery.

My son and I just got to Camazotz, so it’s hard times ahead for Meg and company.  We’ll begin our battle of the Shadow tomorrow night.

Happy reading!

Flashback Fridays: Of all the forces in the universe, the hardest to overcome is the force of habit . . .

You’re just a kid who sometimes has strange things happen to them.  But this latest bit is sort of wild–there are dead people in  the cemetery talking to you.  They aren’t creepy or dangerous, they’re just ordinary people, except, well, dead of course . . .

Do you remember:

Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Childrens, c1993)

Johnny Maxwell is an odd kid whose family is going through troubling times.  They live in a small town in the U.K. called Blackbury.  There’s a cemetery in town, an old, mostly forgotten one that Johnny likes to wander by. But suddenly he sees dead people.  And talks to them to.  The dead in this cemetery aren’t frightening or anything–they’re just ordinary people who once lived in Blackbury.   And they’re alarmed when they find out their cemetery is about to be destroyed in the name of progress and “Bright Futures.”  They want Johnny and his friends to help.

And so begins a most unusual ghost story.  Where ghosts teach the living about the power of history, memory and legacy and learn in turn that there’s more to life than death and cemeteries.  And that sometimes it’s essential to break the rules.  Sometimes habits are all that keep us pinned down.

Back in 1997 wandering around Oxford this was one of the very first Terry Pratchett books I encountered, and I still have a great deal of love and fondness for it.  Johnny is pretty much every boy.  He’s well-meaning, has some odd quirks and strange stuff happen to him, but he’s still pretty ordinary.  He’s got his friends, and a family going through troubles that he’s trying to avoid.  He’s not a chosen one or a secret heir.  He’s just Johnny.  But Johnny sees ghosts.  His friends are disappointed they aren’t spooky zombies like you’d find in the Thriller video.  But they get on board with helping him through yet another adventure. (Last time it was a video game that featured real aliens).

A lot of the residents of the cemetery are eager to talk to him and find out what’s gone on in the world since they died.  All except for Mr. Grimm who constantly warns them about breaking the rules and doing things that are improper.  Johnny slowly uncovers the history of the people buried in the cemetery–becoming more and more invested in their stories and what it means to Blackbury–the real Blackbury and not the gray town it’s becoming.  He sees the real evil in this story:

Real dark forces… aren’t dark. They’re sort of gray, like Mr. Grimm. They take all the color out of life; they take a town like Blackbury and turn it into frightened streets and plastic signs and Bright New Futures and towers where no one wants to live and no one really does live. The dead seem more alive than us. And everyone becomes gray and turns into numbers and then, somewhere, someone starts to do arithmetic…”

It’s evil in the classic Sir Terry mode.  The evil of negating humanity.   The evil of treating people as things–that’s what Johnny is fighting.  But while the kids are fighting to save the cemetery, the ghosts are realizing that the cemetery has grown too small for them.  They are curious, they are wondering and interested and excited again.  And so they finally break the rules and leave the boundaries of the cemetery.  And they discover they were never meant to stay at all–that there is a beyond to explore and travel and continue in–and only fear and habit was holding them back.  It’s something that reminds that every life has meaning, and that the past still matters,  so long as it informs us in the present.

It’s a great book, and it inspired a TV miniseries in 1995.  Sir Terry wrote two other books in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy.  The first was  Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) and the third is J0hnny and the Bomb (1996) .

If you’ve never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett, I can only say I hope you will discover him.  He is by far and away one of my favorite writers and has many titles for readers to discover.  Some for children, and many more for adults.  His quirky humor and dry observations are ultimately balanced by a sense of heart, profundity and poignancy that can turn a funny book into one that makes you tear up and cry–or realize why you’re alive.

Comments welcome!

Back to the Labyrinth: Revisiting my Post on the 30th anniversary of the Movie

So . . . last December I wrote a small piece on a movie from my childhood.  Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.  It went viral, which I never expected.  Between the news of David Bowie’s death (stop it 2016–really) and  the 30th anniversary celebration with the movie back in theaters, it has stayed on my mind.  So I’m reposting it, with a few proofreading fixes.  And a bit more added on at the end.  I hope you will enjoy this trip back in time to the 1980s, and remember the power that stories can have for us all.

“You Have No Power Over Me” : Why the Movie Labyrinth Matters

I was a kid of the 1980s.  I was a SF/Fantasy loving kid who ate up movies and books with the full glee of a kid creating their pop culture references for the first time.  I was there to watch Elliot lay a trail of Reeses Pieces for E.T.   I was there to sob as Artax was swallowed in the pits of Despair (quick edit!  It’s actually the Swamps of Sadness as a commentator pointed out–the Pits of Despair is indeed from the Princess Bride).   It was Inigo Montoya I invoked whenever I picked up a toy sword.  I watched The Navigator, Explorers, Legend, the Dark Crystal, Ghostbusters . . . the list goes on.   And then, there was Labyrinth (1986).

Labyrinth was the first movie I ever saw in the theaters without an adult.  My best friend and I went to see it for my birthday and dined on huge tubs of popcorn, gigantic cups of Cherry Coke and nachos with hot cheese. (movie food was cheaper back then).   It’s remained an unforgettable experience. We oohed and ahhed at the Henson puppetry and Froud artistry.  We delighted in David Bowie’s pop songs and his crazy wardrobe choices.  We watched and cheered for the the heroine to solve the Labyrinth and bring her brother home even with everything set against her.  If I had to pick a highlight of that year, that’d be near the top.  My best friend and I loved the movie so much that it became a tradition.  Every year on my birthday,  we’d rent it from the video store and settle down with bacon burgers and more Cherry Coke and chocolate ice cream to enjoy it again.  I’ve had copies of the music on cassette and CD.  I’ve owned a copy of the movie since I got my own apartment.

Thing is, this isn’t a movie that won a lot of acclaim or attention when it first came out.  It was a box office disappointment for Henson, and the last feature film he ever made.  That didn’t matter much to me as a kid, and as an adult I still enjoy the movie.  No matter how many people may see it as just a silly fantasy movie.  Labyrinth has achieved a “cult” following since the 80s, often regarded warmly but with a certain feeling of having to defend that regard and justify it.   I mean, there are a lot of things to criticize about the movie, David Bowie’s err . . . pants, the lack of other female characters, some rather dated special effects.

As neat as it was, the rock battle really didn’t quite feel convincing.

But lately I was thinking about the SF/F movies I watched from that time.

E.T.,  Legend, The Princess Bride, Explorers, Goonies, The Navigator, The Neverending Story, The Last Starfighter, Star Trek Movies, even Star Wars,  . . .

None of them have a female character as the main protagonist.

Out of all the live-action SF/Fantasy movies for kids in the 1980s,  only one movie I’ve found decided to feature a female character as the main heroic lead.

Labyrinth.

Suddenly it seems a bit more than a lightweight 80s fantasy.

Other than Labyrinth, if you look at most of the female characters in these movies, we have roles like the Childlike Empress, the broken-hearted  Buttercup, The romantic interest, the cute kid sister, the trouble maker, the tag-along friend, the clueless mother, or one of many princesses in need of rescue.  They’re not all bad roles, and some of them are quite entertaining, but there wasn’t an option to be something else. (There are some exceptions, mind you, but none of them are the heroes of their story.)

Let’s take a look at what happens in this movie:

(Spoiler warning, discussing the plot below!)

In Labyrinth we meet Sarah, a conflicted and selfish teenager who would rather live in daydreams and her toy-filled childhood than really mature. She resents her baby brother and dislikes babysitting him.  She’s also going to be the hero of this movie. But she’s not ready to be the hero yet.

Sarah is a character with agency.  It’s her choices and her words that create the crisis in this movie.  At this point Sarah has no notion how powerful her words can be.  She wishes the goblins take away her brother–and they do.  Wish granted.

When the Goblin King, the mysterious and splendiferous spectacle that is David Bowie as Jareth, appears in the nursery, Sarah doesn’t cower  or cry.  She asks for her brother back. Jareth offers her attractive bribes and dark threats of magic to try and deter her, but she refuses to be corrupted or cowed. she’s determined to go on a quest to win her brother back.  It’s the hero’s quest of course, and Sarah takes it on without a question that it’s hers to do–she doesn’t look around for someone else to do it for her.

Sarah is not a fully formed hero–she’s still feeling sorry for herself, using false bravado and not asking the right questions.  But she’ll get there.

Our hero, like so many on these quests, collects a motley crew of characters to travel with her.  Many will help her, some will betray her.  Sarah grows and learns through her quest.  It’s a true coming of age story.

The villain tries to thwart her again and again– going so far as to capture her in dreams of a masquerade ball in which she is the beautiful “princess” in a fantastical dress and he is the mysterious suitor who has eyes only for her.  All this glitz and glamour and fairy-tale enchantment reflects Sarah’s own dreams and fantasies.  It’s meant to be a very pretty trap.  But Sarah doesn’t fall for it.   She rejects the magic and glamor. And she rejects Jareth as handsome suitor.

By the time we reach the final confrontations, she has lost interest in feeling sorry for herself and is confident, determined and ready to do whatever it takes to reach the castle.  She’s intent on her goal, all the way to the point where she WILL FACE THE VILLAIN ALONE.

The villain’s final ploy is that he confronts her, tries to intimidate her and then promises her anything she wants–if she’ll just let him win.  “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. ”  Our trickster thinks he’s offering a tempting prize, but Sarah has had the words with her all along break this final enchantment:”You have no power over me.”

“YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME.”

This.

This is why I love this movie despite it’s flaws.  Sarah’s story was one I could grab hold of.   I could be the hero for real.

You have no power over me.

I can be the hero who takes responsibility and goes on the quest and survives all the challenges.

I can say these words in my own life, my real life.

You have no power over me.

 

I can’t see this movie as silly or unimportant ever again. Jim Henson did groundbreaking work in so many ways, and this is just one more brilliant example.

Folks, if you can find a kids SF/F movie from the 1980s that has a main female protagonist, please let me know.  Because other than Labyrinth, the only two I can think of  are animated movies.  The Secret of NIMH ( Mrs. Frisby is a a widowed mouse and a mother who is on a quest to save her family.) and The Last Unicorn (The unicorn, sometimes human woman, is questing to find the other unicorns).  I’m very happy to know if there are others I simply forgot to consider.

 

Looking back at this post, I’m still very happy with it.  But I decided to write a bit more about it

 I love the fact that despite this being a movie with a female heroine,  it plays with concepts that we’d consider “girly” and outright rejects putting Sarah in some kind of sparkly pink magic rainbow world.  Sarah’s quest is magical, but it is also dark and creepy and fantastic.  Viewers catch on mighty quick that Sarah’s journey isn’t going to be light and fluffy.  Consider the fairies outside the Labyrinth.  In true Froud fashion they are lovely, and ethereal . . . and they bite, hard.  Fairies aren’t wish granters in this story, they’re pests.  Oubliettes.  A machine full of metal blades.   “Oh but wait!” you might say. “There’s a costume ball!” There is indeed.  One that not only screams TRAP! very loudly, but despite it’s attempt at beauty is very, very creepy.  Sarah may be suddenly sparkly and in a dress out of a fantasy, but it feels wrong, overblown, unnatural.  The Goblin King may be doing what he can to distract her and enchant her, but Sarah isn’t looking for escape now–and she doesn’t want the little girl dreams, she wants agency.

The second part of the trap is really a demonstration of how far Sarah has come.  She lands in the junkyard where she’s lured to a room where everything is just as it is in her own bedroom.  All her things.  All the stuff she’d clung to.  The trick is to bind her completely to her pile of possessions, making her one of the junkyard denizens with all of her possessions weighing her down.  Instead, with only a slight reminder, she realizes the truth.  That her possessions mean nothing next to her brother, next to the thing she’s fighting for.  She violently refuses to be bound by them.  The hurling of her music box at the wall is a sudden and satisfying bit of violence.  She’s no longer chained by past memories and the escape they offer.  She’s ready and willing to fight.

From this point on, no matter what he does, the Goblin King has already lost.  Every act he takes is desperate, and mirrored against Sarah’s newfound maturity he seems smaller, and more petulant. Which brings me back again to the words.

“You have no power over me.”

They are words to remember, to savor and use.  They are the words of a hero and a person with agency.  And yes, they come from a 1980s fantasy movie.

So this Sunday, I’m back in the theater.  With my best friend. We’re a little–okay a lot–older.  Life’s shaken us up more than once.  We’ve got silver in our hair and children of our own.  But our eleven-year-old selves will be sitting in that theater with us and sharing our popcorn.  And we’ll keep that movie in our hearts, and keep those words with us through our years ahead.  For everyone needs some magic in their lives.  And stories are the best kind of magic.