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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!

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.

A Tuesday Ten: From book to movie

So many books are picked up and turned into movies but it can always be fun to look at some of those that have been done in the past while we get excited or anxious (or even horrified) at the ones coming out in the future.  Let’s face it, the movie version of a book can never quite equal what is in our minds when we read it.  I’ve tried to stay away from the super obvious ones here and highlight a few books and movies that folks might not be as familiar with.

1.

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes (Knopf Books for Young Readers, c1968)

This book may have been written in 1968, but most people probably aren’t familiar with it.  In fact the title is a little to close to a popular superhero’s name which may cause some confusion.  But I’d bet that the animated movie The Iron Giant (1999) is a lot more familiar.  The story of a gigantic robot crashing to earth and being befriended by a young boy is one that really resonated and the movie is still a favorite today with my own kids.

 

2.

The Magic Bedknob by Mary Norton (J.M. Dent and Sons, c1943)

Most of you probably know the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). You might not know it was based on 2 books.  The book above, plus a sequel called Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947) were combined to make the movie we’re all familiar with.  Most readers are more likely to know Mary Norton for her more famous series: The Borrowers, but the images of children having adventures and misadventures with the help of a witch in training helped to create a delightful movie that was one of the highlights of my youth.

3.

 

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford (Laurel Leaf, c1960)

In this case, people may be more likely to be familiar with one of the movies inspired by the novel than the book itself.  The first movie by Disney, The Incredible Journey (1963) retells the story from the book.  This is the movie I grew up watching.  However a newer retelling of the tale of three animals heading out on their own to find their home was made in 1993 with several changes to the story and animals–and included conversations voiced by actors as the animals.  I read this book for an assignment in school and did an entire book report on it of which I was immensely proud at the time. The fact that you see how the animals are thinking is the only real fantastic element of the story.

4.

The Princess Bride By William Goldman (Ballantine, c1973)

Originally published as “The Good Parts” edition abridged by William Goldman, it’s worth noting that it is the only edition of the book.  Goldman’s clever conceit in writing this book struck a chord with many people.  So did the movie by the same title that came out in 1987 and stuck pretty true to the original book.  I like both the book and movie quite a lot, although the book adds in a richness that the movie couldn’t quite express, and the movie manages to have my favorite sword fight of all time.

5.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, translated by Ralph Manheim (Dutton, c1979)

I didn’t realize for a few years that there was a book behind the movie The Neverending Story (1984) when I found the book I quickly discovered that the movie is only about half  of the book.  I learned later that Michael Ende was not very pleased with how his book was distorted for the American movies that followed.  I think the first movie is fine, but the book is honestly better.  If you haven’t read it I recommend finding it on the library shelves and giving it a try!

 

6.

Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith (Knopf Books for Young Readers, c1983)

Originally published under the title, The Sheep Pig,  the title later changed, perhaps to make the connection between the book and the  movie Babe (1995) more obvious.  Dick King-Smith has had at least two of his marvelous creature stories transformed into movies for the big screen.  I didn’t know about the book until I started working in the library system and discovered the author.

7.

A Day With Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce (HarperCollins, c1988)

This was one of those circumstances where I had the opportunity to see the movie Meet the Robinsons (2007) and I thought  “hey I know a book like that . . .” a little research soon provided me with the above picture book which I’d read and enjoyed a few times back years before.  It’s a wild and crazy SF/Fantasy romp of the sorts I loved both as a kid and an adult.  But I didn’t make the connection between the book and the movie at first.  The movie is a serious expansion of the ideas in the original picture book and does fairly well with it in my opinion.

 

8.

Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key (Pocket, c1968)

I saw the movie Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) years before I knew there was book, I think I was five or six the first time I saw the movie and it caught my imagination like wildfire.  So when I found the book in paperback form in the library I grabbed it and read it cover to cover.  The book and the movie a fairly close in character and plot, and I honestly enjoy both.

9.

A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall (Atheneum, c1976)

More tween and YA, both the original book and the Disney movie crafted from it: The Watcher in the Woods (1980) are both pretty obscure.  The movie actually holds up better than the book in some ways and is notable in that its a sort of SF/Horror tale with three different endings.  I first saw the movie when I was about ten and it both freaked me out and fascinated me.  The fact that Bette Davis has a a role in this  movie just adds to the appeal in my opinion!

10.

The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, illustrated by Garth Williams (Little, Brown & Co. c1959)

The original story of these brave mice on missions to help humans.  Our furry protagonists set out on a mission to risk their lives in order to rescue a young girl from captivity.  Disney was created  the movie The Rescuers (1977) that follows the story of Miss Bianca and Bernard from the Rescue Aid Society as they seek to rescue a young girl named Penny.   Margery Sharp wrote at least six volumes about her intrepid creatures, though I’ve never had the chance to encounter any of them.

 

What’s your favorite book inspired movie?  Comments welcome!