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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/15/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 7, Whole Number 1819
Table of Contents
A Good Word to Know (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
"Tsundoku": Japanese word for the books we have bought but not yet read which are piling up on our shelves. [-ecl]
Phantoms of the Opera: A Survey of Adaptations (Part 3) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
1987 Michael Crawford (Theatrical Version)
I review a lot of things and see or read a lot more. It is not all that unusual that I come away from some and consciously say that it is the best of a certain class I have ever seen, read, or whatever. I thought that the remake of CAT PEOPLE was the best shape-changer horror film I had ever seen. But of course that is the best of a small class. It is far rarer that I would say something is the best play. But I will say that for me PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was the best play. By artistic merits alone Amadeus was a better play, I suppose, but PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was the most enjoyable and even the most meaningful play. It is a pot-boiler melodrama based on a pot-boiler melodramatic novel and I loved it. Sometimes even a pot-boiler can hit you squarely on target and you are absolutely floored. I hope Margaret Thatcher, who attended the same performance as I did, enjoyed it as much.
I really believe that the play may be more faithful to the novel than the Lon Chaney film. It certainly reveals more of the Phantom's background and tragedy. The Phantom is shown to be the genius he was in the Gaston Leroux novel and the victim of an unfeeling world.
To fit as much of the plot into a musical of all play forms is incredible. They did eliminate the Persian, who is a major character of the novel, and many chapters from near the end of the novel, particularly those involving the torture chamber scenes which are telescoped to a few seconds on the stage, but I don't think the impact has really been lost.
Most of this could be told from the record. What I could not have expected is the brilliance of the set design. When you are first sitting in the theater, the stage seems small. What they do with that tiny stage is hard to believe. Many effects are impressive but none so impressive as the descent to the lake below the opera house, which has to be seen to be appreciated.
It matches the scene in the film--no small feat for a stage play. Less impressive is the falling chandelier, which is much less convincing. But the moment when you first see the Phantom is a cold chill like nothing I remember seeing in any film or play. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is really a superb adaptation of a story I have loved for years.
Now for a few minor quibbles. Andrew Lloyd Webber's music is spectacular as long as he is simply having his characters sing, but he does some funny things when he is representing other composers' music. Presumably his song "Evergreen" is an aria from the opera HANNIBAL by Chalumeu. From the style of opera of the period, and from what we do hear of the opera, it is clear that the song simply would not fit in. It is not of an operatic style and Lloyd Webber did not want to take a chance on his audiences not appreciating the beauty of the operatic style. Further, it seems absurd that a musical genius like the Phantom would write an opera in which the music is just unappealing scales and with phrases like "Those who tangle with Don Juan...." That sounds like it came from a poverty-row Western rather than an opera written by a musical genius.
1987 ??? (Animated Version)
As is probably obvious by now I do like the novel of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and I consider one of the most important virtues of an adaptation accuracy to the source material. One cinematic version of the story stands head and shoulders above the others as an adaptation faithful to the novel. That is its main and just about its only virtue.
A British company called Emerald City Productions provides to cable animated films that are sort of the equivalent of the old "Classics Illustrated" comic books. Like "Classics Illustrated" comics they are written close to the plot of the novel. They take some liberties with plots but on the whole their adaptations are generally pretty artless turn-the-crank affairs. Take the plot of the novel, transfer it to script form, then animate it. The adaptation does simplify things, perhaps too much. This version eliminates Carlotta and her rivalry with Christine. By doing that the fall of the chandelier is misplaced in the plot, and it is left ambiguous whether the fall is sabotage or accident. Also Erik has a violent death as he does in all versions but the novel and the Lloyd Webber play. On the other hand, the 1987 version includes the very important character of the Persian. Erik's background is vastly simplified to being just a killer who has escaped from the Persian police. This denies us the possibility of considering siding with the Phantom. It was an unfortunate decision. But I guess for a young audience murderers must be made villains and they must die in the end.
The face of the Phantom as illustrated here is exactly as Leroux described it. It is more accurate than even the Chaney visualization. Since the artists are not limited by makeup effects they can make it look like anything they want and they use the text of the novel, taking it literally. This requires little imagination, I suppose. But the history of adaptations of this novel has been plagued with too much imagination and not enough trust in the source to be sufficiently compelling. Emerald City's Phantom partially justifies that mistrust. It certainly is not a particularly compelling telling. Luckily the Lloyd Webber play, which is nearly as faithful, is also nearly as compelling as the book.
1989 Richard Englund
It is clear that somebody was serious about making a version of the semi-classic story and somebody else was not. Nominally Dwight Little is the director of the new film, though his name is pasted over somebody else's on the posters. So what we get is an exquisitely clumsy cross between a lackluster but traditional telling of the story and an episode of "Freddy's Nightmares."
Christine Daae is an opera singer in modern-day Manhattan who finds an old piece of music by a forgotten composer who was also a serial killer. She decides to use it for an audition for an opera. During her audition she is coshed on the head by a sandbag and suddenly, with no apparent bewilderment, she is an opera singer from the chorus in 1884 London. The story that is then told is just barely recognizable as a version of The Phantom of the Opera. A great but unknown composer has made a pact with the Devil that if his music should become immortal he would sell his soul. The Devil adds his own little amendment by gouging pieces out of the composer's face. The Phantom can make himself almost normal, but only by sewing pieces of live flesh into his face--so much for the romance of the mask. The Phantom now lives under the opera house and teaches his Christine, mercilessly torture-killing anyone who gets in his way. He skins two people alive and beheads two others. Meanwhile Christine is bewildered as to why she is able to remember the words to sing to the Phantom's music--not remembering that she learned them in New York. Classic scenes such as the chandelier scene and the unmasking are dispensed with entirely--well, sort of. Later when the story returns to the present it turns more into a traditional supernatural molester story.
I cannot imagine how this film turned into such an unholy mess. Only part of the mess can be explained by saying they had a gory version of the traditional story and well into the shooting they decided they wanted to turn it into a totally different film. That would explain the change of directors. It would also explain the credits "Screenplay by Duke Sandefur, Based on a screenplay by Gerry O'Hara." Somebody must have decided they could not sell Robert Englund as anything but a supernatural, unstoppable killer like his Freddy Krueger. The result is a sort of a "Peggy Sue Sings for the Phantom of Elm Street" that is a crude hoax that will disappoint Phantom fans, Freddy fans, and everybody in between. I would like to say this film has no redeeming value and is not really an adaptation of the story at all. But for a little nice opera and a few scenes that were almost an okay adaptation of the story I will count it where I do not count only slightly more bastardized versions like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.
1990 Charles Dance
The day that Tony Richardson's made-for-television version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was due to be shown, my local newspaper did a feature on it quoting the writer Arthur Kopit as saying, "[After having read the novel] what struck me was that this story ... wasn't very good. Still it captured the imagination of people. Why? What bothered me about [the previous dramatic] versions, what I thought they essentially missed, was that you never knew why the Phantom was in love with Christine."
I had very high hopes for this version. There were four announced film adaptations in the wake of the success of the Broadway play. One starred Richard Englund, whose most famous role was the razor-gloved Freddy Krueger; one was simply a film version of the musical; one was set in Nazi Germany. Of the four versions, the only one that sounded like a genuine new adaptation of the novel was the announced four-hour television version. Then I read Kopit's quote.
What Kopit is saying is that he has no respect for the material itself, only for its ready-made market. He also thinks that the dramatic versions missed the point of why the story is popular. I could easily believe his comment if it really were the novel that people remember but, in fact, the book has not been what people have liked. For most of the years the story has been liked, Gaston Leroux's novel has been hard to find. Andrew Lloyd Webber tells an anecdote about how difficult it was to find a copy of the novel when he wanted to read it. The dramatic adaptations that Kopit thinks missed the point of why the story is remembered are really what made the story popular. And here they cannot have missed the point. Actually I would contend that they have all missed what I like in the novel, but not what has made the story popular.
The novel is about a man with a great intellect and a horribly deformed face. All his life he was treated as a freak and just occasionally exploited for his genius. Eventually he finds the opportunity to build for himself an empire in the darkness beneath the Paris Opera House. There he can enjoy the music and can be seen only when he wants. This is Gaston Leroux's Erik but he has never been done satisfactorily in a film or play. I had hoped that in the three and a half hours or so of story there would be time to show Erik's history. In fact, this version did show Erik's history but it bore little relation to anything in the novel.
Kopit missed the point entirely by making his Phantom a petulant young man (played by Charles Dance of THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN), who is being shielded by a former manager of the opera house (over-played by Burt Lancaster).
Kopit's screenplay intends this Erik to be likable and steers clear of the question in the novel of whether Erik might be psychotic. This Erik does not kill, at least in the course of the film. Oh, his face may startle and early on this causes a death, but that does not appear to be Erik's fault. This Erik has lost the feel of the sinister and instead controls the fate of the opera house with practical jokes. Even the cutting down of the chandelier is not a murder attempt but an act of angry vandalism intended to vent rage and for which the audience was intentionally given time to get out of the way. Of course, this Erik had less reason for rage than the one in the book. The script claims that Erik's mother at least found his face "flawlessly beautiful." In the book Erik's mother gave him his first mask because she could not stand to look at his face.
There are a few nice touches to the script. One of them is the issue of how to handle the unmasking. Sort of independently of the quality of the rest of the production there is the question of how to shock audiences when they do see the Phantom's face. The approach here was unusual and not badly done, though it was perhaps dictated by the screenplay's efforts to keep Erik as a romantic Phantom. Less endearing is Erik's unexpected forest beneath the ground. It isn't like the metal forest of the novel but a real forest with live trees and unexplained sunlight. It appears that Erik must have built himself a holodeck.
Charles Dance is a little whiny for my tastes, as well as not being sufficiently sinister. Lancaster as the former manager is overripe and Teri Polo as Christine Daee. In the book Daae is unmemorable. She and her lover Adam Storke as Phillipe, Comte de Chagney, are pretty people but boring actors. (Again, they got the name wrong on the Comte. The character's name was Raoul. Phillipe is the name of Raoul's brother, older by twenty years.)
The whole mediocre revision of the story is directed by Tony Richardson, who directed TOM JONES. I am not a fan of that film but it certainly was better directed than this slow-moving version. If I had never heard of the story before I would have liked this version better, but as it is, I would call it the better than only the Herbert Lom and Richard Englund versions. Incidentally, Arthur Kopit has also adapted his version of the story as a stage musical. The score is actually quite enjoyable, but the story is essentially the same as the television version. [-mrl]
Retro Hugo Award Winners and General Hugo Comments:
In keeping with my on-going Hugo coverage, I can report that Loncon 3 received 3,587 Hugo Award final ballots (from 8,784 eligible voters), almost 50% more than the previous record (Renovation's 2,100). They also received 1,307 Retro Hugo Award ballots. (Note that this means that any category on the regular ballot that doesn't get 897 voters will not be awarded, not any category on the Retro ballot that does not get 327 voters.)
Loncon also got 2,690 new Supporting members (i.e., Supporting members who had not voted in Site Selection), of which 345 had joined prior to nominations opening, 605 joined during the nomination period and 2,340 joined during the voting period. (My suspicion is that the last group was due in large part to the widely touted news that the Hugo packet would include the entire fourteen-book "Wheel of time" series. (I saw several blog posts indicating that the poster was buying a Supporting membership for that reason.) I would be curious to know how many ballots will end up with "Wheel of Time" given a first-place vote and everything else in Novel left blank.
The "irony" of all this is that nowhere along the line did anyone do anything contrary to the rules, or even to the customs, of the Hugo process. People have always recommended or suggested candidates for nomination. Publishers and authors have been solicited to provide copies of nominated works for the Hugo packet. Ironically, Tor is getting some flack for providing their entire nominated work ("Wheel of Day") this year, while Orbit UK is getting flack for providing only excerpts of their three novels. The result of Orbit UK's decision may well be that voters who bought a membership to get (and presumably vote for) "Wheel of Time" would actually have read the other novels had they been provided, but as it stands, probably will not.
The Retro Hugo ballot also seemed to benefit from greater participation, and I was actually far more interested in the outcome there than in the current ballot. Since the Retro Hugo Awards were announced at a much earlier ceremony than the current Hugos, I already know the results for those--and here they are (the numbers in parentheses are number of nominating and voting ballots, respectively):
(If I'm reading the statistics correctly, in Best Editor 136 voters out of 786 ranked Campbell first and ranked no one else in the category, in Best Dramatic Presentation 185 out of 1058 ranked "The War of the Worlds" first and ranked nothing else, and in Best Fan Writer 153 out of 812 ranked Bradbury first and ranked no one else.)
A WORLD LIT ONLY BY FIRE? by William Manchester (book review by Greg Frederick):
This book is a look into the dim world of the Dark Ages which encompassed much of Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 400's AD. The time period covered by the author continues until the beginning of the Renaissance. When the Western Roman Empire fell scientific and engineering advancements came to a halt in that region. There was a type of de-construction of knowledge going on also. Ancient Greeks like Aristotle knew the Earth to be a sphere but in the Dark Ages around the 6th century a monk, Cosmas, wrote a treatise interpreting the Bible which the Roman Catholic Church supported. This treatise which many accepted stated that the Earth was a flat rectangle and a much smaller Sun orbits a mountain in the north of this flat Earth. Roads, bridges, waterworks, and buildings were not maintained and fell into dis-repair. Even though the old Roman roads where not maintained they were still at times the best roads available for limited travel. Illiteracy was the norm. Even many of the Kings who came to dominate the region were illiterate only the church officials tended to be literate. A mixture of pagan superstition and the Catholic faith pervaded the everyday lives of the people. Typically there might be three years of normal harvests followed by 1 year of famine. The harshest times were during famine when the peasants would sell everything they had for food and resorted to devouring bark, grass, roots even white clay to survive. In general life was brief, half the people in Europe died usually from disease before reaching 30 years of age. For women live expectancy was around 24 years of age; the toll from childbirth as appalling. People were smaller then; the average man stood five feet and a few inches and weighed about 135 pounds. Vast forests covered much of Northern Europe with small isolated villages that were widely separated from each other.
The abuses of some of the Roman Catholic Popes and higher clergy were legendary and helped to create the Reformation Period started by Martin Luther. The church at that time ignored Luther and did not correct the abuses therefore Protestantism was born.
Early Renaissance scholars began to rediscover the lost knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and realized that the Earth was a sphere. The rediscovered knowledge allowed Magellan to take part in his great journey. A large section of the book tells the story of Ferdinand Magellan who with five ships set-off in 1519 to circumnavigate the World. Magellan died in the Philippines but his remaining crew with just one ship left completed the trip back to Spain. Magellan was from Portugal but he could not convince the king of Portugal to finance this journey so he went to Spain. Portugal had complete control over the very profitable spice trade from Indonesia at the time. Magellan with his experience and some of the best information of that period convinced the Spanish king to back his plan. The key to convincing King Carlos came when he told him that he would seize control of the Spice Islands for Spain. Explorers like Magellan and others helped the Europeans to shake off the long sleep of the Dark Ages and enter the Renaissance.
Manchester's book is an enjoyable read for those who like to learn more about history. [-gf]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
CHINA ROAD: A JOURNEY INTO THE FUTURE OF A RISING POWER by Rob Gifford (ISBN 978-0-8129-7524-6) is a merged travelogue of NPR reporter Gifford's two trips along Route 312, a.k.a. the Silk Road, from its eastern end at Shanghai to its western end (in China, anyway) at Korgaz, on the border with Kyrgyzstan. One trip seems to have been in 2003 or 2004, the other was in 2005. In the acknowledgements section he says, "Although this [merging] offended my journalistic sensibilities, there was no other way to do it." The book was written in 2007; a lot has changed since then, and a lot has not.
For example, he tells someone about his theory that "Xinjiang and Tibet are like Scotland. They could end up like England's northern within the United Kingdom, contained within a country they don't want to be part of but, after a few centuries, unable or unwilling to make the effort to secede." Check back with me after September 18 on that.
He writes of "talks between Beijing and representatives of the aging Dalai Lama ... seem to be going nowhere. And one day, probably quite soon, he will die, and the Chinese will supervise the selection of a new Dalai Lama, and that will be that." Almost a decade later, Tenzin Gyatso is still going strong (though he is the longest reigning Dalai Lama).
He writes about cities twice as big as Dallas that most Americans have never heard of, of cities where officials have sealed up wells that have been famous for centuries in order to force the inhabitants to buy their water from companies the officials own, of cities polluted beyond belief. (Someone once tweeted that he wished all those who believe in unregulated capitalism should be forced to spend a week breathing the air in Harbin. Lanzhou is even worse.)
Throughout China Gifford found innumerable stories of corruption, unchecked by any effort of the legal system. This is due in part to a Confucian system that trusted "rule by example" more than "rule by law", but also of a Party that cannot afford to have any systems of checks and balances, which would ultimately lead to a loss of power.
So while there is less oppression than under Mao, there is still oppression. On the other hand, there is much more opportunity for advancement. Farmers are not trapped on their farms, and if the working conditions in factories are horrible, and the pay abysmal, they are still better than staying on the farms, or there would not be such a mass migration to the cities.
Gifford himself says that his mood swung back and forth between optimism and pessimism as he journeyed along the road. Ultimately, he seems to feel that what will determine China's fate is how it (i.e., the leadership) deal with the decade between 2012 and 2022. In 2012, he writes, Hu Jintao and his associates will step down from leadership and a new generation will take their place. How this new generation deals with the problems, particularly if the economy slows dramatically, or there is a global oil shortage, or some sort of widespread epidemic, will determine China's future. As of this writing, the new leader, Xi Jinping, does not seem to be implementing any substantive political reforms. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The computer can't tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what's missing is the eyebrows. --Frank ZappaTweet
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