Eating Movies Like Popcorn


Ray Bradbury, named by Marie Arana “America’s one-man fantasy factory,” wrote,

I was a child of movies. My mother ate them like popcorn.

In 1964, Bradbury called cinema “a science fiction device.” He was talking about all cinema. So, naturally, he wished to see film adaptations of his stories. His best-known successes are Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.

At Barnes & Noble one day, I crossed paths with the book The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work. Opening the book at random to page 76, I went to the bottom of the page and read the last sentence:

If you wait long enough, I learned, and stuff your eyeballs with shapes, sizes and colors, the gumball machine to your skull lends you gifts at the drop of a pen. Read more of this post

Speculative Fiction by and for Christians


Twitter led me to a blog called My Friend Amy, where there’s an interesting take on speculative fiction in today’s “Faith ‘n Fiction Saturdays” category. The post addresses several questions:

  1. What is speculative fiction?
  2. What is “Christian speculative fiction”?
  3. What are the standards for high quality Christian speculative fiction?

This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.

What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?

My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:

Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)

The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:

  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th edition published in 1996. A new edition was published in 2008, and no doubt includes novel entries (no pun intended).
  • The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition published in 1984. This edition was updated in 2002. Of the three books listed here, this is the best value—very affordable and reliable, with excellent coverage of authors, titles, literary movements, historical periods, terms and phrases.
  • Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, From Absurd to Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide to Literary Terms (1997). I believe this book is out of print, but I see that (at the time of this post) one copy is in stock at Powell’s Books.

I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, “Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide.”]

The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)

The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.

Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]

C. S. Lewis and Others

It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’

Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”

I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).

It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of “Dame” by Queen  of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]

For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.

That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.

So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.

Vampires

The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.

Susan Howatch

Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.

* * *

A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.

Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Doubt (Film): A Discussion Guide


doubtposter081

Doubt (USA, 2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep put in great performances in the new film Doubt, based on a play of the same title written by John Patrick Shanley. Shanley wrote the screenplay for and directed the film. Here are some discussion questions for the film. (These are based on an assignment I’ve developed for my course Faith, Film and Philosophy.)

  1. Why is Doubt a suitable title for this film? There may be several reasons.
  2. This film is an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt. Have you read the play? Have you seen the play performed? If you’ve read or seen the play, what is your evaluation of the film as an adaptation?
  3. What is the opening scene of the film? Having seen the whole film, what makes this a fitting start?
  4. Where does Father Flynn get his ideas for his sermons? What is the theme of his first sermon? His second sermon? His farewell sermon? What is the source of each of these sermons?
  5. Sister James asks Father Flynn if the sermon about gossip was directed at anyone in particular? He replies with a question, “What do you think?” Neither question is answered directly. So, what do you think?
  6. doubt-hoffmanWhat do you think of Father Flynn’s description of gossip and his method of illustrating this vice? Is it effective? Does it give you greater insight into the nature of this common but malicious practice? Have you ever been the victim of gossip? Did it have an unfair effect on your reputation? How did you respond? Did you do something about it? What should a person do when someone with influence has spread rumors about him or her to others?
  7. What does Sister Aloysius think Father Flynn has done wrong? Does she have a specific allegation of wrongdoing? What is it? If Sister Aloysius candidly agrees that she has no evidence and cannot prove her allegations against Father Flynn, why is she so certain that he has done something wrong? Is it true that she has no evidence? Are there moments when you suspect that Sister Aloysius is right to suspect Father Flynn? If so, when, during the film, do you feel this way?
  8. Sister Aloysius walks with Mrs. Miller in the cold weather toward the place where Mrs. Miller works as a cleaning lady. What do we learn about Mrs. Miller’s son, James, from their conversation? What effect does this have on the Sister’s suspicions about Father Flynn?
  9. Immediately following the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller, there’s a gust of wind that vehemently lifts and swirls the fall leaves around the Sister. There is something unnatural about this. Perhaps it is symbolic. Can you relate this occurrence to any other features of the film that explain it significance?
  10. While coaching the boys in basketball, Father Flynn notices that some of the boys have dirty fingernails. He stresses the importance of having clean nails and shows them his own, saying, “I like mine a little long.” What’s significant about this moment in the film? Recall that Sister Aloysius later orders Father Flynn to cut his nails. What does this business about Father Flynn’s nails have to do with the themes of the film?
  11. Father Flynn thinks things should be a little more relaxed and friendly at the school. You might suspect that his theological views are also more lax and progressive. Is this accurate? Are there indications that Father Flynn’s theological beliefs are traditional or more progressive (i.e., liberal)?
  12. Ultimately, Father Flynn leaves the parish to become pastor of another congregation. Why does he leave? Does his departure mean that he is guilty of wrongdoing? Sister Aloysius remarks that his resignation is proof of his guilt. Do you think she might be right? Suppose Father Flynn has done nothing wrong in his relationship with the boy named James. And suppose he’s done nothing wrong with other boys at other parishes.
  13. How does Sister Aloysius justify her lie about speaking with a nun about Father Flynn’s behavior at his previous parish? Could a lie of this sort ever be justified for a person in her position? Why hasn’t Sister Aloysius made the phone call she claims she has made?
  14. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “innuendo” as “an oblique hint, indirect suggestion; an allusive remark concerning a person or thing, especially one of a depreciatory kind.” Consider the role of innuendo in this film. The accusations of Sister Aloysius are indirect and yet pointed and insistent. Father Flynn’s response is often diffident and cautious. Sister James is coy. Why are the themes of the film handled in this way, rather than more directly?
  15. How does the film end? Are you surprised by the confession made by Sister Aloysius? Is this a satisfying ending? Is there any sense in which Sister Aloysius, stern as she is, is a sympathetic character? Explain.
  16. What does this film say about doubt? What else is this film about? What lessons does this film have for the viewer?
  17. Are there people you know who would enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would enjoy it? Are there people you know who would not enjoy seeing this film? Why do you think they would not enjoy it?
  18. doubt-streepList other films you’ve seen starring Meryl Streep in a lead role. Compare Streep’s performance in Doubt with her performance in these other films. On a scale of 1 to 100, how would you rate her performance in Doubt in comparison with her performance in other films? Alternatively, rank her performance in this and other films by placing them in order, starting with the best and working down the scale.
  19. Do the same for Philip Seymour Hoffman that you did for Streep in the previous question.

For the highly-touted play from Amazon, click here.

Copyright © 2009 by R. Douglas Geivett

Army of Shadows: A Film Discussion Guide


army_of_shadows_1shThe French film L’Armée des Ombres (“Army of Shadows”) is an adaptation of the 1943 book (same title) by Joseph Kessel, who participated in the French Resistance. Whether you know little or much about the Resistance, if you want a realistic film portrayal of a critical aspect of the Second World War, this is a film to rent or buy. I can’t imagine a more effective vehicle for presenting an insider’s view of the movement.

The film is expertly cast and paced with precision. But the action is subdued, so don’t expect a Jason-Bourne-meets-James-Bond kind of experience. Army of Shadows offers a tight shot of espionage—plotting with limited resources, the paltry odds of success, endless psychological misgivings, and complex interpersonal dynamics.

The movie is filled with tension. But it’s the kind of tension that invites serious consideration of difficult questions:

  • What does it really mean to be courageous?
  • Is it possible to exercise genuine freedom of self-determination in the very moment you are about to be executed by a firing squad?
  • Can a cause be so just that killing an innocent co-belligerent is justified if letting her live could compromise the mission?
  • On what basis can you entrust your life to someone you’ve never met?
  • Should a woman with the skills needed to execute a tactically sophisticated and personally dangerous mission be enlisted if she has a husband and children who know nothing of her activities?
  • Does it ever make sense to engage in a fatal rescue operation if no one will know of your valor?
  • Why does the simple offer of a cigarette enable some men to face certain death with dignity?
  • Was the French Resistance a prudent response to the Nazi occupation of France?

This film churns the emotions and the mind. The Resistance is testimony to the indomitable spirit of human beings guided by commitment to a high ideal. I saw  Army of Shadows soon after seeing the Angelina Jolie film Changling. The similarities are unmistakable. Both are based on actual events. In both cases individuals pursuing righteous causes suffer terrible indignities. In both, success seems humanly impossible. Hope wells up from a secret place and keeps men and women in the game, even when the game is almost certainly lost. These are remarkable parallels, parallels I would have missed if I had not seen the two films in the same week.

As these films end and the credits roll, some viewers will be stuck to their seats with feelings of sadness mixed with cheer. The sadness explains itself. The cheer is unexpected. But the cheer is solidly grounded. It rises in response to the failed heroism of Christine Collins, the mother in Changling, and of Phillipe Gerbier, the head of a Resistance network in L’Armée des Ombres. Because the heroism is real, though it is not rewarded with complete success (or perhaps because it is not rewarded with complete success), our own dignity is affirmed.

I’m ususally content to see a movie once, even a very good movie. But soon I’ll be downloading L’Armée des Ombres from Amazon to my TiVo. This one is worth owning and re-viewing.

Amazon DVD

Amazon DVD

Amazon Video on Demand

Amazon Video on Demand

The Book by Joseph Kessel

The Book by Joseph Kessel

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