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3.15.2010

Making Money Off Dead People...Among Other Things

On a whim, I went to see Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. Of course I am a fan of the two-book fantasy by Lewis Carroll.  I remember reading it after I read Douglas Adams say he didn't the series and didn't care mucn for Carroll. Yet, their writings are so similar. Both fantastical yet so smart it's scary. That being said, I was bound to hate the movie. It was a matter of degree that can be determined through years of statisical analysis training that I never recieved, made of complex formulas I've translated into a home-made chart


Given, the movie was not an adaptation of the original books; instead, Burton called it an extrapolation, or in other words a sequel, even though he didn't like this word. It is a sequel to the original books. In the movie, we find Alice (Mia Wasikowska) at age 19. Invited to an engagement party, she runs off after a computer generated bunny and falls down a rabbit hole. She enters "Underland," a place she mistakes for a dream, but is not, and meets the Dormouse, Tweedldee and Tweedledum, the Mad Hatter (who becomes a major character despite occupying only one chapter in the original), among some others, the movie continues with Alice's adventure to slay the Jabberwocky, kill (or get rid of the Red Queen), and bring good upon Underland again, so that at the end (SPOILERS ALERT!)) Johnny Depp can have a dance number, and Alice can go back to to the real world to enslave the Chinese (no lie!)

One of the worst thing about this film is that it's made my Disney, so we get all the Disneyfication of Alice, again. We get not only a dance number (as mentioned above), but it shifts the frame through which readers and viewers see the classic that is Alice In Wonderland, the book. With Disney, the tale becomes moralistic. Believe in yourself!, is what it teaches. Good will triumph evil!, it says in its C.S. Lewis Christian ending, that leaves viewers questioning how did we get to this set-up in the first place (the occasion for the final battle is that the Red Queen is so mad, so she quotes Machiavelli and decides to meet with her sister, the White (and therefore) good queen, who was always expecting a fight in the first place, thus the army that follows her)--The movie is full of such plot holes, yet it manages to be utterly predictable, by making it into some other Hollywood disappointment, made to make money from dead people, in this case, Lewis Carroll.

Moral here: read the book. Don't watch the crap that comes out of Hollywood, even if it is Tim Burton.

Stay inside and read the book, is what I've always said, but that being out there does not mean book publishers aren't trying to make money with cheap entertainment (e.g. dead people). Because once you're dead, the major obstacle for book publishers is out of the way, mainly a writer wanting money. Without the writer, you've removed the middle man between the consumer and your money. So the key of getting published nowadays is to rip off someone else: either (1) write a book about another person who became famous writing other books, or (2) plagiarize--lightly and blame your culture for it.

The first type of ripping off someone else is a recent trend. Just a couple of weeks ago, I recieved a galley of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees. The book, a debut, recounts the love between the writer of Little Women and Teddy “Laurie” Laurence. It's a reimagining of a famous now-classic writer, a type of historical which has been flooding the market of late. Talking of Alice In Wonderland, Delacorte Press recently released Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been. South African writer Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre, a novel of Charolette Bronte, has recently hit shelves. Another Bronte novel is Emily's Ghost by Denise Giardina, published in 2009. There's also Jerome Charyn's The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, published this year. Syrie James has made a writerly life by just reinventing and reimaging past writers' lives and so has Matthew Pearl. Reimagining is in-vogue for the year. That's how you get something published, using dead people who can't say otherwise.

Another way is plagiarizing, which was recently an issue of controversy for German writer Helene Hegemann, author of Axolotl Roadkill. At 17, Hegemann is a prodigy. Yet not in the same vain as say Kaavya Viswanathan, who was caught plagerizing in her debut How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life. The genius of Hegemann however is that she is nominated for a pretigious literary prize and her "plagerizing" is done so openly, calling it the remxing of literature. As stated in a New York Times article:

"Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke."

Which brings about a point: Is there any more originality?

Writers have long argued that there are only certain amount of stories out there, the only difference is style--the how. In her only audio recording, this is what Virginia Woolf even said, that the job of writers now are to just rearrange our words.  (Methinks she was being ironic). Everything has been told, it's just the how that matters. So it brings the question (in Hegemann's case), is there such a thing as plagiarism, when all ideas are out there already? In the case of the recent trends of historical reimaginings, what else can be done but to question what has happen? Arguably, these remix efforts, these reimagings are what we're supposed to do to make sense of a postmodern world where everything is to a certain extent, mixed up already: prose is mixing with poetry, fiction with nonfiction, etc; writers are here to try to make sense of this.

Yet saying that is kinda discomforting. In truth, to say that is to say that writing doomed to a bland existence of reimagining and sense-making--and not creation. But then again, is there a difference? I would want to conclude this, with something concrete, but it is a real question to answer: in the contemporary world, what is the role of the writer? What is he/she/ze to do as a writer? Ultimately, what is the role of the writer today? And is this any different from the past? And, of course, does it matter at all? (My nihilist side is coming in: why does it even matter? We're all going to die a horrible, horrible death!)

To be continued?...

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