In Praise Of Bingeing Technology

You can argue about the value of some technological advancements that we have seen in our lifetimes.  Is the invention of Roomba vacuuming robots, for example, really a good thing?  However, the significance of one development is indisputable:

The ability to engage in TV and movie binge-watching during the cold Midwestern winter months is one of the greatest leaps forward for the human species since the ancient Egyptians developed papyrus.

tmp_uirc5w_4f3814e036213fed_harry_potter_photoConsider this week in Columbus, Ohio.  It has been so absurdly cold, with ambient temperatures hovering, with leaden immobility, in the single digits and wind chill factors below zero, that there is absolutely no incentive to go outside voluntarily.  Unless you’ve got to go to work or to an appointment, there is no rational reason whatsoever to venture into the frigidity.  So, you’re stuck inside.  What to do?  Well, you could read a book, of course . . . or, you could be intellectually lazy and binge-watch TV, thanks to options like Netflix and Amazon TV and cable channels that offer premium options.  The last few days Kish and I have curled up on the couch at nights and begun watching the entire Harry Potter movie series — thanks, HBO and AT&T Uverse! — and it’s been a lot of fun.

You don’t have to watch the Harry Potter movies, of course — you could watch The Wire, or Deadwood, or Lost from start to finish, or a whole season of 24, or the John Wayne westerns in sequence, or the Thin Man films from beginning to end, or every movie in the Shirley Temple collection.  With the amount of new content being produced these days, and the amount of old TV shows and movies that remain available for casual viewing, your binge-watching options are virtually infinite.  And whatever you choose, you’re going to be entertained . . . and out of the cold.

I’m not suggesting that binge-watching TV is something that people should do constantly, week-in and week-out — but when the cold fronts plant themselves in your neighborhood and going outside becomes a bleak, frigid experience, binge-watching is a wonderful option to have.  As I said, it’s right up there with papyrus.

Starting A New Summer (Book) Series

Summers are made for reading, and summer vacations especially so.

I like to use the summer reading season to discover and dig into books that have already become a series featuring the same characters.  When you make such a discovery you can read the books in sequence, letting the characters and their lives unfold before you and become more familiar and, sometimes, beloved.  There is a particular joy in the initial discovery, too, because you know that you’ve just filled lots of your leisure time — often extending well into the autumn months — with what is sure to be very enjoyable activity.

IMG_4203Over the years I’ve read lots of literary series, and it always seems to happen in the summer — and usually at the recommendation of a friend or family member whose judgment I trust.  It was during the summer that I first enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (at Richard’s recommendation), Patrick O’Brian’s terrific Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin Master and Commander novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic era, James Lee Burke’s two-fisted Dave Robicheaux crime fiction (suggested by the Wrestling Fan), George R.R. Martin’s fabulous Game of Thrones books, and Stuart Kaminsky’s wonderful (and unfortunately too-soon-ended) Inspector Rostnikov and Abe Lieberman series.  I loved them all and hated reaching the end.

Recently the Philosopher King of the Fifth Floor recommended Michael Connelly’s books about Detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch.  I’ve begun with the first book, The Black Echo, and it’s excellent.  I can tell I’m going to like following the exploits of the (in the first book, at least) chain-smoking Harry as he struggles with his personal demons and deftly solves crimes along the way — even if it means skirting the edges of the law and breaking a few departmental rules to bring the wrongdoer to justice.  Having made the discovery, I’m especially pleased to learn that the series currently includes 19 books, which probably means number 20 will come out as I am happily working my way through Harry’s story.

Don’t expect much from me this summer:  I’ll be reading.

Fed Up With The Hunger Games

During the summer months, when I’m looking for some light reading, I’ll often try books designed for younger people.  Years ago Richard strongly recommended the Harry Potter series; I read them and enjoyed them immensely.

There’s been the same kind of buzz about The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (as well as UJ’s enthusiastic review) so I decided to give it a try.  The first book was interesting, as it introduced a weird world and its repressive regime, dominated by TV broadcasts of a bloodthirsty game where children are killed as ratings soar — a kind of cross between The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, the Star Trek episode where the Roman Empire survived to the TV era, and standard sci-fi fare about evil governments of the future.  When the resourceful and quick-witted Katniss won the Hunger Games and outwitted the evil game designers, I was happy.

Often it’s difficult for follow-up books to maintain the pace of the original.  The interesting world has already been fully described, and the characters and plot need to carry the day — and sometimes they can’t.  That was my reaction to Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  I grew weary of Katniss’ self-absorption and hand-wringing about her odd and confused relationships and came to groan when she launched into the latest internal monologue about her feelings toward Peeta and Gale.  And mostly I was bored by the cast of wooden, one-dimensional characters — the evil, blood-sucking President, the valiant clothes designer, the drunken tutor, among many others — and the increasingly unbelievable world in which they lived.  And when the book turned to Katniss and Peeta competing in another Hunger Games, I felt the same kind of “been there, done that” reaction I had when the last Star Wars movie revolved around the destruction of another Death Star.

I’m now on the third book, Mockingjay.  My eye-rolling at Katniss’ indecision continues, I’m tired of the creaky use of TV interviews to move the thudding plot along, and I’ve come to resent the people of this world who put up with brutal unfairness for decades when they apparently could have simply escaped to the woods or visited District 13 long ago.  I’ll finish the book, because I always do, and maybe it will improve — but for now I’m fed up with The Hunger Games.

Potter’s End

This week Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, will be released to a breathless public.  It will be the last installment of the Harry Potter series of movies — movies that, since the first film was released 10 years ago, have generated huge sums for Warner Brothers and theatre owners everywhere.

The Harry Potter movies probably have been the most financially successful series of films ever made.  There have been seven installments, and all have ended up in the top 70 box office hits of all time.  The lowest-grossing film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, grossed just below $250 million and comes in at number 64 on the list; the highest-grossing film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, generated $317 million and is number 26.  The producers have managed to keep the cast of actors playing the principal characters together for the entire ten-year run — excluding Richard Harris, who died after playing Professor Dumbledore for the first two films and was replaced by Michael Gambon — and the youthful actors playing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) can still plausibly play teenagers.

Critics argue that the Harry Potter movies are not excellent films.  They obviously don’t stack up with Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or other classic cinematic landmarks, but that really is not their goal.  Instead, the movies seek to faithfully bring to life a beloved set of books so that the stories can be enjoyed, again, by Harry’s millions of fans.  By this measure, I think the movies have been a huge success.  Parts of the written story have been cut, which is not surprising given the length of some of the books, but the core elements and places are there.  And the actors who have created the principal adult roles — like Alan Rickman with his terrific Severus Snape, Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange — have put memorable flesh and blood on characters that could have been mere caricatures.

I’ll go to see the last installment in the series and will watch it with pleasure.  I’m particularly interested in seeing how Rickman fills in the final elements of the Severus Snape story, how the filmmakers deal with the curious meeting between Harry and Dumbledore just before the climactic battle at Hogwarts — and whether the somewhat controversial coda to the final book is included.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows

In a little over a week, the first part of the final installment of the Harry Potter series will hit the theaters.  Called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, it will debut on November 19.  The second part will be released in July 2011.

I’m eager to see how succesfully the last Harry Potter book is brought to the big screen.  The books have been a world-wide phenomenon, of course, but the movie adaptations have been interesting in their own right.  How do you take an enormously successful series of books and bring those characters to the big screen? What parts of the plots will hit the cutting room floor?  Can the silver screen version capture the mood of the book?

In the case of the Harry Potter books, the last question is crucial, because the mood of the books grew increasingly dark as the series progressed.  In the earlier books we learn, usually in light-hearted, humorous fashion, about things like Quidditch, and newspapers where the photographs move, and how the world of wizards manages to co-exist with the world of humans.  In the later books we learn of how Voldemort unforgivably separated himself from the rest of the sorcerer’s world in his quest to become the most powerful wizard in the world, we discover that Dumbledore was possessed of his own foibles, we see Harry fighting with his dearest friends, and we witness death and destruction on a grand scale.

Only after Harry and his friends are plunged into despair can they experience the ultimate triumph over Voldemort and his minions.  Will the film, in deference to its youthful audience, shy away from realistically capturing the grimness that gives the ultimate resolution meaning?  (And how will it visualize the classic train station scene between Dumbledore and Harry and the wretched, sniveling creature there with them?)  These are the kinds of questions that make a movie told from a familiar story worth seeing.

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

I’ve been seeing previews for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I have to admit that I am looking forward to the movie. I really enjoyed all of the Harry Potter books — they are great summer reads — and, so far at least, I think the movies have done a good job of presenting the Harry Potter saga in an entertaining way that is true to the story. The Half-Blood Prince will be a real challenge for the filmmakers because the story is so dark and distressing, and any realistic depiction of some of the events in the book could fighten the snot out of the littler Harry Potter fans.

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape

Unlike some readers, I don’t mind when my favorite books are made into movies or TV series. I enjoy seeing whether the filmmaker’s vision matches my vision of the characters, the settings, and so forth. When the truly excellent TV adaptation of Lonesome Dove was aired, I initially found the appearance of Robert Duvall, as Gus McCrae, especially jarring, because I had formed a strong mental image of McCrae as looking like Wilford Brimley. Duvall was so stunningly good as McCrae, however, that the image of Wilford Brimley was quickly dislodged and forgotten. So it has been with the Harry Potter books and movies. Alan Rickman is my mental image of Severus Snape, whether I like it or not. (And I do like it, incidentally. One reason I’m looking forward to The Half-Blood Prince, by the way, is that it should give Rickman a chance to shine that he really hasn’t had so far in the series.)

To prepare for The Half-Blood Prince, I’ll be doing what I normally do when a book I like makes it to the big screen — I’ll reread it, to get reacquainted with the story, the characters, and the various nuances and subtleties that are found in full-length books but that can’t possibly all make it into the movie. I’ve located the tattered family copy of the book, and it will be a good way to spend some leisure time until the movie opens.