I’ll be back at HerdCon, Marshal University’s pop-culture conviction, this coming weekend!
There are events both Friday and Saturday this year and I will be there both days. Stop by and say hi! More details at their Facebook page here.
I’ll be back at HerdCon, Marshal University’s pop-culture conviction, this coming weekend!
There are events both Friday and Saturday this year and I will be there both days. Stop by and say hi! More details at their Facebook page here.
As the Tears for Fears song goes, everybody loves a happy ending. That said, what makes an ending a happy one? Does that depend on the person doing the reading or watching? And does it matter whether we’re looking at a more meta or personal level?
I stumbled into these questions recently after finishing Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, which became the movie Knock at the Cabin, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and released last year. It was the movie promos that made me want to read the book (I’ve not had good luck with Shaymalan’s movies over the years) so I was always interested in how the adaptation went. The endings of the book and movie differ quite a bit and raise some interesting questions about what constitutes a “happy” ending.
Needless to say, the post from here on out is going to be spoiler heavy, so if you don’t want to know about any of this, head away now.
The plot of the book and film are pretty close, until a certain point. They both start with a young girl playing outside a remote country cabin where she and her two fathers are on vacation. She’s approached by a large, friendly guy who winds up having three friends with him. He gives the family a startling ultimatum – the end of the world is upon us and the only way to stop it is for one of the family members to be sacrificed. It’s sort of a horror/mythical take on Sophie’s Choice.
Naturally, the family refuses to kill one of their own and the tension ramps up from there. The interlopers start to kill each other and there’s some evidence from the outside world (via TV) that maybe it really is the end of days. Tragedies are happening and the big dude in charge may or may not know of them in advance. In the book, at least (I haven’t seen the movie yet), it’s left very vague whether the intruders are religious fanatics, simply nuts (but I repeat myself), or are really telling the truth.
Here’s where things part ways, significantly, between book and movie. In the book there is a struggle over a gun that leaves the little girl dead. Eventually the dads escape (all the intruders die) and they confront the question of sacrificing one of themselves just in case the world is really ending (one is now more of a believer than the other). Ultimately they decide not to, essentially concluding that any kind of God that would require such a thing isn’t worth obeying, and they walk off into a brewing storm that may or may not just be a storm. In the movie, by contrast, the girl is not shot and one of the dads decides to sacrifice himself to save the world on her behalf. The girl and her remaining father leave and find evidence that the sacrifice really is stopping the world from ending.
Per this interview with the LA Times (via), Tremblay explains that while he generally likes the movie, he prefers his ending to Shaymalan’s. No big surprise there. Endings are hard and if you get what you think is a good one you’re kind of protective of it. But what really interested me was Tremblay’s explanation as to why:
I think the movie’s ending is way darker than my book. I don’t mean to say this flippantly. But politics aside, on a character level, the idea of, “What are Andrew and Wen going to do now”? Not only did they just kill Eric – how will they go on with that knowledge – but also with the knowledge that this supreme being that controls the universe was so unremittingly cruel to them? I would never write a sequel . . . but I’m actually weirdly interested in a story of what Wen and Andrew do now.
He further explains:
at a certain point in telling the story it didn’t matter to me if the apocalypse was happening because the story to me became, “What were Eric and Andrew going to choose?”
That was the story: their choice. Their ultimate rejection of fear and cruelty, whether or not the apocalypse is happening. What has happened in the cabin and what they’re presented with is wrong; it’s immoral, and they refuse. And I find that hopeful . . ..
This is weird on its face. The movie ending is clearly the happier one, right? The little girl lives. While one of her dads decides to sacrifice himself (which is honestly where I thought the book was going) at least we know it wasn’t in vain and it really did save the world. For a story full of psychological terror that seems like the best possible outcome.
But I think that framing depends on whether you look at the story from a personal or meta level. On a meta level this story is the trolley problem on steroids. Forget five strangers on the tracks versus one, we’re talking about survival of life on Earth – billions of people – against the life of one person who is, to you, particularly beloved. By pure utilitarian calculus this is a fairly easy call (the needs of the many, as Spock would say). Of course, that presumed that the apocalypse is really happening and the requested sacrifice could really stop it.
A similar dilemma animated the season finale of The Last of Us (and the end of the game, so far as I’ve read), in which Joel was faced with Ellie being operated on in a way that would kill her but that might lead to a cure for the pandemic that was ravaging humanity. Rather than give it much thought, he broke very bad (badder than before, at any rate) and killed anyone who got between he and Ellie. He saved her, thus potentially condemning the rest of the people on the planet.
Is that a happy ending? It sure is for Joel, who doesn’t have to go through the trauma of losing (in essence) another daughter. Is it for Ellie? Hard to tell, since she didn’t really get much choice in the matter (either way). Is it for humanity? If it was going to lead to a cure, fuck no, but if it wasn’t?
My point isn’t to take sides (although I have my preferences, like anybody), but to point out that any on person’s conception of a “happy” ending might not match someone else’s. In a way, that’s a great thing for writers. Endings are hard and the knowledge that people can interpret a particular ending so differently means it’s folly to try and please people. But in another, it means more to think about when trying to shoot for a happy ending.
As always, the best course is to think hard about what you’re going to do and why you want to do it. That way at least you’ll have a satisfactory conclusion to the story you want to tell.
We’ve all sat through movies, or slogged through books, that are too damned log. Did Uncut Gems really need two hours of shouty Adam Sandler? Wouldn’t 90 minutes have done the trick? Do any of the Song of Ice and Fire books need those long descriptions of food?. Couldn’t most of those Netflix true crime documentary series be cut to a feature length doc rather than four or five TV episodes? Isn’t in the obligation of the creators of these entertainments to be as efficient as possible?
Not so fast, argues author Lincoln Michel. Last month he made a strong argument that it’s the “unnecessary” stuff that makes art worth doing. I’m not sure that he’s completely correct, but he’s certainly not wrong.
Michel references people who complain about scenes of sex or violence, or, most hilariously, “those damn whale chapters” in Moby Dick, because “they don’t move the plot along.” Dubbing these folks “consumers” rather than readers, he suggests that their “ideal story seems to be a Wikipedia plot summary.” This might have many causes, from a modern obsession with efficiency to artists seeking short cuts to satisfy an increasingly fragmented audience.
For Michel, this is not a good thing:
Yet I would like to humbly suggest this thinking is entirely wrong. The unnecessary is most necessary part of art. Art is exactly the place to let your eye linger on what fascinates it. Art isn’t an SEO optimized app or a rubric for overworked teachers to grade five-paragraph essays. Art is exactly the space—perhaps the last space left—where we can indulge, explore, and expand ourselves. If we can’t be weird, extraneous, over-the-top, discursive, and hedonistic in our art, where can we be?
While recognizing that the seemingly extraneous stuff can have meaning in the work (by deepening understanding of a character, for instance), Michel goes so far as to claim that “I don’t believe art has ‘a point.’” In other words, for Michel, art is about the journey itself, not the destination and the tangents and dead ends that are explored along the way are as much a part of that as the jaunt down the proverbial Yellow Brick Road.
I like a lot of what Michel is saying here. I write fiction, but I also write briefs and other legal arguments in my day job and in that role, there is no doubt, brevity counts. Lawyers are famously long winded, I know, but you really want to convince the judge (or law clerk) reading your brief in the most efficient way possible, so you trim down the issues, trim down the facts to the bare minimum.
Fiction can certainly be different than that, but does it have to? I’m reading a book right now (no names – I’m not finished yet and it might turn around on me) that has a great idea at its center and would make for a really good short story or novella, but as a novel there’s just too much padding. What should be tense and horrific is instead kind of dull and plodding.
In a way it reminds me of the bloat albums went through when CDs took over as the main music format back in the 1990s. Whereas single LPs couldn’t handle much more than 45 minutes of music without quality issues, CDs can run all the way up to almost 80 minutes (a time chosen, apocryphally, so as to allow for the inclusion of all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on one disc) and lots of artists took advantage of that. Here recently we’ve seen albums shrink again, back to where they were in the LP days and that seems generally like a good move.
That said, some of my favorite albums of that era are full to bursting and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Marillion’s Brave trimmed down to fit on one LP would be a travesty. I wouldn’t shave a moment off of the early Mike Keneally albums, all of which push the boundaries of CD capacity. And to the extent that other albums have filler, that doesn’t really diminish from the enjoyment I get from the really good stuff.
Heck, progressive rock writ large could be thought of as a celebration of what is “unnecessary” for rock music. Rock and roll, after all, is supposed to be direct, to the point, and emotionally blunt. Prog flouted that ideal, most obviously in songs that sprawled across entire albums sides (or more!), rather than be limited to 3 minutes or so. It’s that embrace of the excess, the unnecessary, that I love about prog.
That said, there’s an awful lot of lengthy prog that does nothing for me at all, same as books or anything else. Michel recognizes this, following his discussion of a favorite novel of his that is “plotless and essentially character-less” with the recognition that “[o]f course, it might not be interesting to you. If you don’t enjoy an artist’s vision, that is of course well and fine.” The problem, he argues, is transferring that personal dislike to objective truths about the quality of a work.
With that I agree 100%. As I’ve said here before, the reaction to art is inherently personal and what is one person’s work of genius is another’s pretentious twaddle. Where I part company, I guess, with Michel is that when I hear people say something is boring or slow or has unnecessary parts what I’m hearing is that the art, whatever it is, isn’t working for them and isn’t interesting to them. Because I don’t think there are objective truths about art I don’t take any one person’s reaction to any particular piece of it as being an attempt to deliver any truth other than their own. So I wouldn’t be as hard on people who think parts of books or movies or whatever are “unnecessary” because, to them, they are.
What’s most important, in the end, is that, as Michel concludes, there are spaces where artists and those who experience art can be free to be as excessive and unnecessary as they want to be. Not every work of art is for every taste and that’s not only okay it’s fucking fantastic. Find what you love and dive into it, then hope whoever is making it is willing to explore the unnecessary or the “boring” because when they do it you might think it’s the best thing ever. And creators – keep in mind that not everybody is willing to follow you down your creative cul de sacs – but I bet some folks will.
At the recent DualCon in Charleston, through sheer serendipity, my table wound up being next to that of John Russo, co-writer (along with director George Romero) of Night of the Living Dead, the horror film from which essentially the entire modern zombie genre sprang. After hearing him talk about the movie on a panel we did it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen the flick. Naturally, the wife and I remedied that situation that very evening.
The story of Night of the Living Dead is even more amazing than the movie itself, although it holds up pretty well after all these years. Made for about $100,000 by first-time film makers (Romero, Russo and others had a production company that made commercials and other short pieces in and around Pittsburgh – Romero even directed some segments of Mr. Rogers!) it grossed about $30 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made.
The movie itself takes a fairly common setup and ramps the dread up to 11. As Russo explained during our panel, he thought of Night of the Living Dead as the 1939 movie Stagecoach, “but with zombies instead of Indians” and that seems right. You take a group of disparate people with few prior ties to each other, put them in a stressful situation, and see whether they pull together and triumph or splinter and fail.
If the movie is not just that story, but a metaphor for society at large as it faces existential threats then we, in the words of Thinking Plague, “are so fucked.” Once the group is gathered in an isolated house while the zombie horde (sorry, “ghouls” – the movie never uses the Z word) approaches, the battle lines are draw over whether to remain on the main floor or barricade themselves in the basement. The arguments both ways are the kind that can never be right or wrong – the main level has multiple points of entry for the ghouls, but also multiple ways out; the basement is more secure, but if they break through that door you’re dead.
My first thought upon viewing was that Ben, the main character and the prime supporter of the main level argument, was proven wrong, because he winds up in the basement when the horde overwhelms the house, anyway. The more I think about it, though, I don’t think that’s the case. Less important than where they make their stand is that they make it together, is what I’m thinking now. That even he is killed, in the end, and not by the ghouls, makes for a very bleak viewing experience and comment on human nature.
Aside from the side effects of its low budget (beyond its role in launching the modern zombie genre, Night of the Living Dead is one of the foundational films of the modern independent film scene) it doesn’t feel “cheap” (this is not a Zappa-esque “Cheepnis” situation). The script uses radio and TV news reports, often playing in the background, to broaden the story without losing the focus on our characters and their locale. That also helps setup the very end, too. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, which is typical orchestral bombast, save for when the zombies are the focus, when is switches to a very cutting edge soundscape of synthesized throbs and scratches.
But my final takeaway from Night of the Living Dead is irony. My first novel, Moore Hollow, is a kind of zombie story. The backdrop is that a crooked West Virginia politician around the turn of the 20th century actually tried to raise the dead so they would vote for him. In the novel, a disgraced English journalist with family ties to the West Virginia coal fields comes to track down the mystery. The zombies aren’t monsters, but more a problem to be dealt with and, perhaps, damned souls who need protection. I gave him the last name “Potter” completely oblivious to the Harry Potter connection.
His first name? “Ben.” Just like the main character in pop culture’s foundational zombie text. Sometimes the creative mind really does some wild things.
The publishing world (and many many others) erupted last week at the news that the publisher of Roald Dahl’s books, Puffin (the children’s imprint of Penguin Books, naturally) had:
hired sensitivity readers to rewrite chunks of the author’s text to make sure the books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today”, resulting in extensive changes across Dahl’s work.
My only exposure to Dahl’s works is the Gene Wilder version of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie (and the Futurama parody), but my understanding is part of what sets his work apart from other whimsical children’s literature is that it has a bite and nastiness to it that others lack. It seems like what Puffin is up to is smoothing down some of those rough edges to make things more palatable to modern audiences (although how changing the description of Augustus Gloop from “fat” to “enormous” doesn’t seem that different to me).
Predictably, this has been described as “censorship” by some, including Salman Rushdie. Whatever one thinks of this bowdlerization of Dahl’s work it simply isn’t censorship.
For one thing, “censorship” implies the violation of someone’s rights. Whose freedom has been impinged here? Certainly not Dahl, who died in 1990. He hasn’t had anything to say for more than three decades. The only organization with any speech rights in this situation is the publisher or whoever else owns the copyright to Dahl’s works (it’s unclear precisely who is calling the shots after selling rights to Netflix a few years ago). They have the right to say what they want – and refrain from saying what they don’t – even if that might be a dumb move. Unless an author has some perpetual right to have his words reprinted in perpetuity I’m not seeing a violation here.
For another, the key trigger for the term “censorship” should be some type of official action backed by the threatened use of force. That is most likely to come from some governmental body (see the current nonsense in Florida), but could come from a pitchfork-wielding mob, I suppose. Thing is, I haven’t seen anybody demanding that Puffin make the changes that have been made. It appears to have been purely a self-motivated ploy to make more money. It’s capitalism at its finest!
Backing the outrage that there is some stifling of expression going on here is an idea that a writer’s words make their way to the public unchanged by other actors in the publishing process. There may be writers who are big enough to not have to worry about editors, but draft manuscript submitted to an agent or publisher typically goes through lots of revisions before being published. I have ultimate control over my books, since I self publish, but the final product is still shaped by beta readers, the input of other writers, and an editor. I might not take all their advice to heart, but they certainly have shaped the books I’ve released. Hell, Dahl himself made changes in the past to adapt with the times:
Dahl himself agreed in the late 1960s that his original Oompa Loompas – who in the original 1964 novel were human pygmies bought for cocoa beans in the African jungle – could be recast as the little orange creatures with which we’re all now familiar.
Admittedly it’s different when the author themselves do it, but I’m not seeing censorship here or the violation of anybody’s rights. If anybody has a beef with all this it would seem to be living authors, writing new material for the current world, whose work might be squeezed out:
Philip Pullman reeled off a string of brilliant modern writers who might get read more if Dahl’s texts were left to grow old as their author intended, and thus to drop naturally down the bestseller lists.
Does that mean it’s a good idea for Puffin to try to rewrite what many people consider to be classics? Probably not. As I said, I don’t know Dahl’s work, but this piece at Pajiba seems to get it right:
It does far more damage to pretend that Dahl’s work is spotless, to remove its dark parts and erase from history the very real hurt he caused. The anti-cancel culture people may screech about content warnings, but surely pointing out what’s in a book makes far more sense than cutting it out? This decision had to go through so many people at Puffin. A ton of executives and editors had to sign off on this, to make the decision to participate in the smudging away of reality. Who did they think it would benefit? Dahl himself would have hated it. His readers wouldn’t support it. Schools using his work for classes now have a heap of problems to deal with. They handed a hand grenade of culture war bullshit to the right-wing, and didn’t win themselves any allies on the left. Writers everywhere must now wonder what could be done to their books when they’re not around to say otherwise.
Lurking under all this is the question of why anybody has copyright control of books three decades after the death of their author. The changes here were all made by the current copyright holders, in an attempt to keep the books commercially viable. Without that, anybody could take the old text and sell as many of them as they could. Alternately, of course, anybody could do their own update of Dahl’s stories, albeit without his name on them.
Ultimately, I don’t see this so much as censorship or anything evil, but just a group of people the law allows to continue to make money off a product years after the creator is dead trying to keep the product relevant and marketable. It’s a dumb attempt, but no more than that. Never put down to malice what you can attribute to the simple desire to make more money.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this, the Dahl folks have announced that they’re going to keep publishing the older versions, along with the new rewritten ones. Certainly a whiff of “New Coke” marketing to that. Also, I thought I’d pass along this column about all this which catalogs a great number of literary works that were changed over the years well after their authors were dead. TL,DR, as the kids say – this kind of thing has been happening for a really long time.
After what seems like a really long time (but it was really only a little over two years), I’m happy to report that I’m finally done with Heroes of the Empire!
This is book three in the Unari Empire trilogy, which means the saga is complete. From here it needs proofed by my editor and get finally assembled, but I can saw with confidence that the book will be released later this spring. Whee!
I’ve written about The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, a couple of times before. It made my list of favorite movies last year and I added it to a list of other great lawyer movies compiled by the ABA.
As I said in the favorite movie post:
his is my favorite movie about being a lawyer, even though there’s no dramatic courtroom climax or wronged client who needs defended. Instead, it’s about the toll it takes on a person’s psyche to make a living by inserting yourself into the tragedies of others.
With the recent passing of Russell Banks, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, I thought it was a good time to actually read the damn thing and see how they compare. I did this secure in the knowledge that I had read, somewhere, that Banks himself admitted that this was one of those rare situations where the film improved on the book. Naturally, I can’t find that anywhere online. Regardless, is it true? After reading the novel and rewatching the movie, I can’t say for sure.
At bottom, both are about a small town called Sam Dent (upstate New York in the book, somewhere in Canada in the movie) where a school bus accident led to the death of most of the town’s children. Into this tragedy comes a big-city lawyer named Mitchell Stephens, who tries to sign up grieving parents for a lawsuit against someone, somewhere that was really responsible for the accident. His plans are foiled when one of the kids who survived the crash, but is now paralyzed, Nicole Burnell, lies in a deposition that the bus driver had been speeding. She does this either to get back at her father who has molested her, in sympathy with those in town who don’t want anything to do with lawsuits, or both. All the while, Stephens deals with phone calls from his estranged daughter, a long-term drug addict who has just learned she’s HIV positive (maybe).
One major difference between the two is that the novel really has no main characters. It’s told in a series of first-person monologues by the bus driver, Delores Driscol; Billy Ansel, who lost his two twins and runs the local garage where the wreck of the bus is stored; Stephens; and Burnell. Each character interacts with others, but the shifts of focus make it impossible for any of them to be the narrative spine of the story. The movie, by contrast, clearly makes Stephens the main character, the agitator/irritant who gets into town and stirs up stuff (whether that’s “trouble” or “justice” depends on your point of view).
There are a couple of places where the book’s shifting POV makes for really interesting comparisons. At one point, Stephens and Ansel talk after Stephens shows up to take pictures/video of the wrecked bus. In the movie, this plays as Stephens trying, quite unsuccessfully, to sign up another parent for his lawsuit (this is how it’s read in law review articles, of which there are many), but in the book we know that he’s actually doing the opposite – he wants Ansel pissed and wanting no part in the lawsuit so when he testifies as a witness (Ansel was behind the bus when it crashed) he’ll be unbiased. Legally, I’m not so sure that makes sense (and it backfires spectacularly), but it certainly changes the way we see Stephens. Likewise, being in Nicole’s head makes her outright anger at her father more palpable and her ultimate betrayal more emotional and spiteful than the cold, calculated move it appears in the film.
There’s two big changes from the book that the movie makes, one more important than the other for figuring out what the story is trying to say. The smaller change is a storyline where Stephens is on a plane and meets an old friend of her daughter to whom he’s able to deal out all the information about his daughter’s troubled life. This is a pretty good way of getting at a lot of stuff that’s in Stephens’ head in the book and doesn’t really impact the overall arc of things.
The bigger change is the ending. In the film, after the lawsuit falls apart, it jumps to Stephens getting into a cab at the airport, where he sees that Delores is driving one of the shuttle busses. In the book, by contrast, there’s a lengthy coda from her point of view in which she learns what Nicole said about her and, therefore, what the town now thinks of her. It culminates in a demolition derby at the county fair that plays out like a kind of sacrifice (it involves one of Delores’ old cars) after which things seem to slide back towards normal. I don’t think it really works (and Delores does wind up driving tourist vans, although fairly nearby), but it’s certainly different.
Do these changes makes the movie better? I’m not going to go that far. I prefer the film, but I came to it first and there’s some bias because of that. Also, while Egoyan arguably exercised a messy ending dealing with the fallout from Nicole’s perjury, the end of the movie works better (I think) than the book. Mostly, the experience reinforced my thought that literature and visual media are different things driving at different goals. One isn’t really better than the other, they’re both different and it’s great that we can explore the same story in multiple ways.
So where does that leave my love for The Sweet Hereafter as a lawyer’s story? The film version of Stephens continues to hit harder. While the book gets us into his head, Ian Holm’s portrayal of Stephens as emotionally running on fumes resonates more. In the deposition scene, as Nicole’s perjury spills out, the look on Holm’s face is one that any lawyer knows well. Remember this scene from The Simpsons?
It’s the same thing with Stephens. You can tell the very moment his case, all the work he’s put into it, all the hours away from home, goes up in smoke. All due to something entirely beyond his control. We’ve all been there pal.
That, in the end, is why The Sweet Hereafter resonates so much as a lawyer movie. We may all aspire to be Atticus Finch, but we recognize more of ourselves in Mitchell Stephens then we’d like to admit.
Next Saturday – February 11, 2023 – I’m happy to say that I’ll be taking part in a new event in Charleston, DualCon.
It’s primarily a gaming convention (of tabletop and video varieties), but it’s also having various folks there who are writers, cosplayers, and other creators. I’ll be there along with John Russo (who co-wrote Night of the Living Dead with George Romero) and author/actor Gerry Lee Vincent.
Should be an interesting day, so stop by and say hi! Buy a book! Or ten!
I am not, in general, a big reader of historical fiction. Not anything against it, I think I’d just rather read the history itself. Nonetheless, when Hilary Mantel died last year I thought I probably ought to check out some of her work. A little leery of wading directly into the Thomas Cromwell books I scanned her bibliography and saw a book called The Giant O’Brien. It rang a small bell and, after a bit of poking around, I found it was about, perhaps, a distant relative.
Said giant was Charles Byrne, who measured over seven-and-a-half feet tall. As chronicled in Mantel’s book, he leaves rural Ireland to go to London and become an attraction. What’s really interesting about the man in the book (whether it tracks reality I don’t know) is that he was very much in control of his exploitation. He’s not a simpleton dragged away from home by someone out to make a quick buck. Rather, he’s well aware of what’s going on and happy to make his way in the world in that manner, with the possibility of a young death hovering over him the whole time.
In the book, Byrne is pursued by a surgeon, John Hunter, who is a collector of “specimens” and wants the giant’s skeleton once he’s dead. Byrne makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want this to happen, but is betrayed by the hangars-on that have come with him to London, who eventually make the deal with Hunter for a few hundred pounds. The result was that Byrne’s skeleton was put on display at Hunter’s museum, where it became the most famous part of its collection.
There is some dispute as to how, precisely, Byrne’s bones came into Hunter’s possession – let’s hope he wasn’t so cruelly betrayed – but there’s no doubt Byrne didn’t want to go on display like a museum piece. Nonetheless, he was and there he hung for the next two centuries.
Until just recently. The museum is nearing reopening after several years of renovation and have announced that Byrne’s skeleton will no longer be on public display:
“What happened historically and what Hunter did was wrong,” said Dawn Kemp, a director at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, of which the Hunterian Museum is now part. “How do you redress some of these historical wrongs? The first step is to take Byrne’s skeleton off display.”
The real question now is what else, if anything, should be done with it. On the one hand, if we’re rectifying historical wrongs and Byrne wished not to be a specimen that should be the end of the discussion. On the other, there is something to be said for having Byrne’s bones around for scientific study:
“We shouldn’t think that we now know everything,” said Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University in London, who has researched Byrne’s genes.
The research “isn’t done and dusted,” she added.
Indeed, Byrne’s skeleton has offered up new answers as medicine has evolved. In 1909, an American surgeon studied Byrne’s remains, and discovered that he had a tumor in his brain. Then, about a century later, researchers including Dr. Korbonits extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth and found that he also had a rare genetic mutation that had been unknown until 2006.
“Without the public view, we wouldn’t have made that link,” Dr. Korbonits said.
I’ll admit, I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, since I believe that a body after death is just meat and bone and the person who it once was is gone, I don’t get too worked up over what people do with dead bodies, particularly at the remove of a couple of centuries. And if there is some broader benefit for mankind that’s a good thing, right? On the other, disrespecting a person’s wishes is a shitty thing to do and it seems if you’re going to right that wrong you have to go all the way.
In the end, there’s no good answer, given the proven good that having Byrne’s skeleton around has done, although I could see a compromise – since we’ve gotten more out of him than we ever should have, maybe it’s time to say “thanks” and let the guy rest? It’s the least we can do for cousin Charlie.
Sometimes, you just want to say a little about some interesting things . . .
On March 15, 1921, a man named Soghomon Tehlirian stepped up to a former high-ranking Turkish official, Talaat Pasha, and shot him dead. At his trial, Tehlirian told of how he had witnesses the murder of his family as part of the Armenian Genocide and had taken the chance to kill Pasha for his role in it (he’d been convicted of his complicity in absentia after World War I). Actor and writer Eric Bogosian thought that story would make a great movie and started writing a screenplay, only to find in his research that Tehlirian didn’t act alone, but was one part of a wide ranging conspiracy called Operation Nemesis to seek some measure of justice for those killed during the genocide. Bogosian wound up writing this book, which is plenty fascinating, but doesn’t quite live up to its goal of getting deep inside the conspiracy, focusing mostly on Tehlerian and his particular act. Fun fact – Bogosian was in Atom Egoyan’s brilliant Ararat, which is partly about making a movie about the Armenian Genocide – he plays the screenwriter.
Every holiday season my wife TiVos just about every Christmas movie she can find and I’m always interested in something that’s older that I haven’t seen before. This one (from 1947) is one of the weirder holiday movies I’ve ever seen. Cary Grant plays an angel who comes to the aid of the titular bishop, mostly by wooing his wife (in some markets it was billed Cary and the Bishop’s Wife so as to not seem too religious). I’m not kidding. The bishop makes promises to do all sorts of thing with his wife, but has to cancel to go beg for money to build a pointless cathedral, so Cary steps in and does it all. I kind of like the theory floated by gpph at Rate Your Music that Cary might actually be a demon, more than an angel – that probably would have been a better movie! Still, this is a Christmas movie with precious little of “there’s only one proper way to celebrate Christmas and we’ll beat you over the head with it until you conform,” so that’s a major plus in my book.
I really really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (and her recent work to get her divorce cited on her Wikipedia page) and so was a little disappointed with Sea of Tranquility. It starts really well, laying out multiple timelines and a singular bit of weirdness that appears to link them all. When things lose steam, for me, is when we get deep into the time travel stuff at the book’s core, which I just don’t find that compelling (it’s wrapped around the “what if we’re living in a simulation, man?” speculation and at least comes to the correct answer – who cares!). That said, Mandel is just great on a scene level and there are really excellent bits here and there that make it worth the (relatively short) read.
This Hulu series (18 episodes over two seasons so far) has been on our radar for a while, but we only got around to actually digging into it recently. Thankfully, it’s as brilliant as the reviews made it out to be. It’s about four Native American teenagers on a reservation in Oklahoma dealing not only with the regular realities of life, but also the suicide of their best friend, which hangs over the series thus far. If that makes it sound depressing and serious it can certainly be serious (and touching – a scene in the second season finale made me choke up), but it’s hilariously funny in other parts, as well.