Monday, August 15, 2016

"Today's all-action film heroine is rough, tough and putting leading men to the sword"/ "Crime writing gets a new dynamic duo"

May 18, 2016 "Today's all-action film heroine is rough, tough and putting leading men to the sword": I cut out this article in the National Post on Jun. 6, 2012:  

Brave girls are everywhere this year. If it’s not Katniss Everdene flexing her bow against the Capitol in The Hunger Games, it's Kristen Stewart’s Snow White versus Charlize Theron’s Wicked Stepmother, and the Scottish warrior-princess in Pixar’s much-anticipated fairy tale, Brave. At multiplex cinemas across the country, heroines are sweeping the board.

Surely we should be delighted by all these strong, bold, female archetypes? When I was a teenager back in the 1970s, you had to look to classics such as His Girl Friday and All About Eve to find women who were brave, clever and spirited. From the 1960s onwards – with the exception of Diana Rigg in The Avengers – women in film were there, according to Hollywood and the BBC, to look pretty and be vulnerable. Any action that was not about sex and romance involved screaming, running away in high heels or swooning.

Then entertainment caught up with feminism, and along came a slew of remarkable female roles: Ripley in Alien, Sarah Connor in Terminator, Disney’s Belle and Mulan. They set a precedent for hundreds of heroines who were not only as intelligent and strong-willed as the men in the story, but more so. Less nuanced than the heroine, less intelligent and usually weaker, the conventional hero seems now to be in greater danger than the Siberian tiger.

Next week sees the release of Universal Pictures’ Snow White and the Huntsman. Instead of a mild little thing who keeps house for seven dwarves and charms woodland animals (and the prince) with her sweet singing and gentleness, here we meet an action heroine who is far more appealing to contemporary tastes. Dressed in shining armour, the new Snow White will not be doing any housework; and it is she – rather than the uncouth Huntsman of the title – who will call the shots against her wicked stepmother by going into battle.

It is not the first time that we’ve seen a resourceful, resilient, tough-talking Snow White recently. In Mirror Mirror, released earlier this year, the wimpish – though good-looking – prince finds himself more than once in humiliating circumstances. Indeed, he and Snow White meet for the first time when, having escaped the clutches of her evil stepmother, she rescues him from a troupe of robbers (the seven dwarves on stilts).

There is no question that Katniss, the heroine of the box-office hit The Hunger Games, is a better fighter, hunter and survivor than the gentle, blond Peeta, whose special skill is to camouflage himself using techniques learnt decorating cakes in his father’s bakery. Avatar’s lunkheaded Jake has to be rescued and re-educated by the Na’vi princess he falls for. In Studio Ghibli’s ravishing adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, the tiny Arietty is a bold and daring explorer while the boy who becomes her friend is ill and weak and awaiting a heart operation (not the case in the books). Even Aragorn in the film of Lord of the Rings has been made fallible in a way that Tolkien never indicated. Though he may be the closest thing we now have to an old-fashioned hero, he is openly tormented by self-doubt, and afraid of being corrupted by a hereditary moral “weakness” in his blood.

All of this is good fun for girls, but rather less so for boys. As yet another feisty female bounces on to the screen, eyes blazing and bow twanging, our sons have some excuse for grunting dismally and returning to the all-male worlds of Call of Duty or an old Arnold Schwarzenegger DVD.

What is going on? Do heroes and heroines have to be like cable cars, with one in the ascendant while the other descends? Scriptwriters have long realised that flawed heroes with emotional attachments and scars make for more interesting characters, but the contrast between weak hero and fearless heroine is so marked that it suggests a shift in the way boys and men are being perceived. The penetration of feminism into popular consciousness would be an excellent thing if it meant girls and women were shown to be equal to men – but this is closer to inequality. Could it amount, as some have always feared, to the emasculation and feminisation of the male sex?

The hero and the heroine have always reflected and amplified the ideal of what we wish to become, and to celebrate. Yet I can’t help feeling that a good deal is missing from modern male leads. My generation of menfolk grew up idolising James Bond, Hans Solo, Clint Eastwood and Indiana Jones. The epitome of charm, daring and cool, they seemed more confident and just as intriguing as characters do today, even while upholding traditional chivalric virtues such as honour, compassion, duty and self-restraint.

Perhaps I am biased in believing that the best men still reflect these qualities, but the hero as a cultural ideal does matter. Is it old-fashioned to wish for a return to a slightly less angst-ridden, more self-assured form of heroism? Is there anywhere it can still be found? It’s notable that the success of Game of Thrones, HBO’s riveting adaptation of George R Martin’s series of epic novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, has spread like wildfire among the males, even if they generally dislike fantasy. It appeals for many reasons, but one is surely the portrait it paints of a world in which men are men – which is to say, heroes. Heaven knows, we could do with more in real life, too.

May 23, 2016 "Crime writing gets a new dynamic duo": I cut out this article by Alison Gzowski in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 24, 2010:

Open The Postcard Killers and at first you might wonder if you've stumbled on some missing Stieg Larsson novel - or at least an attempt to cash in on the extraordinary success of the trilogy that began with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Brutal killers are on the loose in Stockholm. A journalist has teamed up with a member of the opposite sex and the duo thinks they know more about tracking murderers than the cops. One of the main characters even bears the surname Larsson. And there are the requisite references to coffee and sandwiches.
But the author of the latest Scandinavian thriller to hit bookstores hardly needs a push from Larsson to move stock.

The story - about an amoral couple who seduce and murder holidaying victims - unfolds in brief chapters characteristic of James Patterson. Yes, that one: the man who last week topped Forbes' list of the highest paid writers in the world. In the 12 months leading up to June alone, the American novelist earned an estimated $70-million. He's sold some 170 million books.

So what's with all those Swedish twists?

Enter Liza Marklund. Patterson has teamed up with other writers for other thrillers. For this one, though, he decided to try out cross-cultural teamwork - inviting a Swedish writer to share a byline.

Patterson says he can't quite recall how the two writers came together. But he does remember that he and his international agent, Linda Michaels, had been considering a new publisher in Sweden. "I said two things interest me about what we could do: I had never worked with a European mystery writer before, and I'd never worked with a number one bestselling author before."
My strengths are a very big imagination and being a good storyteller. [My]weakness is craft James Patterson
Marklund certainly fit the bill. Although she isn't a household name in North America, her mysteries about journalist Annika Bengtzon consistently hit number one on European bestseller lists. (In Sweden, a country of about nine million, she's sold almost 900,000 books.)

And Patterson's timing was spot on. After writing 10 books in 10 years, Marklund was preparing to take a year off. She had planned to study Spanish - "I needed new thoughts in my head, to learn new things,' she says - but when the she got Patterson's offer, she thought seriously about working with the biggest thriller writer in the world "for about half a second."

For Patterson, this was a chance to get more stories out. "My strengths," he says, "are a very big imagination and being a good storyteller. [My] weakness is craft. I can do it probably better than I do, but I am less interested in that."

The resulting collaboration is so seamless, you can't tell where Patterson began or where Marklund has made any additions.

When they met in 2008 in Florida, Patterson already had a synopsis and an outline (which included enough convincing details about Stockholm that Marklund would later tell a journalist he'd been there several times; he had never been to Sweden). Marklund says she then contributed notes to the outline and more material about Sweden and its art scene.

They both say there was no friction during this process. And, contrary to most readers' assumptions, the authors agree that the rogue American policeman Jacob Kanon is more like Marklund in personality and style, while the Swedish reporter, Dessie Larsson, is closer to Patterson.

While the authors respect each other, tension between the American and the Swedes in The Postcard Killers manifests in a lively dig when the suspects have enough alibis to clear accusations, except for something only Americans would find suspicious - they visit art galleries.

And what about the long shadow that is Stieg Larsson? Patterson and Marklund began writing before his books and the film adaptations became quite such an international sensation, but each inevitably mentions him in conversation. Both say his work is not typical of Swedish crime writing - not as "quiet or realistic," says Patterson. Marklund thinks Larsson's phenomenal success has something to do with Harry Potter.

"If you think of the heroine, Salander," she says, "she has many similarities to Harry Potter. They're both orphans and intelligent, and they have magic powers. She can do anything with a computer - she can get into any computer or bank account. She's a true magician when it comes to computers. And they both navigate through evil that is related to them."

As for Larsson's success, Marklund notes that Sweden has produced a breakthrough mystery writer every 10 years. Twenty years ago it was Henning Mankell with his Wallander series. A decade later, it was, well, Liza Marklund. And 10 years from now, she predicts, there will be another Stieg Larsson.

Typically Swedish or not, Larsson's books have been able to do something others haven't: capture a huge readership on both sides of the ocean.

This is no small feat, considering the different audiences. Sweden doesn't really have commercial thrillers, says Marklund - no James Patterson, no Stephen King. Their crime books tend to the literary and, in taking on contemporary issues, expose the cracks in the social democratic state. They take their crime writing seriously (even giving one book a major book prize) and homegrown mystery writers dominate their bestseller lists.

In the United States, says Patterson, "you write a book and for the most part you can't find a journalist."

The Postcard Killers is a departure for him, he says, encompassing the "realism and social aspects of the Scandinavian [mystery]with the rip-roaring American thriller."

Asked to describe how Swedish the book is, Marklund simply says it's an American or international thriller.

Released in Sweden in late January, it was number one on bestseller lists by the next month (with the authors doing over 40 interviews in three days). It's early to gauge the North American response, but there are new deals ahead for both authors. In Sweden, four of James Patterson's books will be published within the next year (he's been published there before but without great success). In October, Liza Marklund makes her Canadian debut with Red Wolf, the latest addition to Random House Canada's World of Crime.

Perhaps the benefits of co-authoring aren't so mysterious after all.

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