So far, my tour of world mythologies has been mostly about showing everyone a glimpse of the world outside of our typical fantasy genre offerings. And along the way it’s easy to notice similarities that abound. People try to explain the animals they encounter in the wilderness, they try to explain the weather, they share a fear of death or of the idea that the dead may remain. Some of them may combine aspects to become things such as a rainbow which is really a massive serpent, or a cobra which holds the earth aloft. Come to think of it, a lot of mythologies involve the general idea of “snakes”.
But the similarities make sense: our cultures have intermingled at one time or another throughout history. We not only respond to the world that we know, but the world others have known. Shared fears and shared concepts bleed across borders and vast distances. And, as I spoke of last time, at least one culture is so intermixed with every other culture around them that we hardly know them while still knowing almost everything about them. The Amazigh are, for all intents and purposes, the Beatles of Mediterranean mythology.
But what happens when you take a culture and stick it in a place where there’s nothing to really interact with. Put people on a set of small, tropical islands off the west coast of Africa, away from the empires and constant movements of the Mediterranean seas, and what do you get? Well, you get people who have the most distilled essence of what mythology looks like when there is no need to explain the gods of other people. You get a people who have no Mongols, Hippos or invading drunken barbarians to worry about. In fact, while it remains true that a major driving force behind mythology is what scares or confuses people, only one thing has ever really scared or confused the aboriginal natives of the Canary Islands:
You don’t know it, but right now there’s a war going on for the soul of the publishing industry. It’s been fought long and hard and there have been casualties: bookstores, newspapers, the hope that any doctor’s office would update their reading selection. All in all, it’s not gone well for anyone. But the war rages on and recently it escalated because two powers decided to mobilize everything they got at each other.
It started back with that price fixing thing I was pissed off about a while back. Several book publishers had decided among themselves to fix the prices of eBooks so they could try to make sure that none of them had to actually compete to sell a book. They effectively made the rest of us look like assholes and idiots for running our book prices as low as we could while laughing and forcing the consumer to pay more for each copy.
I hated them.
But then they got busted and they started to fold pretty quickly. One of the chief forces behind this was Amazon, who realized that their ebook market was the most successful ebook market out there and that they were making mountains of cash off of it. So someone threatening those mountains of cash by working behind their backs just would not do. Amazon went after them and everyone started to play ball except for one publisher: Hachette.
Hachette huffed and puffed and refused to drop its prices like everyone else. So Amazon decided to just stop pushing Hachette books. They figured that Hachette would fold and that everything would start coming up mountains of cash again. But Hachette had a plan, they had a nuclear option that Amazon didn’t think to contend with: authors who actually make enough money to buy the GOOD ramen.
So Amazon panicked and did something that most people can agree was pretty stupid, they tried to mobilize their Indie Authors from the Kindle Direct Publishing. I mean, they were just standing around in line at the soup kitchen anyway.
Yesterday, nearly a day before my writing of this and most certainly a full day before you’re reading this, something happened that made me take pause. On August 11th of 2014, shortly before noon, Robin Williams was found dead in his home in Marin County, California. By the time news of his death had reached the media, the cause of death had already been identified as asphyxiation by suicide. We lost someone inspiring in the blink of an eye.
Robin’s family released statements as celebrity families are expected to do. His wife asked for privacy in their time of mourning and asked that we focus on his life rather than how it ended. His friends sent condolences and made statements of how much they would miss him. His daughter posted a quote that said more than anyone could have said in that space.
The media and the public did what they normally do, of course. The media immediately ignored the requests for privacy and began to literally hover helicopters over the family home in some morbid bid to catch something or someone of interest from above. The public split into its usual factions of compassion, morbid curiosity and disgusting behavior. Though most did exactly as Robin’s wife asked and focused on the joy he brought to our lives, many couldn’t stop themselves from looking or theorizing about the details of his end. It’s of little wonder that the people who knew him needed to step away from the buzz of activity so they could have their moment of peace.
Very sad, very upset, very glad I did not have to hear about this though Twitter. Probably going to be taking some time off it for a while.
— Mara Wilson (@MaraWritesStuff) August 11, 2014
But I sit here and I don’t want to know the details of how it happened. I don’t want to hear the stories of who found him. I don’t want to see the report on what sort of asphyxiation it was. Instead I sit here trying to think of how to phrase why this is one of the few stories of this kind that I feel compelled to write about. This is a hard question to answer because it requires I do, tangentially, what others are doing now in a fashion I find far more morbid.
Unfortunately, I think I need to focus on the end of his story. It is my only hope my reasons can be understood by anyone who may come across my (infinitesimally) small corner of the internet.
As a writer, I strive to be a storyteller. Above all other things, that is what Robin was. He may have been an actor, a comedian, and a fabulous human being, but he was a story teller most of all. In fact, he was the kind of story teller that I think a lot of us should strive to be – a man who could draw you into what he was saying and make you follow him no matter what detour it may take. And, because he was more than just an actor or comedian, I think many of us in the creative community can say that he was one of us.
He’ll be voicing Baloo the bear. Yeah, Bill Murray is going to be the bear that sang “Bear Necessities” in the (first) Disney movie. Right now people are hopeful this “live action” business is CG animals surrounding a live child because very few people want to see Bill Murray in a bear suit.
It’s to be expected in today’s environment: we’re doing live action remakes of everything right now. Far be it for me to jump onto the anti-remake bandwagon – I actually get excited about some remakes. But what we have here is a trend where we’re taking films that were specifically more interesting as animated features in order to make them more profitable by appealing to a more adult audience. Frankly, a movie with talking animals is rarely a good idea in anything other than animation.
Disney knew this too. The last time they took a swing at a live action Jungle Book movie they did it with trained animals and Jason Scott Lee doing most of the translating of body language as a more adult Mowgli.
It’s clear here what’s starting to happen. After the success of projects like Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, and Maleficent; Disney has become enamored with the idea that CG with live actors cuts down on the pesky task of drawing films. And nothing quite proves it like another project they supposedly have on the burner… Dumbo.
Let your potential aneurysm pass and click the jump.
WTF is Disney Doing Making a Live Action Dumbo?!
Dumbo is the story of a young circus elephant who could fly. Though he believed it to be the power of a magic feather, the truth was that his over-sized ears were keeping him aloft and that the ability was in him all along. Helped by his friend, a mouse named Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo becomes one of the leading acts of the circus and is reunited with his mother as they live happily ever after in the circus.
It’s not exactly a complicated story.
So my question is simple: what the hell do you need a live action version for? The majority of Dumbo’s speaking roles, like the Jungle Book, were animals. The animals are thus going to either not speak or, if they do speak, be animated with CG. Dumbo himself is clearly going to be animated with CG because no amount of lift is going to get an actual elephant off the ground.
That means that the only reason they are going live action rather than fully animated is that they’re going to cast some actors into the human roles. These characters played an important role in that short but sweet movie about the conflict within the circus elephant hierarchy and Dumbo’s quest to get back to his mother. Why, without the human characters of Dumbo, you’d be missing a whole one speaking human character.
So of course, the goal here is to get a big name into the role of the Ringmaster like they did with Angelina Jolie, James Franco, and Johnny Depp. But you’d probably have a problem getting an A-lister to be the human star of a movie where their role would be the human tormentor of the innocent elephant calf that’s just trying to fly and be together with its mother. In fact, I’d go so far to say that they’re going to rewrite the film entirely to be about the human characters rather than the titular elephant. But, of course, I could be wrong and it’s entirely possible that the creative team being brought onto this have a good grasp on how to create a good supporting cast of humans without watering down their fantastic titular character. Who did we get for this?
Okay! So you’ve got a scenario where you’re dealing with a remake of an animated classic where the odds are very likely that you’re going to flip the narrative to focus on the very expensive human actors you’re about to shoehorn into it. And the man who you’ve entrusted with the screenplay of this endeavor is Ehren Kruger, a member of the crack writing team that introduced us to such rich characters as…
Girl who bends over cars
Girl who stares into space
Their boyfriend, screaming wind-up meat puppet
The Peter Cullen Quote Machine™
And the only likeable character in the franchise: car robot with no dialogue.
I’d almost be willing to take bets right now on whether or not this film clocks in under 50% on Rotten Tomatoes if it weren’t for the fact I knew everyone would be going safe money with “rotten”. Yes, there’s a chance that it could turn out better than that, but I’m not confident with one of the crew behind Michael Bay’s Transformers. The worst part is that Kruger wasn’t even involved in the passable original Transformers which was dumb but fun. No, Ehren first contributed to the franchise in Revenge of the Fallen. That’s right, this man first entered the franchise in the same movie that managed to show us a set of characters considered so stereotypical that they’re best compared to the crows from the original Dumbo.
To say that I lack confidence in Kruger’s ability to make deep characters wouldn’t be doing it justice: given his filmography, I’d almost trust Freddy Krueger more with a children’s movie. The reason I point out the similarity in names to such a famous horror icon is precisely because of that filmography. Ehren’s other major film contributions have included the likes of Scream 3 and 4, The Ring, The Ring Two, and (scariest of them all) The Brothers Grimm. This man hasn’t touched something heart warming and inspiring in his career as far as I can tell.
I’m going to give him some credit though and go ahead to assume he’s not going to try to turn Dumbo into a thriller about killer elephants. So here’s what I want you to do right now: save this page and write yourself a note to come back to this page when the movie finally releases. I’m going to put my pride where my mouth is and write down a prediction right now as to what the basic premise of this film is going to be. I am so confident in the fact Kruger can not be more original than this that, if I am wrong, I will write an open letter apology to Kruger where I proclaim my respect and admiration for his body of work. So I want someone to remind me of this when this film releases if he’s still attached to is so I can pay up if this is wrong.
Dumbo is the new born elephant of a down on its luck circus. Passed down through generations, this circus is on the verge of closing as the modern world passes by the simple circus life. The newest ringmaster, Sexy McSexypants (name to be determined), is young, inexperienced and desperate to save his family legacy. The bank, ready to foreclose, is breathing down his neck – sending an overbearing and difficult man to act as their proxy. McSexypants is assisted in this by his love interest, the compassionate animal-handler/sexy lion tamer/graceful acrobat (pick one) as they try everything they can to save his family’s business. Through random chance, they find that the youngest elephant, Dumbo, has the ability to fly and plan to use it to save the circus for years to come by using him as the new lead act.
Seriously, when this movie releases, if someone contacts me and shows me that I’m wrong about this, I will write that open letter of apology. But I’m pretty confident in this. I know it’s bad form to throw another writer under the bus (especially one who’s been a producer for a few films). But, if you’re going to flip the script on something like this, it probably helps to get the guy most likely to make this work. And as for whether or not the plot outline I just laid out would be a bad movie? Not necessarily, it could even be decent. But let’s just say…
(I write books. If the plot synopsis is inaccurate, I’ll also write an apology to Ehren Kruger if he’s still attached to the project. Be there!)
Though I’m a novelist first, I tend to blog a lot about screenwriting, animation, comics and other forms of writing as well. This is because I approach the subject as that all storytelling is essentially part of the same field of study. The way I see it, understanding the way story is told in one format will help you understand storytelling in others as well. Someone who takes an acting class will understand how a character thinks. Someone who studies films will understand visual impact. Someone who studies novels will understand letting a scene breathe. As I told a friend of mine several times, “everything is Kung Fu.”
This means that when things happen in one of these worlds, it really kind of impacts every world of writing in a way. If someone like Stephen King were to die, I’m sure there would be just as many people talking about the movies based on his books as there would be about his books. If JK Rowling were to go into screenwriting, everyone would be watch-…oh wait, that’s right.
So when word came down that Studio Ghibli, one of the greatest anime studios of all time, was possibly closing down – I took notice. Hell, who didn’t take notice?
But it dawned on me in those moments that I held something of a controversial opinion on this. Some people were shouting “NOOO” in dramatic Darth Vader fashion (button provided), and others were panicking about the end of good anime for all time to come. But me? I realized it was time to dig up the old Masochist Mondays tag and blow the dust off of an old image of mine.
A few months ago I started my mythological world tour with the premise that fantasy, specifically epic fantasy, was usually fairly Euro-centric. The basic premise was to start pointing at different regions of the world, selecting a handful of interesting stories, and wetting your appetite for the concept of possibly using these regions in your own writing. It’s gone well – I’ve covered Asia, Australia, and Egypt. But then I ran into a really strange speed-bump.
The region around Egypt has several other cultures that have existed there, some of them absorbed into what we’ll refer to as the “Crusade belt” and thus folded into the greater fantasy genre already. But others are a little more confusing and a little more subtle. For instance, the kingdom of Kush to the south of Egypt was for a very long time considered to actually just be a subset of Egypt. Only in recent times has Kush been considered by some scholars to be a distinct group of people who had a culture sufficiently different enough to be worth study. This means that even if I wanted to talk about Kush’s culture, there’s no real information for me to use except: “it’s, kind of like Egypt, but not.” On the other hand, another culture existed to the west of Egypt in what is now modern day Libya known by many as the Berbers but referring to themselves as the Amazigh. And the story of the Amazigh is… complicated.
Honestly, how the fuck do I explain the Amazigh?
I considered skipping the Amazigh and declaring that Egypt was enough to cover what could be called “North Africa”. But looking into them made me realize just how stupid the Euro-centric model in epic fantasy actually is. Over the course of thousands of years, the Amazigh were kind of a melting pot and test-bed of cultures from all around their corner of the Mediterranean. Not sharing the background of how these cultures intermixed would be allowing the process to be ignored and let people miss the fact that all of these cultures are interconnected on some level.