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The greatest villains in cinema

Posted May 30, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A while back I did a post on villains, the different types they can be, and their function in a story. So, in the spirit of villainy, I’ve compiled a list of the greatest villains to appear in film. By no means conclusive, there’s an aim for diversity though, with a few caveats.

First, monsters are out. The nature of a monster in a story is not to be the villain, rather they are an aspect of the plot. So, no Alien. No Predator. No T-1000.  And sadly for me, no Frank Booth from Blue Velvet.

Secondly, the villain must be the villain. Which leaves out Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (though not in Hannibal, but let’s face it, that film isn’t going on any lists). No Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. No Gmork from The Neverending Story.

Lastly, the villain needs to not just be bad for the sake of it. They can’t just be an aimless foil for the hero. They need to have a reason, a drive, beyond just endless destruction and chaos. The villain needs to think they’re doing good. So, no Joker. No Stansfield from The Professional. No Voldemort.

Why the caveats? Well, why not? The list would be enormous otherwise, it was hard enough just settling on the following dirty dozen, presented here chronologically.


Hans Beckert in M

The film and the role that pushed both director Fritz Lang and actor Peter Lorre into international recognition, after both had emerged from the silent era of film in Germany. Lorre’s Beckert is the height of creepiness, whistling In The Hall of the Mountain King as he preys on small children. His final plea to the citizens is utterly awful and yet highly applicable eighty years after it was made.

 


HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey

There have been many imitators and debtors to the legacy of HAL, but nothing surpasses the demonstrably evil computer that wishes to be a real boy, and is prepared to kill everyone by lipreading just to prove its point. The monotone and the silence encapsulates HAL’s villainy perfectly, and is one of Kubrick’s greatest cinematic achievements.

 


Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Just pure evil. And evil that comes cloaked in the pretense of goodwill and therapeutic aid. Nurse Ratched is so successful as a villain, she’s practically become an archetype that extends beyond fiction and into real-life.

 


Noah Cross in Chinatown

Oh god, it’s just impossible to watch John Huston and not be terrified of him in this. Without revealing anything of a plot that benefits from not being revealed, Huston’s Cross is a hideous portrayal of a villain who’s not just bad, they’re bad in all the ways a person can be bad.

 


Antonio Salieri in Amadeus

An odd villain in that he narrates his villainy to us wholesale, acknowledging how he is the one doing all the bad things to his rival Mozart, but F.Murray Abraham plays Salieri with such conflict glee, destroying that which he loves because he hates himself. It’s a masterclass of characterisation, showing how we can all be the bad guy, when faced with our own insecurities.

 


Michael Corleone in The Godfather Parts 1 & 2

Similar to Salieri, in that we’re with Michael all the way – from his innocent soldier boy to his isolated and lonely conclusion – but his story is one that documents the steps a character takes into becoming the villain of the piece. One could look at any number of the scenes where Michael navigates his way through the the criminal underworld, but really it’s in his scenes with Kay and how he treats his family that the character is most horrific.

 


Annie Wilkes in Misery

Mark and I went on about how great Kathy Bates was as Annie Wilkes the other day, and she’s probably my favourite villain in this list. Other than the imprisonment and psychological torture, and despite the hobbling scene, the thing that makes her quite possibly the scariest one of the lot is that she’s a villain who just loves books. That’s all. She just wants more books. Give her books, or else.

 


The Grand High Witch in The Witches

It’s a hard balance to get a villain terrifying in a story made for children, and not have it tip over into cartoonish and camp. This particular character gets bonus points from a lot of places. First, she comes with the source material, which is one of the more terrifying childhood reads going around. Secondly, she is terrifying both in disguise and out of it. Thirdly, Angelica Huston portrays the witch, which means the character is literally the daughter of the villain from Chinatown. Jesus.

 


Keyer Soze in The Usual Suspects

The bad guy that all the other bad guys are afraid of. A bad guy we barely even know, and can only glimpse at how far his evilness reaches, but you have to credit the villain who is able to sacrifice everything for his mission. Too many antagonists are brought down by their pride, or their sentimental weakness, but not Soze.

Also, how long is the statute of limitations on The Usual Suspects? Can we talk about it yet?

 


Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven

This is how villains should be written. Absolutely committed to his self-belief that he is the hero, he is the good guy in this story, Little Bill is completely staggered at the final realisation that the laws of narrative don’t work the way he thoughts they did. And what did he want? A house. He wanted to build a house. Such a good bad guy.

 


Max Cady in Cape Fear

A strangely forgotten Scorcese film, despite the fact that it launched an entire sequence of Simpsons episodes. De Niro’s Cady is the supreme villain, god-like in his ability to turn up at the right places, escape every possible block Nick Nolte attempts, and in the end becomes the absolute manifestation of repressed guilt and fear. And he speaks in tongues, too.

 


Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men

A story that is essentially reflecting on the moral culpability of society that has too many villains, the Coen brothers really only needed to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s novel faithfully and they’d have a really good bad guy. Casting Javier Bardem however gave them one of the most iconic representations of evil that we’ve ever had on screen, from the haircut to the speech pattern, to the belligerent questioning way he has with every single character in the story.

 

 

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Ten reasons to be excited for the new Godzilla movie

Posted May 8, 2014 by Mark

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There’s a new Godzilla movie on the way, and I think everyone should be excited. It looks good, there are some very talented people involved, and we got so excited about Pacific Rim last year that we just have to talk about this movie.

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1. It’s directed by Gareth Edwards, whose giant monster game is strong. He directed the excellent independent sci-fi film Monsters in 2o10.

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2. Bryan Cranston is in it and he looks mad. Hoping he goes the full Heisenberg at some point.

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3. Godzilla looks like Godzilla and not some random lizard (I’m looking at you, 1997 Godzilla).

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4. There is at least one giant monster fight. Well, in the trailer there’s a moment where Ken Watanabe says, ‘Let them fight’. I assume he’s talking about giant monsters and not Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.

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5. This shot of Godzilla roaring in the rain.

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6. The trailer uses the choral theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey so it gets automatic nerd bonus points.

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7. There hasn’t been any silly effort to keep the look of the monster secret, so we can all focus more on the epic level of destruction.

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8. It looks more like a disaster movie than an action movie with giants.

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9. The biggest Godzilla ever. Literally.

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10. Godzilla’s roar. Just listen to it!

Looking back on this list it’s apparent that most of my reasons for seeing this film are variations on ‘Godzilla roars’ but you must admit that it’s a compelling roar. In fact, this film could just be 90 minutes of Godzilla roaring in different environments and I’d probably still be satisfied.

 

If you’re in the mood for an awesome monster story, you should preorder Gorgon by Greig Beck. Available June 10 where all good ebooks are sold. An ancient evil has awoken….

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Should I keep reading?

Posted May 5, 2014 by Mark

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As avid readers, we’re often faced with the dilemma of what to do when life attempts to crash our reading time. Sometimes there are practical reasons to stop reading. Sometimes there are ethical reasons. And sometimes you should just keep reading.

1. Someone asks, “What are you reading?”

KEEP READING My significant other asked me this the other night. I tilted my book slightly so she could see the title on the cover but didn’t engage in conversation.

2. Someone sustains an injury

DEPENDS Look up, see if they’re ok. If they are, keep reading. If not, gauge the level of injury before putting your book down. Bruises = keep reading. Any blood = sigh and make a show of putting your book down, so they are aware of what an idiot they are. Broken bones = ok, stop.

3. Your phone rings

KEEP READING The sooner the caller learns to send a text like a normal person, the better. You’re giving them a valuable life lesson.

4. Someone offers you food

PUT THE BOOK DOWN Always go with the food. Bonus points if it’s free food.

5. You approach your destination

PUT THE BOOK DOWN I cannot tell you how many times I’ve missed my stop when I’ve been reading on public transport.

6. Someone invites you out to do something ‘fun’

KEEP READING Ok first of all, I’m reading and reading is delightful. And second, all the fun stuff happens indoors, everyone knows that.

7. Someone offers you a drink

DEPENDS Assess the caffeine/alcohol content first. If someone is interrupting your reading time to offer you water or juice or some other lame drink, don’t even look up.

8. There is something good on TV

KEEP READING That’s not a good reason to put your book down. Unless it’s Star Trek, then it depends. Keep reading if it’s the original series, Voyager or Enterprise. Put the book down for The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.

9. Your significant other/parent/roommate will get angry if you don’t put your book down

KEEP READING Everyone knows the secret to successfully living with another person is to find something you do that annoys them and do it as often as you can.

10.  You’re about to be arrested

KEEP READING A dose of escapism is probably what you need right now.

 

 

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Five tips for aspiring science fiction writers

Posted April 28, 2014 by Charlotte McConaghy

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1. World Building: What if this continues?

Whether you do this as your first job or your last, building your world carefully and meticulously is one of the most important aspects of all spec-fiction. This doesn’t just apply to fantasy writers who can literally make up new worlds and therefore have both more freedoms and more difficulties in the task, but to science-fiction writers, horror writers—all spec-fic writers. Making changes to our existing world can feel a bit like a trap, but as long as you think as honestly and as logically as possible, you shouldn’t have too many people yelling ‘that doesn’t make sense!’ (Who are we kidding—there will always be some.)

Science-fiction exists to teach, engage, inspire, warn, excite and frighten. If something frightens you about the world, then chances are it will frighten others. Ask yourself What if this continues? What if these actions, or this train of thought, or this behavior continues? What will it mean for the world? (For example what if we really do become capable of singularity—that one really freaks me out.) And then let your imagination run wild. And you aren’t only tapping into fear, but wonder, awe, beauty. Take us up and forward and give us new realities that are based on what we know, what we desire, what we fear. Peel back the layers of comfort and show us what hides in the shadows of the world—and in the dark interiors of ourselves.

Human hubris is an important theme in science-fiction, for what frightens and excites us most as humans is our obsession with progress—an aspect of humanity that will never fade or die. We didn’t learn from Icaris who flew too high and died for it. We know this. We fear this. And that’s why we write about it: to teach, engage, inspire, warn, excite and frighten.

So use yourself as the test—whatever it is that engages you as a person will be what you use to shape your world. Really challenge yourself to think deeply, allow yourself to be confronted and inspired, because there’s no use in building a world that won’t provoke your readers.

 

2. Multiple POV and Time Periods

I personally love multiple points of view—I would never be able to write an entire novel from the one perspective, but that’s just a personal preference. If you’re trying to work out whether or not to use multiple POV, perhaps understanding the benefits will help you decide.

The main one, for me, is being able to see a character—particularly a protagonist inside whose head we’ve just inhabited—from another character’s perspective. Give the reader an intimate insight into what a character is thinking, and then let us see how another perceives them. There’s a great gap inherent in that—how are they really coming across? How do their actions make other people feel? It paints a more thorough picture, one with more complexity—because we are never quite what we seem to others. You also learn an awful lot about the second character, their perceptions and what they are managing to interpret in the protagonist.

It all boils down to the fact that as readers, we want to know the characters of the world, without having them all blurt out every little thing they’re thinking—there’s nothing worse than too much expositional dialogue. Having multiple POV allows for more subtext between characters and conflicting perspectives, which will help you to argue your premise.

Multiple time periods is another interesting tool that can be put to use. It sounds like it’s going to be confusing and it is, but there’s a simple trick to it. There are two rules to using multiple time periods: first, only use two different periods and work out the chronological events of both timelines separately. Second, move between the two time periods by only cutting away from one at a cliffhanger or twist. That way no matter how great one time period is, readers will be itching to know what’s going on in the other—and that’s the main point of having two running simultaneously: you get to create more tension, more intrigue. Which brings us to the number one reason people keep reading: to know what’s going to happen next.

 

3. Research

Science-fiction tends to fit within a scale of soft to hard science. Hard meaning real science that exists in the world today; soft meaning made up science that can often lean more towards fantasy. There is no right or wrong—both are just as valid as the other. But regardless of whether or not you’re writing hard or soft fantasy, I can’t stress the importance of researching enough. You don’t have to lay it on too thick in the book—we’re not reading a research paper—but it’s really great for you as the author to know what’s going on behind the scenes in the engine of the book. This will come through in drips and drabs and make the world feel more authentic.

 

4. Character

Character is key. It is everything. The most imaginative and clever worlds will fail to engage readers if you don’t also have fantastic characters to live within these worlds. When I wrote Fury, my protagonist Josephine existed long before I had the idea of a society with negative emotions being erased. She existed outside this world, helped to shape her surrounds, and gave birth to every tiny aspect of the science-fiction within the book.

Your character must be flawed. They must have desires and fears and contradictions, but you also have to think about how these elements of the character reflect and counterpoint the flaws of the world. The struggle your protagonist goes through on their journey should hold within it the premise of the world, the argument you are posing. If you can embody the theme of your story within your character, you have done the hardest and most important job of all.

Don’t forget, also, little things like having romantic characters who challenge the character to live in their essence—who they really are—instead of in the false identity they create and must eventually shed. The romantic character, as well as the antagonist, will force your protagonist to learn something, and you want readers to learn with them.

Take as much care with your side characters as you do with your main characters. Make them distinct and complex. Allow their qualities to be varying. Give them opinions and beliefs and fears that flesh them out as characters and they will in turn flesh out your world.

And lastly, make sure your protagonist is active. Give them something to do, a goal or desire that is properly motivated and compelling, and then make it really, really difficult for the character to achieve that end. It’s only by throwing problems at them that we can learn who they really are—the choices a character makes are the embodiments of their personality. The harder you make these choices, the more pressure you put on them, the more interesting things get.

 

5. Be Bold: Premise

What are you really trying to say? What do you want readers to think about? What do you want them to feel? What concerns you, conflicts you, makes your heart swell?

You don’t have to have all the answers—you just have to ask the questions.

And do this by being bold. Don’t concern yourself with offending anyone. Just ask the big, hard questions and demand a lot from your readers. Write ambitiously, write with passion and write with courage. Who cares what other people think? Follow your heart; it beats with as much validity as anyone else’s.

 

 

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Charlotte McConaghy is the author of Fury: Book One of The Cure, available now where all good ebooks are sold

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The most epic ways to die in space

Posted March 20, 2014 by Mark

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Ok, spoilers for several major films and TV series ahead. Space is dangerous, space is cold, space is cruel. So you have the opportunity to go out in a pretty spectacular blaze of glory if you’re a character in a science fiction story. Here are a few epic ways to kick the bucket in space.

Ok, and once more just in case….SPOILER WARNING

 

 

Heroic spacewalk sacrifice

The above clip is from the French dub of the terrible film Mission to Mars, but it’s the best scene in the entire movie. You’ve become detached from your fellow astronauts and your ship, you’re floating away and the only thing you can do is stop your friends from trying to come after you. Tim Robbins has a sure fire way to make sure that doesn’t happen.

 

Blasted out an airlock

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Poor Cally from Battlestar Galactica. She’d just uncovered the truth about the cylons hidden on the ship, but got blasted out into space before she could tell anyone. Once that airlock opens, there’s no way you can survive unless your name is Sigourney.

 

Vaporised by the Sun

This is what happens when you don’t put on the correct sunblock.

 

Give birth to an alien

John Hurt, it looks like that HURTS. See what I did there?

 

Evil computer takes you out

There were some things HAL 9000 famously couldn’t do. Opening pod bay doors for example. But there were many things he could do. Pilot a ship to Jupiter. Sing ‘Daisy’. And, of course, KILL.

 

Spaceship explosion!

Boom!

BOOM!

BOOM!!

 

 

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The best fictional diseases. Wait, worst. The worst fictional diseases.

Posted March 19, 2014 by Mark

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Flu season is almost here so I thought it would be a good time to look at some horrible diseases from fiction. Most of these will get you a lot more than three days off work…

 

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Captain Trips (The Stand by Stephen King)

A highly contagious, constantly mutating flu-like virus that is fatal in 99.4% of cases. Starts as a cough and ends in brutal death. Originally developed as a weapon.

 

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The Phage (Star Trek: Voyager)

A disease that kills off organs and other body parts, the only effective treatment is replacement of the infected organs.

 

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Greyscale (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)

A flesh-based disease that leaves its victims disfigured but can lead to madness and/or death.

 

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Bone-itis (Futurama)

“My only regret…is that I have…bone-itis!” It’s a horrific disease that, if left untreated, kills you by snapping every bone in your body.

 

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Solanum Virus (World War Z by Max Brooks)

A virus that attacks the human brain, killing the host and then reanimating them as a flesh-eating zombie.

 

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The Pulse (Cell by Stephen King)

Another brain-attacking virus, this one also turns the host into a flesh-eating zombie. But this one is spread by a mobile phone signal. Most phone companies would charge extra for that.

 

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Rage (28 Days Later)

The rage virus is highly contagious and develops in seconds, turning the victim into a mindless rage machine, driven to violence and nothing more.

 

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Vampirus (I Am Legend by Richard Matheson)

This diseases causes light-sensitivity, tooth growth, and compels its victims to drink blood and appear in bad Will Smith movies.

 

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Meningoencephalitis Virus One (Contagion)

A flu-like virus that starts as a severe cough and ends with brain haemorrhage. This movie’s tag line should have been, ‘Nothing spreads like fear. Except meningoencephalitis virus one.’

 

 

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Dave’s Syndrome (Black Books)

If a sufferer of Dave’s Syndrome is exposed to a temperature over 88°F, they’ll go on a Hulk-like rampage, usually involving a loincloth of some sort. Heat-be-gone-booties are not good at preventing an episode.

 

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Irumodic Syndrome (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

A neurological condition that degrades the synaptic pathways leading to memory loss and confusion.

 

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Uromysitisis Poisoning (Seinfeld)

A potentially fatal illness that’s caused when the victim fails to relieve themselves.

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These upcoming book-to-film adaptations should be TV series

Posted March 18, 2014 by Mark

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The Forever War

Optioned many years ago by Ridley Scott, this is one of the best science fiction novels ever written. Humans and aliens engage in a war that, due to the time dilation that occurs when travelling close to the speed of light, takes centuries to fight. The soldiers are increasingly removed from the society they’re fighting for as massive technological and social changes sweep away everything they know.

Why should it be a TV series? The story literally takes centuries to tell. It would be like a more realistic version of Battlestar Galactica or a better version of Space: Above and Beyond. There’s room to explore the complex relationships that develop between the soldiers and the pain of those bonds breaking when re-assignment means your friends will be centuries away.

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The Passage

Optioned by, of course, Ridley Scott, The Passage is a post-apocalyptic quest novel set in a world where a plague has turned most of the population of the United States into vampiric zombies. The original twelve infected patients hold a psychic influence over those who were infected via their actions, and a group of survivors decides to seek them out with the help of a seemingly immortal child.

Why should it be a TV series? It’s a massive novel that is just the first part of a trilogy that’s due to be completed at the end of this year, The Passage is a huge work, with many characters, sub-plots and backstory, with multiple narrative arcs that take place in different locations and different periods of time.

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Wool

Ridley Scott *also* bought the rights to Wool, another post-apocalyptic epic from self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey. After an environmental catastrophe, a handful of survivors live in underground silos, awaiting the day when the surface is safe once again. Wool takes place several generations after the catastrophe, where the inhabitants of the silo aren’t exactly sure what happened or what they’re waiting for, and are struggling against an oppressive regime that operates out of the silo’s IT department.

Why should it be a TV series? Wool is actually the middle story in a trilogy, with a prequel, Shift, and a sequel, Dust. There’s a lot of world-building that goes into making the silo societies seem believable and there are many supporting characters and groups that could stand to be explored in more depth in a series.

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The Girl Who Played With Fire/The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

After the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo underperformed at the box office, the two sequels were put in limbo. The first one made enough that these films are still in development, but not enough to fast track them. The shame is that while the successful Swedish adaptations did a great job with the first film, the sequels left a lot to be desired.

Why should they be a TV series? The original Swedish films were intended for release as TV seasons, and after seeing True Detective, it’s clear that a 6-8 episode run for each of these stories could yield some spectacular results. With more and more film actors turning to TV, it’s not even that unrealistic to imagine Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig reprising their roles from the film.

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Ready Player One 

This is a brilliant novel that takes 80s nostalgia and creates a thrilling and riveting narrative. In the not-too distant future, most people spend their time in the OASIS, a virtual reality system developed by an enigmatic billionaire. When the billionaire dies, a contest begins. Whoever can decipher the clues and defeat the challenges hidden in the OASIS will win control of it. It’s a race against the clock for a loose fellowship of individual players to defeat a highly organised and ruthless corporation that wants to win control and remake the OASIS as they see fit.

Why should it be a TV series? Again, there’s a lot of world building that needs to be done, and the references to 1980s popular culture are so dense that they’d probably need a little more room to breathe in a filmed adaptation. The episodic nature of the events as they unfold would also lend it towards a longer adaptation.

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Robopocalypse

This novel about the survivors of a robot uprising is currently on Steven Spielberg’s to-do list. Robopocalypse is the World War Z of robot novels, a history of the individuals who made it, many of them from different parts of the world, facing very different threats. There are some spectacular set pieces, and some very cool stories.

Why should it be a TV series? The fact that the narrative is episodic, with each part about different characters in different locations, means that it would hang together better. And there’s room for even more stories to be told in this world,  as all the varieties of robot could be explored in-depth.

 

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How Not To Write A Novel

Posted March 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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After looking back last week at the tools and teaching on writing that I received at university, I was struck at how much of the following years has been a process of undoing. Having to spend the good part of a decade taking an autodidactic approach to writing is not necessarily unusual, but an approach that in hindsight would have been better served by better education.

Too much time was spent ignoring or resisting natural inclinations because they had been ingrained in to me that there was a particular way to write, a particular voice and quality to the words and the story, and that every effort I made was measured against this standard. So, in the spirit of offering hope and guidance, here’s the way I don’t approach writing anymore.

Disclaimer: I am guilty of all of these.

1. Pretend to be a different writer

This is crucial. As mentioned, we often spend too long trying to write ‘good’ writing. And we measure that against notions of what is ‘good’, as promoted by critical acclaim, reviews, sales and – of course – by those we learn from.

By trying to be what somebody else thinks is good is case of putting the cart before the horse. We end up trying to emulate a particular style or story that has already worked, and ignore impulses to deviate. What we’re doing is ignoring ourselves.

Read a lot, and write a lot. If you find out what you like to read, chances are they’re the type of stories you like. Chances are, they’re the kind of stories you might like to tell. Follow your impulses.

2. Finish before starting

This can manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, by excessively planning. Planning and planning and planning. It’s the ultimate procrastination, because it feels like work, and it feels like writing. But at some point it becomes overblown, and overdone, and there’s nothing left to write anymore. There are ten thousand ways to write a story, and over-planning can leave you trying all of them before actually making a start.

Secondly, explaining everything about your story to everyone else. This happens when the enthusiasm for the planned story is so great that we just have to tell someone. Everyone. And then we lose it, because all the energy and excitement goes into the telling, and it never seems as great when we start to put it on the page.

3. The art of reorganising a desk

In other words, deprioritising the writing. Everything else is irrelevant, unless we’re writing. But somehow we find a way to make up every available excuse to prevent us actually starting, because that it the most terrifying thing in this whole process.

We become irresponsible school kids, explaining that the reason why we haven’t started the novel yet is because the dog ate the desk, and now you need a new one from Ikea, but that’ll take a while to put together because Allen keys are frustrating things, and there was a piece missing, and now you’re not sure if that’s the room you want the desk in anyway, perhaps a minimalist aesthetic would increase the clarity of your writing, and guess what? Not a word was written. Not one.

4. Edit first, write later

What we do when we finally start the damn novel, is write a great first chapter, but then start to edit it. Because it could be better. It can always be better.

And guess what? We end up rewriting that forever, for all eternity, because in editing it we’re not just calling into question our writing choices in that chapter, but all the choices we were going to make about the entire novel. We’re chopping trees down when they’re still saplings.

6. Frontloading

But say we start to write, and we write that first chapter and we resist editing because we’re good writers. Easy, right?

Nope. What we’ve ended up doing is putting every great idea we ever had into the first chapter, as if we’re trying to write The Bible, Das Kapital, Ulysses and A Brief History of Time all at once. But I get why we do this. We’re so enthralled at our ability to finally put words down on a page, we become worried we won’t get to do this again. So we put everything in.

The solution is: write more. This one thing that we’re writing is not the only thing we write, so long as we keep writing. There’ll be more time later to explain the universe.

7. Lie

By this I mean: we lie about the word count, about our progress to our friends/spouses/waiters/strange men at the train station. We lie about how great it is, how bad it is, how we’re nearly finished, we’re just tinkering, about what kind of story it is, what kind of story it isn’t, and when it’s going to be done.

This isn’t complex psychology. We’re lying to ourselves. And we need to stop it. Because it means we’re lying on the page, and we need to write truthfully.

8. Do anything but write the damn novel

So we stop pretending, we stop with the distractions and the procrastinating, we stop questioning ourselves as we go, and we start actually writing the book. Because that’s the only thing that will work.

There are a million ways to not write a novel, there’s only one way to write it.

 

 

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Nine reasons to be excited about Jurassic World

Posted February 27, 2014 by Mark

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The long-awaited fourth instalment in the Jurassic Park franchise is about to start filming. If you’re anything like me, this fills you with a joy so profound you can’t really describe it. Here are a few reasons you should be getting excited.

1. It’s been a really long time since there was a good dinosaur movie

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21 years to be exact…

 

2. Chris Pratt is the lead actor

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I’d love to see him do the role as Andy from Parks and Recreation.

 

3. It will form part of the 2015 orgy of nostalgia

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Between this and Star Wars Episode 7, we’re all going to feel like 12 year olds with no friends again!

 

4. The director is Colin Trevorrow

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Who made the charming time travel film Safety Not Guaranteed, with another Parks & Rec star, Aubrey Plaza.

 

5. It’s not the ‘mutated dinosaurs being trained for the military’ storyline that was talked about a few years back

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While the exact details of the story aren’t known, it’s definitely not that.

 

6. It promises to show the park as a successful, functioning theme park

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You were always curious as to what the park could have been had it succeeded and now you’ll know!

 

7. It’s a sequel, not a reboot

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Although the suits at Universal would have been tempted to go for a complete do-over, this way there’s still a chance that Jeff Goldblum or Sam Neill could turn up.

 

8. The screenplay is based on a script by the writing duo behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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Now there was a reboot that offered a fresh, inventive take on an established franchise.

 

9. Velociraptors 

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Clever girl.

 

 

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In the mood for more dinosaurs? Greig Beck’s The First Bird is  Jurassic Park meets The Walking Dead and has just been nominated for an Aurealis Award for best horror novel! 

 

 

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Great opening lines from thrillers

Posted February 10, 2014 by Mark

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We’ve done science fiction, fantasy and horror novels. Now, we turn our attention to some great opening lines from thrillers. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!

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“I was arrested at Eno’s diner.”Killing Floor by Lee Child

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“The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim never would have come to Thursgood’s at all.”Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John LeCarre

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“Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still, bare trees, a spaceship come to earth.”What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

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“Behavioural science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.”The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

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“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I ever saw her, it was the back of her head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel, or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.”Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

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“Johnny Merton was playing with me, and we both knew it. It was a fun game for him. He was doing endless years for crimes ranging from murder and extortion to excessive litigation. He had a lot of time on his hands.”Hardball by Sara Paretsky

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“She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a bed with a steel frame.”The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

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“Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself.”Child 44 Tom Rob Smith

 

 

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Some awesome space moments from cinema

Posted by Mark

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It’s Monday morning and I’m nerding out. Here are some brilliant space moments from cinema. Let me know if you have any suggestions in the comments!

2001: A Space Odyssey

This sequence, ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’, really delves into the awe and mystery of space in a way no other film ever has. Breathtaking visuals represent a true journey into the unknown.

Gravity

The opening sequence is best watched in 3D at Imax and is pretty much guaranteed to leave your jaw on the floor. From the beautiful shot of the shuttle from a distance, to the terror of the first encounter with the debris cloud, this is space cinema at its best.

Sunshine

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In this scene from Danny Boyle’s underrated sci-fi movie, the crew gather to watch as Mercury crosses the sun. A nice moment out of the action to remind viewers about the natural wonder of the universe we live in.

Star Trek: First Contact

Ok, can I have this? Let me have this. This is just a beautifully composed shot of the Enterprise E emerging from a nebula. Doesn’t it just send chills down your spine? It doesn’t? Oh.

 Apollo 13

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There’s a lot to choose from in this film, but I’d suggest the dark side of the moon sequence as the best.

Alien

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The Nostromo is a massive, slow ship, that is absolutely dwarfed by the space it’s presented in. The opening titles sequence, which is just a very slow pan across the planet, conveys majesty and mystery.

 

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The most threatening vehicles in fiction

Posted February 6, 2014 by Mark

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Vehicles have proven fertile ground for several writers of horror and speculative fiction. Here are a few of the creepiest and most threatening vehicles from books and films. Add your suggestions in the comments!

Christine 

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The worst novel Stephen King wrote in the 80s is about a possessed car that will totally run you over if you piss it off. Christine doesn’t talk, just kills.

The Event Horizon

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A haunted spaceship that is full of nasty things that can kill you, and is also the best mode of transportation to the hell dimension.

The truck from Duel

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Like Christine, except it’s driven by a madman. Or possible the devil.

Blaine the Mono

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Another from Stephen King, Blaine features in his Dark Tower series. Blaine is a malevolent monorail train that likes to play riddles, and is completely insane.

Martian Tripods

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These creepy vehicles contain terrifying, blood-drinking martians, and roll all over the landscape, hooting and laying waste to everything before them.

 

 

 

 

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The 12 greatest Lost episodes

Posted January 28, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It’s ten years this year since Lost first aired on NBC, crashing millions of viewers onto an island for six seasons of mysteries, smoke monsters, Others, hatches, flashbacks, flash forwards and flash sideways, numbers, time travel, Jack’s tattoos, polar bears, Dharma beer, Frogurt, and frozen donkey wheels. It’s fair to say that it was a unique show that defied categorising, and it’s unlikely we’ll see anything quite like this again.

Regardless of how you may feel about the show – particularly how it finished – there were episodes within the 121 that aired which were simply great television. At its heart, Lost was a character show, using the mystery of the island as a mechanism to explore the conscious and unconscious lives of the characters who ended up there.

Lost took a scattering of individuals and allowed them to explore their own lives. Some successfully, others not so. Some changed and grew, others regressed. But in the end it was a show that infuriated and frustrated some of the characters because it refused to explain itself fully, constantly denied them answers to their questions. And yet it was a show that also captivated other characters, compelled them forwards in their stories and their destinies, based on nothing but their preparedness to find meaning in their own lives.

So, to commemorate the ten years while also preparing myself for whatever may come in the comments, here are the best episodes in Lost, in order of airing.

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1. Pilot – season 1

Fairly difficult to not include this, as a hugely explosive, highly inventive opening to a TV series. In what has now become the norm with many pilots, Lost set the bar in establishing strong characters who had room to grow, in an environment ripe for exploration.

Rewatching the pilot now, it’s fascinating to see just how much of the finale season’s dynamic was established – from the surviving characters, to the Locke-Jack conflict, and that eternal question posed by Charlie in the final seconds of the episode: ‘Where are we?’

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2. Deus Ex Machina – season 1

Many cite Locke’s first flashback episode as his best (Walkabout), due to the reveal that Locke was in a wheelchair prior to landing on the island. And while that’s great shock TV, we don’t get much more than that – and much of what made Season 1 instantly compelling yet not so rewarding on repeat viewings, is that it relied on shock twists.

The reason why this episode is so good is it does have the twists on top, but at its core is a highly emotional exploration of Locke’s past betrayal by his father, contrasted with his manic reliance on the island to deliver him from misery. Just watch the sequence that cuts from Locke’s confrontation with his kidney-stealing father to him beating down the still-shut hatch door. Great TV.

It’s also the beginning of Locke’s turn toward self-reliance rather than living together with the other survivors, as he sacrifices Boone for his desire to open the hatch. And then the light from the hatch comes on…

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3. Exodus – season 1

In what set a trend for the series in having cracking season finales, Exodus set up so much of the direction Lost was to head for the duration of its run. Multi-character flashbacks, multiple on-island plots, all misdirecting the audience to thinking Claire’s baby was still in danger. And when Michael, Walt, Jin and Sawyer do the logical thing and build a raft to sail away from the island, nobody thought it was them the Others would come after. But it was, and they took the boy.

The reason why the Season 2 opening had record-viewers had a lot to do with how this finale concluded.

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4. Man of Science, Man of Faith – season 2

And then we came to the first episode of Season 2, and we finally got to see what was in the hatch, and Lost continued to defy expectations and change the texture and tapestry of the show once again. Having spent the good part of Season 1 wanting to get in the hatch, Season 2 opened with a whole sequence devoted to the inside of the hatch without anyone realising.

And to cap it all off there’s Jack’s flashback, where he battles his science and his faith, and meets Desmond, who just happens to be the person in the hatch. And Desmond’s line ‘See you in another life’ suddenly opens up a whole new level of interpretation for the show, and where they were going to take it.

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5. Two for the Road – season 2

Season 2 brought us a little bit closer to The Others, who had remained in the dark and behind fake bears and wigs until then, only emerging to steal a few children here and there. But we met Benjamin Linus, initially masquerading as a lost parachutist, until he graduated into one of the most manipulative, conflicted and compromising antagonists in TV.

Phenomenal performance by Michael Emerson, his scheming Linus gets himself out of imprisonment, ruins Michael entirely when he leverages returning Walt for his freedom, and Michael subsequently kills off Ana Lucia and Libby. Brutal, and shocking, and audiences never trusted Linus again.

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6. The Man from Tallahassee – season 3

Another Locke episode, and one where we find out why he was in a wheelchair. That in itself is horrible to witness, further entrenching Locke as a man abandoned by good fortune, but it’s his road to recovery that renders the episode its emotional pull.

This is contrasted with his continual ‘communion’ with the island, as he sabotages yet another plan to escape to freedom by blowing the submarine up (hello foreshadowing). The episode also introduces Richard Alpert, jettisons Locke further from the other survivors, and in full pay-off ends with Locke facing his father on the island – his conscious and his unconscious coming together in one moment.

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7. Through the Looking Glass – season 3

Season 3 was the worst in the series, due to ongoing negotiations with the network as to how long they would spin the narrative out. Once it was resolved, Lost hurtled towards its conclusion with frightening rapidity, none more so than in the finale, continually rated in the top episodes for the series’ run.

Epic, action-packed, as the survivors push for yet another opportunity to get off the island and find rescue, it all came to a crashing halt with Charlie’s exiting swan dive into an underwater station to stop a signal jam to the island, only to realise that the boat coming to save them is not friendly, in a parting message to Desmond before Charlie drowns.

And in the biggest change-up, Jack’s flashback was revealed to be a flashforward, and audiences suddenly readjusted their sets, knowing that at some point Jack gets off the island but now wants to go back.

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8. The Constant – season 4

A shortened season due to the writer’s strike led to some awfully face-paced storytelling. But they still had time for this episode, arguably the best of the series.

Latecomer Desmond quickly became an audience favourite, and this journey through time to connect with his one true love, Penny, is a masterpiece in time-bending story. In theory, Desmond’s mind is literally flashing back and forward through time, and he needs to find one thing in the present to connect to the past – his constant – in order to maintain sanity. And that comes in the form of a phone call to Penny to let her know he’s still alive and that she’s still looking for him. If you watch Lost for one episode, make it this one.

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9. The Shape of Things To Come – season 4

A Benjamin Linus episode, one that reveals to us that he leaves the island as well, and is hell-bent on a course-correcting plan to destroy Charles Widmore – who covered up the survivors’ disappearance, banished Desmond to the island and happens to also be Penny’s father, and a former leader of The Others.

On island, Widmore’s mercenaries attack the survivors, and all of a sudden our sympathies are challenged as we see the devotion Linus has not just to the island, but to his daughter as well.

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10. The Incident – season 5

We had been hearing about the ‘incident’ since Season 2, and had speculated what on earth had happened on the island to wipe out the Dharma Initiative, and confine any survivors to hazmat suits underground.

Now, we found out. After a complex season of time travel, where we discovered who made it off the island and who stayed, and who was transported back to 1977, the Lost universe expanded once again to cover and even larger timeframe than it had before. The journey of the survivors to reunite once again was enormous, culminating in the decision to detonate a nuclear warhead in order to reset the times and put everything back together again.

Oh, and we got to meet Jacob. And the smoke monster guy.

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11. Ab Aeterno – season 6

Ranks alongside The Constant for genre-defying TV, this is essentially an origin story for Richard Alpert – the ageless consiglieri to Benjamin Linus and to Jacob.

Told mostly in Spanish, and building to a moment where Alpert is finally able to reunite with his wife, whom he left over a hundred years before. It’s wonderful, deft storytelling, and a late entry in a series that had really made its name telling perfectly realised character stories.

The episode also ends with possibly the closest thing you’ll get to an explanation about the whole series. Just so you know.

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12. What They Died For – season 6

I could put The End on this list, just to annoy some people, but I won’t. Instead, this episode really says a lot about what made the series great when it was great.

While we do get further developments in what became known as the flash-sideways story lines, with Desmond on his mission to reunite the survivors, the episode is better for the on-island plot, where the final few survivors get to spend time with Jacob. Coming shortly after the death of Sayid, Jin and Sun, in the brutal The Candidate, we finally get to hear Jacob explain why they’re all there, and why he wanted them all there. And in a moment that shows how much the series was about finding meaning in everyday life, Jacob makes Jack drink from a cup of water and announces that Jack is now like him, a protector of the island. Simple as that.

Almost. Until The End.

Honourable mentions and ones I dearly wanted to include are: White Rabbit, House of the Rising Sun, 23rd Psalm, Live Together Die Alone, He’s Our You, Jughead, LaFleur, The Substitute, The Candidate, The End.

 

 

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Posts with Momentum

Posted January 24, 2014 by Mark

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Here are the five most-viewed posts from the blog this week:

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5. Box office nerdery: billion dollar movies in 2014

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4. Should the Thrawn trilogy remain in the Star Wars canon?

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3. Objectifying books

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2. The world according to Marvel

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1. Everyday rejection letters

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Posts with Momentum

Posted January 17, 2014 by Mark

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Here are the five most-viewed posts from the blog this week:

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5. Game of Thrones season 4 trailer

 

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4. What this scene from Harry Potter can teach us about adapting popular fiction

 

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3. Don’t worry about the upcoming Star Wars trilogy

 

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2. It’s time to start worrying about the new Star Wars trilogy

 

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1. Nine reasons that being a book loving shut-in is better than being a social butterfly

 

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Nine reasons that being a book loving shut-in is better than being a social butterfly

Posted January 10, 2014 by Mark

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Don’t go out, stay in! You’ll save effort, money, the planet, and have a MUCH better time. 

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1. There’s more wine and cheese in your mouth, less beer spilled down your shirt by a random stranger in some awful bar you only went to because your friends made you.

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2. Books have riveting dialogue, real life just has awkward conversations.

Book person: “What are you reading at the moment?”

Regular person: “I LIKE SPORTS”

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3. Your home has a comfy chair. You don’t want to gamble with the comfort of your buttocks. Social butterflies are referred to as ‘butterflies’ because their sore butts prevent them for sitting for long periods, giving the illusion of flight. #fact

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4. Books can provide you a night of riveting entertainment and enjoyment for not much money. The price of one drink in the city on a Friday night is $37.50. #fact

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5. You can wear whatever you want. WHATEVER YOU WANT. Try getting into a bar wearing underpants, an old shirt and ugg boots. Wait, scratch that because I just described modern fashion.

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6. When you’ve finished reading your book, home is all around you. When you finish at the bar, you still have a journey home to worry about. And what happens if you fall asleep on the train? WHAT HAPPENS?

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7. Speaking of finishing, you can stop reading whenever you want, whereas people will force you to stay out longer than you planned for “one more drink”.

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8. You spend your entire time doing the thing you love, instead of 75% of your time trying to get the attention of bartenders and waiters.

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9. Social butterflies create a lot of pollution with all the transport and power they use. So book loving shut-ins are essentially saving the world.

 

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What we can learn from the films of 2013

Posted January 9, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Initially this was going to be a look back at the best films of 2013. But to be honest, last year was a rather middling one for the big releases. So, for something different, I thought I’d look back at some of the big films that came out in the last twelve months and see what went wrong with them, and what we can learn for the future.

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Evil Dead

It did okay, received decent enough reviews and made enough money to warrant its production. But if we have to endure another year of horror film remakes that are merely amplified, exaggerated versions of what we’ve already seen, then I might just give up on them all together. The horror films of old had their own conventions and tropes, and if directors and studios keep flogging ancient dead horses the whole genre is running the risk of becoming obsolete.

It’s fascinating that in the last decade of remakes, reimaginings and reboots, two of the more interesting and original horror films (The Mist and Bug) have come from two veterans of cinema and horror – William Friedkin and Frank Darabont.

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Oblivion

Again, didn’t fare too badly critically and financially, but it’s an unfortunate formula when we’re left with the feeling that it’s another year, and another time Tom Cruise saves the world. Looking back over his career, it’s dotted with endless Jacks, Bills, and Davids; Cruise is intent of being the everyman who saves us all. The problem is, he is too unrelatable a persona for audiences to invest in anymore. On the occasion where he’s reinvented himself – Vincent in Collateral, and Lestat in Interview with the Vampire – he’s shown us how good an actor he can be.

Let’s just hope that The Edge of Tomorrow – ignoring its nonsensical title – is as good as the preview suggests, and not another so-so attempt from Cruise to ingratiate himself with audiences.

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Iron Man 3 & Thor: The Dark World

Okay, Marvel wants to take over the world (if it hasn’t already). But come on. At some point this needs to just stop. Iron Man 3 felt like an ego trip born out of the fact that they could let Iron Man 2 be the lasting impression of the character. Ludicrous, pompous, replete with token child in need of saving – let’s all applaud Downey Jr. for getting his life back on track, but surely he’s just treading water with the glib motor-mouth Tony Stark?

And Thor, well. Second film. Has the word ‘dark’ in the title. Marvel are starting to feel like the annoying kid who just wants everyone to talk about them constantly, no matter what crap they’re doing.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Second film, ‘dark’ in the title. Fun on first looks, but five minutes after walking out of this we’re starting to feel hollow. Lens flare obsessions aside, if this is a reimagined Star Trek, then why bother with the homages to old stories? If the earlier Star Trek went to crazy lengths to establish that all previous incarnations of the franchise still happened, and the new one was happening on a different but parallel timeline, then why bother remaking and rebooting old plots and characters?

And come on. Enough with the dark stuff for the middle chapter. We get it. The Empire Strikes Back happened. Get over it.

See also Man of Steel for needless po-faced ‘darkening’ of a franchise.

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The Great Gatsby

Big lesson to be learned from this: don’t let Baz Luhrmann make films anymore. Please. For all that is good and decent in the world. Stop this madness. Stop this man.

Never before has 140 pages of profound depth and imagery in a novel be turned into 140 minutes of the most vapid, shallow, cartoonish, glitter-stained vomit ever put on a screen. Ugh.

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The Heat

The lesson to be learned here is: this film was great and deserved watching. And a sequel.

Another lesson to be learned here is: studios need to learn how to advertise far better when their film doesn’t contain male leads or females under the age of 30. The worst evidence of this was in the photoshopping disaster that occurred in the UK to make lead Melissa McCarthy more ‘appealing’ to viewers. Jesus.

Making films with female leads who are aged over forty isn’t going to bring about the apocalypse.

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The Wolverine

This was a surprisingly decent film. After the mess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, audience were actually treated to a decent portrayal of a comic book character that didn’t try to outdo everything that has come before. Also eschewing the trend of blockbuster films that globe-trot to the point of turning into an ad for TripAdvisor, Wolverine pared it right back to basically one major setting, with one set of characters to interact with.

Additionally, it abandoned the highly insecure trend of tagging all franchised films with superfluous umbrella titles and punctuation. Simplicity is good, people. It works.

More of this, please.

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Carrie

This should have been released for Halloween, but instead was held back two weeks into November. Effectively a small, independent horror film that was catering to old fans and unaware teenagers, it needed to maximise its 90-minute runtime beyond the actual screening with the right mix of advertising. Instead it went for elaborate stunts and trailers that told the whole story, alienating all and missing out on actually getting better recognition.

Not a success, but a horror film that also works as a superhero origin story, with multiple female leads. Surely this is a good thing, and worth investing in?

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The Apocalypse

Enough. If our only vision for the apocalypse in 2013 was half a dozen guys either improvising toilet humour (This is the End) or running from pub to pub (The World’s End), and where apparently there’s room for only one token female in either apocalypse (Emma Watson and Rosamund Pike, respectively), then the male gaze has won and we should shut it all down.

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Endless cash-grab book adaptations

Finally, the last thing to be learned is this: just because a book is well-loved, just because it has an established readership, just because it has sequels and prequels and gazequals doesn’t mean it will make a good film.

Additionally, throwing a bunch of known actors at it and a director who is happy with the epithet ‘good with SFX’ doesn’t mean this adaptation is going to hold water.

Questions studios should ask themselves: does this story need adapting to another medium? Does this story actually work in a visual medium? Are we actually damaging the impression of the original book by adapting this in a half-arsed fashion? Do we have enough money to swim in already?

This is why Catching Fire worked. The story translates well to screen. And it was cast well. And directed well. Learn, guys.

 

 

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How to read more books without sacrificing TV

Posted January 8, 2014 by Mark

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Did you make any new year’s resolutions related to reading? I always plan to read twice as many books as I did the previous year (not that I’m an obsessive weirdo who keeps count of how many books he reads). I know lots of people who make this, or similar resolutions and it’s always a set-up for failure. Between the explosion of good television and addictive social media, reading time is becoming more and more squeezed. Oh, and I guess if you have friends and do stuff like going out then that uses up time, too.

BUT THERE ARE WAYS TO CHEAT THE SYSTEM.

Here is my guide to how to read more books this year, without giving up TV. The following are tips you can use to supplement your normal reading habits.

1. Graphic Novels

Fast reads that you can fit around the novels you’re reading. And they count, they totally count. They cost as much as a novel, just as much work went into their construction, the stories and characters can be just as compelling, and they can make you think and feel in just the same way a novel can.

2. Toilet reads

We all use the toilet (some more than others), and you’d be surprised at how much reading you can get through if you keep something to read in the bathroom.

3. Find your brand of pure, unadulterated trash

Everyone needs to relax, and sometimes there’s nothing better than reading some comforting trash. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to imply that ‘trash’ is bad, I mean to imply that it’s easy. It’s something you can read quickly without having to think about it too much. For some people it will be spin-off novels from existing media, for others a particular sub-genre. But we all have something we like to turn to when we need to switch off.

4. Listen to a book

Get an audiobook into your ears, yo. You can listen to it on the bus, train, in the car, while you’re doing household chores, basically in any situation where it would be unacceptable to have the physical object in front of your eyes.

5. Follow up a long book with much shorter books

Sometimes it takes a few weeks to get through a book, and that’s ok. But chase those longer reads with a few shorter ones. It’s a great way to re-energise your reading juices.

6. Re-read

Don’t think about re-reading that book you love, actually do it. It’s always faster the second time, and you can focus your re-reading on shorter works.

7. Dip in and out of longer works or collections

That 1,500 page biography you’ve been putting off? You don’t have to do it all in one go. Read a little bit here, a few chapters there. Short story collections are also good for this.

8. Don’t set a specific goal

“I’m going to read 120 books this year” means that at the end of December you’ll be a failing failure about to fail. “I want to read  a lot of books this year, more than I read last year” is a recipe for success.

9. Don’t be afraid to fail

You have a limited amount of books you’ll get to read in your lifetime. It’s only ever going to be a tiny slice of the many published works that are available to you. But it should be a pleasure trying to get through as many as you can. So have fun, read what you can, and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get through everything on your wish list.

Suggestions? Comments? Leave them below.

 

 

 

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Our Top Ten Posts of 2013

Posted December 20, 2013 by Mark

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Here are our most popular posts from this year:

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10: Boys Don’t Read

This post, one of the first delivered from our new blogger Craig Hildebrand-Burke, is about the assumption that boys don’t like to read, why that idea is wrong, and what we can do about it.

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9: Five Reasons You’ll Complain About Game of Thrones After Season Four

This was just me showing off that I finally finished reading the books.

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8: Love and Fuck (Off) Poems

An unforgettable poem from Koraly Dimitriadis, author of Love and Fuck Poems.

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7: The Geek Grammar of Pacific Rim

Guest blogger Glen Fuller compiled a list of handy texts you should see before watching Pacific Rim.

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6: The Ten Greatest X-Files Episodes

Craig celebrated 20 years since the airing of the first X-Files episode with this list.

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5: Ten Lessons Modern Science Fiction Films Can Learn From 2001: A Space Odyssey

Because 2001 is the best and my favourite movie of all time (in case you didn’t already know that).

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4: Which Starship Enterprise is the Best Starship Enterprise?

“Nobody will want to read that” – my boss, to me when I first told him I was putting this post together.

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3: Top 10 Thriller Writers of All Time

Chris Allen, author of Hunter and Defender, put together a list of the thriller writers he most admires.

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2: Great Opening Lines from Science Fiction Novels

The first in a series of posts we did about opening lines.

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1: Ten Better Crazy-Ass Facts About Space

This was our biggest post of the year by far. People love space.

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The art of sequels

Posted December 10, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Having discussed the merits of creating prequels the other day, it’s now time to look at sequels.

These days there’s barely enough room to swing a cat for all the sequels littered about the place. Effectively, we’ve reached a state where once a film reaches a particularly significant profit margin a sequel is put into production. Nothing to do with critical reception – or, in fact, whether the narrative actually merits or needs an extension – it is purely about the grosses.

On the odd occasion where a sequel is greenlit before the release of the original, there’s often the opportunity to craft a story that works not only from the first instalment, but also weaves the sequel into a larger, grander narrative that provides something more than the sum of its parts. But these are rare.

So, for me, there’s basically three types of sequels.

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1. The Repetitive Sequel

This is the most common. This is also the sequel that invariably is made to cash in on the merits of the first. More and more, these are occurring closer and closer to the release of the original, as executives assume our attention span is so short they hope we don’t realise the first film is over and just remain in situ until the second is released.

The biggest crime with the repetitive sequel is that they offer nothing more to the story. The worst example is where it’s merely a thinly-veiled copy of the first, but with different locations/props/hairstyles/minority support cast (Saw sequels, Hostel sequels, The Hangover sequels and pretty much see every B-grade horror film sequel.)

The variation of the repetitive sequel is when it’s combined with the amplification effect. Even though this does sometimes result in half-decent films, the sequel is essentially the same as the original, only more so (The Matrix Reloaded, 28 Weeks Later, Jurassic Park II, Hannibal). More people, more explosions, more dinosaurs - more whatever it was that made the first story interesting, until that’s all that remains in the sequel.

The problem here is the sequel is demonstrating the same issue that fails prequels: the refusal of the creator and audience to move on from the original.

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2. The Improvement Sequel

This is much better. As a sequel, this is when the sequel actually improves on the original and offers a much more satisfying experience through the story and through the world of the characters inhabit.

This often arises in examples where the first story was imperfect, for any one of a number of reasons. It could be that the first was rushed to release, or didn’t have enough money or attention to detail and cut too many corners (Dawn of the Dead, The Bourne Supremacy). It could be that the first was an unknown quantity, and the creators were unsure how it would be received or too busy world-building, generating a more conservative approach to the story (X2, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban). Or it could be that the success of the original on a limited budget and with limited attention allowed the sequel the freedom of time and money to make a much better second story (Hellboy II: The Golden Army).

There is a drawback though, where the above scenario gives more freedom to the creators and they turn out something worse (the Wachowskis again, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Alien: Resurrection, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End).

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3. The Redefining Sequel

This is the category of sequel where The Godfather Part II comes in. Essentially, it takes the original story and extends it, as a sequel does, but completely changes and challenges how the story’s told. It results in a redefining experience for the viewer, where their expectations and understanding of the original story is pushed into areas they didn’t anticipate, where the story suddenly seems much larger and more complex, and the narrative form itself adapts to create a wholly different experience.

Clearly, this isn’t easy to do, given the fact that The Godfather Part II dominates any discussion over worthy sequels. However, there are other examples, usually where the creator of the sequel acknowledges the excellence of the original story, and doesn’t bother to recreate it. Instead, they focus on offering something different, while still being related to the original film.

Strangely - given that he’s now busying himself with churning out repetitive sequels for Avatar – James Cameron has form in this category. With Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, he certainly showed how you can take a perfectly good – if not great – original and pair it with a sequel that carves out its own space and story in a way that never undermines the original and is able to work in its own way, according to its own rules.

See also The Dark Knight, The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future Parts II & III, The Good The Bad & The Ugly.

 

So, a sequel needs to do something different. Needs to tell a different story, while enhancing the original. It can’t ignore it, but it can’t copy it. Like the prequel, there needs to be a reason why the audience is going to experience this story, beyond just the token exploration of more of the story.

 

 

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Movies we were obliged to see

Posted December 4, 2013 by Mark

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Craig’s recent post about The Hobbit got me thinking. It seems like everyone I’ve spoken to (apart from Craig, obviously) was disappointed or at least a little underwhelmed by the first Hobbit movie. Now I am a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (I have a statue of Gandalf on my bookshelf at home – don’t tell anyone), but The Hobbit was unnecessarily padded and overlong.

But anyway, this post isn’t about the things that were wrong with that film. Because despite the problems we all had with it, despite the fact that nobody really enjoyed it as much as any of the Lord of the Rings movies, we’re still all going to see the second instalment when it comes out in a few weeks.

With a lack of enthusiasm we’ll all wander over to the cinema, head down and shoulders hunched, preparing to fork out our hard-earned money for a film we feel obliged to see. And this experience will be familiar.

Movies we were obliged to see:

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Star Wars: Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith

Ugh. Episode 1 disappointed but could have just been George Lucas being rusty as a filmmaker. We happily gave Episode 2 a chance, but it just confirmed that the magic was gone. But still, we dragged ourselves to the cinema to complete the journey, and finally see how Anakin became Darth Vader. And while it was an improvement over the first two episodes, it still didn’t deserve a worldwide box office haul of $850,000,000.

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Avatar

Hey, James Cameron is back after a huge hiatus. Hey, he’s making a visionary sci-fi film with realistic digital characters. Hey, here’s the trailer. Oh. It’s like Ferngully? Oh. But we went to see it because of all the hype about the visuals. And everyone else was doing it! But that $2.7 billion final total still seems like a clerical error to me.

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The Matrix Revolutions

The Matrix is a tight, fast-paced sci-fi thriller that is visually unique and stylish. The Matrix Reloaded is bloated, slow and looks like a lame knock-off of the original film. But maybe, as with The Phantom Menace, it was a stumble, and The Matrix Revolutions would bring it back. Still, it didn’t look promising. We reluctantly went, and it made $427,000,000 worldwide.

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The Amazing Spider-Man

The first two Spider-Man movies are classics of the superhero genre, with part 2 being a strong contender for greatest superhero movie of all time. But then there was part 3, and then Sam Raimi walked away and then the studio pressed the reset button. Everyone wanted another Spider-Man. There was so much potential. But nobody wanted to see another take on the origin story a mere handful of years after the third instalment in what was a pretty decent take on the character. The desire to see Spider-Man continue won out, and we all went. A $752,000,000 global total has ensured that not one, not two, but three sequels are now in various stages of production.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The first film made a billion dollars but is easily the least liked of the middle-earth films. The 48fps presentation left audiences cold and the fact that it took over three hours to tell ninety pages of the source novel smacked of a studio and filmmaker stretching their story out just so they could make another trilogy. So here comes the sequel. And we will go see it, because we were entertained by the first one, and this one has a dragon. But we won’t be particularly enthusiastic about it. I would be surprised if this winds up earning anything near what the first one did but it’s guaranteed to be a sizeable hit.

Are there any films you felt obliged to see? Let me know in the comments.

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10 reasons to go see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Posted November 29, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It’s that time of year again, all the big holiday releases are descending on us, and we all have to make the incredibly difficult choice of deciding on a film to go see on Boxing Day, as we let the remnants of Christmas lunch and Christmas dinner work their way through our digestive system.

Or, decide on a film to go see on Boxing Day because the cinema is air conditioned and it’s as hot as hot can be outside.

Or, decide on a film to go see on Boxing Day because, well, why not?

So, for your consideration, this is why you should choose to go see the next installment in The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug.

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1. It’s the sequel to a film that made over a billion dollars

If you thought the reception to the first film was somewhat middling, you were right. Critics liked it, but certainly didn’t love it. There was the usual spread of misinformation designed to derail its launch (trouble on set, change of directors, bla bla bla), but in the end it still took an insane amount of money from cinema-goers, for a fantasy film based on a children’s book with a cast headed by an actor who is more famous for his TV roles rather than leading a cinema franchise, it did spectacularly.

And it’s doing what prequels should do: work on their own and enrich the viewing of the original films.

If we cast our minds back to when The Fellowship of the Ring was released, it was rather similar. Fans flocked to it, critics held back. It wasn’t really until the awards bandwagon rolled on for The Return of the King that the critics decided to acknowledge there might be some merit in these films.

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2. Martin Freeman

Nailed it, as far as Bilbo goes. Affable, reluctant, short – he certainly got the performance of the main character perfect, in portraying someone who backs their way into adventure and danger. And god the riddles in the dark scene was brilliant.

And, in The Desolation of Smaug, he actually gets to show us why he’s there. Why the character was brought along by the company of dwarves.

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3. Dwarves

Dwarves! No longer just relying on John Rhys-Davies to be the sole representative of Tolkien’s dwarves, we actually get thirteen of them, with a variety of accents, wardrobes, weapons and facial hair. It’s all about the facial hair.

And while we only got to properly meet a few of them in the first film, rest assured we’ll get more of the rest.

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4. Richard Armitage

On that note, more of Richard Armitage! While he may have come across as a bit one-note in the first half of An Unexpected Journey - gruff, naysaying, hating on Bilbo – when we were let into his backstory in the Battle of Azunulbizar, and his ongoing search for vengeance against Azog (the best sequence in the first film by far), Armitage filled out the role perfectly. Given that his character now has to lead the company of dwarves back to retrieve their lost  heritage, it’s only going to get better.

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5. More Azog the Pale Orc

Oh yeah. The other best thing about the first film is back for the second, as far as the trailers suggest. Taking a leaf from Lurtz in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson personified the chasing bad guys perfectly in this hook-handed orc. Every minute the character was onscreen was glorious, not only for the terror the character causes among the dwarves, but also for how perfectly realised this hybrid actor-CGI-prosthetic character was. We all got caught up in the latest Gollum Update 4.0, everyone forgot to acknowledge just how great this character was on screen.

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6. DRAGON!

The dragon, in fact. Barely glimpsed in the first film, and rightly so, Smaug arrives in this film, and given Jackson’s penchant for movie monsters, I’d hazard a guess this will be one of the best cinematic dragons we’ve ever seen. More than just a monster, Smaug’s an evil mind, a hoarder, and one of the richest fictional characters according to Forbes.

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7. Bendlewind Cumbersnatch.

Bumbernick Catcherbun? Benedicteggs Corianderpatch?

Anyway. Benedict Cumberbatch is portraying Smaug. So, expect lots of villainous, megalomaniacal treachery and autisim-spectrum acumen in his voice performance. And at some point Bilbo will cry out ‘SMAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUGGGGG!’

Maybe.

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8. Elves

Yeah, yeah, elves are back. Orlando Bloom’s Captain Obvious is returning, and bringing along Lost’s Evangeline Lily as she portrays Tauriel, giving the series a much-needed female character. Yeah I’m looking at you, all you people who complain when Peter Jackson invents things. Tauriel is a necessary addition, so get over it.

Back along for the ride is Lee Pace, who showed up briefly in flashback in the first film as Thranduil, Captain Obvious’s dad. Lots of supercilious, couldn’t-give-a-shit in his performance. Perfect for an elven king.

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9. Beorn

Yep, not saying much, because if you haven’t read the books it’ll be great fun to see for the first time. And if you have, you know what to expect. But again with Jackson and movie monsters, Beorn should be fantastic on screen.

Especially when the dwarves go down to the woods one day.

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10. Sylvester McCoy as Radagast

The most fun thing about the first film is back. Thankfully. The bunny-sled driving, hedgehog talking, bird-poop headed wizard is back, smoking it up with Gandalf as they explore the source of evil in the east. Great to see McKellen and McCoy acting together on screen, given their history of acting together on stage, and their plot line is excellent invention by Jackson, given that he’s mined Tolkien’s appendices for this, which is the strongest connection between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Expect more of this in film 3.

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The greatest twist endings

Posted November 1, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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If only someone could bottle the experience of watching a great twist at the end of a film. It’s something you can never repeat, except by tracking down some unknowing friend, forcing them to watch it as you sit there watching them, clutching your knees and hoping to god they find it as mind blowing as you did.

What follows is my list of the greatest twist endings in cinema. My criteria was simple: the film must conform to The Three Laws of Twists.

The twist has to occur in the final act of the film.

The twist must force the viewer to re-evaluate everything they’ve seen.

The twist must not undermine everything the viewer has seen.

Needless to say, GREAT BIG SUPER SPOILER TWIST SPOILER WARNING SPOILER SPOILER.

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10. The Others 

A twist so maddeningly simple it’s a joy to rewatch. Brilliantly devoted to the haunted house genre, Alejandro’s Amenabar’s film ratchets up the atmosphere by not only draping everything in ridiculous fog, it also ties us to an unreliable narrator, who is revealed to actually be the one doing the haunting. Bonus points for getting Nicole Kidman in a good film.

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9. Memento

I had to see this again after many years recently just to remember how deft the sleight-of-hand is. Like all good twists, it gives you the answer directly – remember Sammy Jankis? - and you have no idea it’s happening. Again with the unreliable narrator (there’s a few of them in this list), Guy Pearce’s Leonard not only let his wife overdose on insulin, he’s also on a never-ending revenge murder spree. The best thing about this twist and about the film is the structure. By giving us a character who has amnesia, it places the twist at the beginning, but then through its reverse narrative places that beginning at the ending.

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8. Magnolia

The twist that isn’t a twist. Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling San Fernando Valley mosaic begins with the brilliant Rick Jay’s voiceover recounting three urban legends. What the characters in the film are unaware of, and the audience too, is that the apocalyptic rain of frogs that brings about the denouement reveals them all to be participants in their own (sub)urban legend. The frogs are a release for the characters, and bring a sudden clarity and resolution to their fractured, messy lives. Additionally, Ricky Jay is one of the world’s expert magicians.

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7. Psycho

Can’t really leave it off the list. Still shocks and chills new-time viewers fifty-odd years after release, Hitchcock had life-size cutouts of himself placed in cinemas around the US bearing a message of request to viewers not to reveal the ending to incoming queues. Great publicity, in that there was a priming for the shocking twist, but no suggestion that there were actually two: the brutal murder of the hero halfway through the film, and the final reveal of Norman and his mother/son split personality.

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6. Shutter Island

A real punch in the face of an ending. It also has ongoing ripples of reveal: Leonardo DiCaprio’s detective investigating a missing person case from a mental asylum on the titular island discovers firstly that there is no missing person. Then that he is actually an inmate of the asylum. Then that he murdered his wife. Then that he has had this series of facts revealed to him several times already, but he constantly regresses back into fantasy. And then, shockingly, the final scene where he either regresses yet again, or voluntarily chooses to have a lobotomy so as to forget forever.

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5. The Prestige

Another one from Christopher Nolan, and again one where he tells you the answer bluntly and directly. In fact, he challenges you in the opening frames to believe him when he gives you the answer: are you watching closely? The story of two duelling magicians is actually a story about story, about how we believe the make believe, and don’t want to accept the reality. The ending’s two reveals – one magician is a twin, the other is making duplicates of himself – is so built into the narrative we can’t help but feel we knew this all along, we just really didn’t want to believe it was anything but magic.

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4. The Usual Suspects

The original film for me where you force someone to watch it just to enjoy the thrill of the reveal all over again. Bryan Singer revels in his glorious final twist – that the arch-villain Keyser Sose is actually the man talking to us – it’s a joy to watch and rewatch the cross cutting of revelation on Chazz Palminteri’s disbelieving face and the once crooked steps of Kevin Spacey’s limp straighten out and stride away. Even better, the twist rewards future viewing, in that it unravels every possible strand and makes you wonder where the truth of the story ends and the lies begin.

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3. Seven

More than Shutter Island, this ending just ruins you. Brad Pitt reportedly had the ending written into his contract – that his character completes the cycle of seven murders by shooting the serial killer – as so many executives were disturbed by the moral culpability of it they couldn’t believe anyone would actually film such a disturbing ending to what was already a pretty damn disturbing film. The terror of Morgan Freeman, as he realises that his and Pitt’s detectives have no control over the situation, is perfect. And for lasting impact, we all still believe we saw Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in that box, even though it’s never shown. Great filmmaking, great twist.

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2. Chinatown

The greatest ending, the only one that could oust Seven for greatest twist in cinema. Like that film, it doesn’t rely on an unreliable narrator, on fooling the viewer with a clever narrative trick, Chinatown just delivers a cruelly lush and patient exploration of mystery, murder and missing water, as Jack Nicholson’s P.I. investigates the death of a chief water engineer, believing it to be a political crime. Only, the more he investigates, the more he realises he has no idea what’s going on, and the biggest crime here is far more personal and immoral. It’s such a great twist I can’t even spoil it here.

And in the final twist for me, rather than the Number 1 twist, I’m going to give you the Worst Twist Ending Ever.

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1. The Sixth Sense

Appalling. Awful parlour trick masquerading as elegant cinema. It breaks the third rule above, in that it undermines everything that came before in the film. So, wow, Bruce Willis was actually dead and was one of the ghosts the boy saw all the time. Big deal. The point of the film up until that moment, the reason of the narrative until that ridiculous ending, was to discover why the boy saw dead people. But rather than answer that big question, hit the audience with a surprise, cue the credits, and run away before anyone realises that it’s a terribly crap film. Ta-da.

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The best Halloween jack o’lanterns inspired by books

Posted October 31, 2013 by Laurie Ormond

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We all know that people love books. But there’s loving books, and then there’s spending hour upon hour with a delicate vibrating knife carving characters and sigils from your favourite book into a vegetable famous for an extremely tough rind and messy pulpy orange centre.

My hat goes off to the book-lovers behind these creations: Halloween Jack O’Lanterns featuring literary characters, illustrations, authors, and book covers!

My favourite is this reproduction of a famous red-figure illustration of Odysseus and a Sphinx.

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But a shout-out also to this Jane Austen fan’s cameo-style pumpkin.

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Other classic works of literature enpumpkined:

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Ooh and with children’s book illustrations there are so many impressive and charming pumpkins out there … some of them rather failing to be scary. I like the Gruffalo:

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But I am also a fan of dancing lit-up Wild Things:

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Horror and SF, perhaps naturally, seem to be the genres that have the most pumpkins carved in their honour. Who is the scariest out of these?

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Many pumpkin artists (pumkartists?) have also made good use of popular fiction’s ability to create recognisable sigils and signs:

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