Dr Strange or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love the Mouse

Last night, while talking about the new Star Wars film a friend of mine mentioned that she hadn’t seen and wouldn’t watch The Force Awakens or the Last Jedi. I can understand this if her reasoning was that she wasn’t a fan of Star Wars or Sci-fi but when I asked why she stated “I hate Disney.” Now that is a pretty strong statement. To hate something, anything is a definitive position so I wanted to know more about how she had gotten to this point.

When I asked, she explained that Disney was a cynical money making machine that takes any property it can get its hands on an rape it for every penny. The properties she was most update about and used as examples were Winnie the Pooh and Robin Hood. Getting to the core of it she felt that Disney was responsible for taking elements of British Culture and repackaging it or Americanising it and then selling it back to the younger generation.

During the discussion, she asked, why can’t anything be kept sacred and just have the purest form be given to each generation? I have my own opinions on this and as I drove home I thought about it more and why I’m actually ok with Disney and how they treat properties. I am a fan of the Marvel movies and have enjoyed all of them, to varying degrees. However, despite some missteps one of the things that I think Disney has always been spot on is the characterisations and adaptations of the main characters. They have evolved the characters but kept their soul.

As I do with most things I broke it down into different elements, which I have highlighted below. These are probably commons sense but they are worth repeating.

Evolve or die, but keep the essence

When my friend mentioned the fact that Disney had ‘raped’ the Winnie the Pooh books and that the A.A. Milne estate should not have sold the books, something very important struck me. I haven’t read the Winnie the pooh books since I was a kid. Also, that I am more familiar with the Disney version than the original, not that I think they are that different. Is this a bad thing? No, the fact is that is if the Disney version did not exist then the original would probably be lost to time apart from the few that pass the stories or books down the generations. However, that would not last forever.

The fact that several generations have had newer, glossier versions has meant that they have been introduced to the characters old and new from Hundred-acre wood. Each iteration a slightly updated version, keeping it relevant. The Key however, and this is what Disney have cracked, is keeping the essence of the character. Pooh Bear is not the only character that has survived through evolution.

To provide an example of both sides of the coin let’s look at a couple of other characters. The best one I can think of in recent years is Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think any other character has benefitted from evolution. The original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are great and worth being read, more on that later, but a stuffy Victorian detective is not an easy sell to a modern audience. So over time you have had different versions, each providing something new to the mythos while bringing the old to a new audience. In the 80’s we had Spielberg’s ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ and Disney’s ‘Basil the great mouse detective’, I’m a fan of each and it was the former that introduced me to the original stories.

However, the most successful evolution of the character has come more recently with the BBC series Sherlock. The essence of the character has been maintained but they have moved the setting to modern London. This has stood head and shoulders over the American versions (Sherlock Holmes movies and the Holmes TV series) not because its British but because it has better writing and acting. This version has reignited interest in the character and the concept of the great detective.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin and a character born in the same period, Tarzan. The film released in 2016, The Legend of Tarzan looked glossy and well-made but it was a flop. Having seen it I can understand why. While the special effects and acting were all good, the story was so A to B simple that it may have engrossed an audience in the 1930’s but something more needs to be done for a modern audience. I would even go so far as to state that the Disney version (1999) is a better version and story. So, the character of Tarzan is little known by younger people and if is at risk being considered an anachronism and being cast aside. This is tragic as the character and concept are fantastic and in the hands a good writer and director I can imagine a modern telling making an interesting social commentary on nature vs. nurture, what it is to have mixed heritage and / or how the modern social class structure treats people.

The point is, that without these modern versions the character of Sherlock Holmes would become irrelevant, just as Tarzan is at risk of being. In this fickle world if you’re not relevant then you get taken over by other characters that are. This means that some amazing parts of culture past get lost and forgotten. I could add in a list here of so many great characters that have fallen by the wayside because they either failed to adapt or evolve (think The Shadow vs Batman or Alan Quartermaine vs. Indiana Jones). 

Grant Morrison provided a Limbo world for such characters in the DC universe. Introduced in Animal Man #25 and then expanded upon in Final Crisis. This concept is further explored in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. These forgotten characters are all in there, waiting to be rediscovered and given a new glossy coat, ready for a brand-new audience.

Gateway drugs

With new iterations of characters not only do we get more relevant versions, more people are made aware of the original source material. The newer versions are a gateway and that is a good thing. In all cases the original and / or the best iterations of things do not go away, they are always there. However, if they are presented to you directly then you need to be given a map.

Consider Winnie the Pooh and Sherlock Holmes again. The original stories for each are really good and should be visited again and again by old and new audiences. Yet, do you think sales of the books of these stories would be as high-without BBC’s Sherlock or Disney’s Winnie the Pooh? Of course not.

As I mentioned above I was introduced to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories after seeing ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’. I now have a wonderful Hardback collection that I dip into now and then. As a kid I don’t think I could have been sold on Sherlock and his detecting solely on someone telling me about them. In order for me to get through the older language and story structure I needed to already be invested in the character. My first taste was free, I had to work to get more and it was worth it.

The same can be said of Winnie the Pooh. The books are great but in the market of so many children’s books why pick up one book about a little bear over another? Well, if your child has seen the Disney version then they will choose Pooh Bear, probably the better choice. If they love those books then hopefully they will pass them on.

More than that it will hopefully open the doors to other literature that they may not have thought about otherwise, as they get older. A.A. Milne might lead to Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Or Conan Doyle might lead to Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming. I am willing to bet that more people reach these other authors and stories via modern films and comics than picking them up directly.

As a final note, regardless of what you think about the 2001 – 2003 Lord of the Rings films it cannot be denied that those films opened a door to both Tolkien and Fantasy Fiction for a whole new generation. Book sales soared and people got hooked. There is a knock-on effect. Without those films, we would not have ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Shannara Chronicles’. You can enjoy these both as books and TV shows.

Selective selection

A further point that my friend made was the absolute glut of merchandise that Disney produce to sell to kids. As well as all the half-hearted cash-in tie ins and spin-offs. Now as a comic book geek, I am very used to this mentality and how to deal with it. While I completely understand her point, there is a truth that must be accepted, Disney is a business and it is supposed to make money. It will produce whatever it can to make money it is up to us as consumers to vote with our money.

I know that I can go into almost any supermarket in the western world and buy some form of Disney merchandise. Does that mean that it’s all top quality and worth having? Not at all. It is therefore up to me to select what I buy and what I buy for my kids. Buy quality and what matters to you. If you want a bath towel with Cinderella or Yoda on, you can. If you don’t want to dilute your version of a character then simply walk on by.

There is no point getting upset about merchandise or add on products, they will always exist. However, you can use them to enhance your pleasure or ignore them. That is up to you.

Change is coming

Before we finish I want to acknowledge that I understand that not all versions of a character are very good or in some cases even appropriate. I have used English and Western characters for my examples because that is what I grew up with and relate to. However, I am very aware that Hollywood and Disney have butchered and converted characters form other cultures into western versions. This has been and still is a weakness of character evolution and adaption in almost all formats.

However, change is coming. There is a wave of young creators that understand that diversity is a part of adaptation and evolution. Several cases of white washing have occurred and been called out by audiences in the last few years. The loudest being for 2017’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. A weak adaptation was affected further by western casting over obvious Asian choices.

We live in a much more diverse and varied world and audiences have started to make their preference known. We are about to enter an era of new diverse characters or old characters evolving to remain relevant. The next version of Sherlock might not be your Dads Sherlock but that doesn’t mean either version is incorrect, just that they are part of an ongoing story of evolution.

The question is who will be at the forefront of this next era of diversity in character evolution or truer adaptation? Time will tell, but lets come back to Disney. In 2018 we have Black Panther (which I am so excited for) with a majority black cast and African setting. Not something we would have got even 10 years ago. Beyond that we have got the live action Aladdin which is casting Middle Eastern and Asian actors to tell this story of Arabian Nights. That’s not to say that we are there yet there is lots of work to be done and it needs to be handled with quality and sincere productions.

I hope for a world in which my 4-year-old daughter has access to the Winnie the Pooh books and the Holmes stories. Yet she also has exciting new characters and new iterations of old characters that have been evolved to meet the desires of future audiences and say something interesting about the world they now inhabit.

Summary

The great thing about fiction is that it’s like water. It can be poured into any container, mixed with other things, even change form to fit what you want it to do but you can always take it back to its essence. Disney have poured water into many different containers and diluted it with all kinds of things. In some cases it’s become something amazing other times a stodgy mess – but the pure water will always be there for anyone that wants to take a drink.

Fact or fiction in entertainment

In October, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we, as viewers, process scares in horror films and how they have evolved over time. This flows nicely into what I will be covering in November. Earlier this year I read the book, The Amityville Horror by Jay Ansen. It was a fun and at times unnerving horror novel, however the thing that kept resonating with me was the fact that this was supposed to be an account of a true event in people’s lives. Knowing that added an element of horror however as I read on it disturbed me more and more.

It highlighted something that happens again and again in entertainment, more so in films that books. The facts of the story are adjusted, amalgamated or even omitted. Sometimes the essence of the story survives other times it gets lost in the script rewrites and editing. What does that mean for the people that lived through the events? Do we get an accurate view of events?

I have learned over time that regardless of facts, perception is truth for most people. If a film or book states “Based on True Events” then some (most?) will take that to mean that this is the truth. So when it gets questioned or fault is found in the film this then gets mixed in with questioning the validity of the true events.

There is a Hollywood version of history in which every story follows a three act structure and, for the most part, reaches a satisfying ending. I am sure that anyone reading this will be able to attest to the fact that real life is not that simple.

In November I am going to take a look at The Amityville Horror. First as a historical event, the complicated mix of fact and fiction that has become the legend. I will then be looking at how this has been represented in the media. As a follow up I will also be investigating how this event, the novel and the first film changed the direction of Haunted House films.

Zombies!

If someone asked you to describe a Zombie I’m pretty sure you would detail a decaying corpse shambling along in tattered clothes, driven only by its need to eat human flesh. A creation of a virus, chemical mishap or just maybe there being no room left in Hell. That is the accepted modern take on a Zombie. How that came to be though is not completely clear.

The reanimated dead appear in literature dating back thousands of years in different interactions. The most common origin for the modern iteration comes from the Island of Haiti. In these traditions the Zombie is a person brought back from the dead using magic to act as a slave to whoever resurrected them. This very often gets lumped in with the generic understanding of Voodoo, although Zombies have no actual basis in the Voodoo belief system.

In fact the Haitian Zombie beliefs are a mixture of different belief systems brought over by enslaved Africans and incorporating belief systems that existed in the “New World”. These ideas and beliefs became a part of popular culture in the 1920s, when America occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934. During this time stories emerged from soldiers on the island of Zombies and how they were created and used by the inhabitants. These garnered so much attention that a book was written on the subject in 1929, The Magic Island, by William Seabrook. Following this further research was done on and around the folklore and actual case studies form the island. The result was more books and articles being published, further raising awareness of the supernatural creature.

So that’s how the walking dead entered the American conscious, but they were still to evolve, or decay if you prefer. The first time a Zombie appeared in a film was “White Zombie” in 1932, which sticks with the Haitian traditions. In fact the distributors used the case studies that had been published in the films marketing, mixing real life fear with the Horror of the film.

In the following decades Zombies would appear in several films, but a closer representation of what we know as the modern Zombie would appear in the Horror comics of the 40s and 50s. These depicted decaying bodies returning from the grave, usually to exact revenge on someone. The design was there but these were not referred to as Zombies out right. Also, they usually had a level of conscious or intelligence that would soon be stripped away.

It is not until “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968 however that we get the first sight of a shambling flesh eater. Were these Zombies though? Romero didn’t think so to begin with. In the film and its marketing, they are never referred to as Zombies. They are called Ghouls, which is a different creature of myth altogether.

It was only after the film was released that the media started to use the term when reviewing or describing the film. This was then picked up by the film maker and his audience. By the time “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 was released the term was accepted for what we know today.

This of course has evolved since then and the name Zombie is now synonymous with the undead flesh eating walking corpse. There have been several sub-interactions that have sprung up in the decades since Dawn of the Dead. In the 80s “Return of the living dead” (1985) brought us brain eating Zombies. More recently we have had the introduction of the running Zombie in films such as “28 days Later” (2002) and the “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) remake. The original Zombie form does occasionally pop up again though. Most notably in the 1988 Wes Craven film “The Serpent and the Rainbow”.

Whether in the fore or back ground of a story Zombies can be used to have an impact on an audience. They have become so popular for simple low budget gore horror films as an easy way to get some splatter on screen (too many to name!). They are also used as a satire of who we are as a society at our base level (Dawn of Dead – 1978). Or most recently and possibly the most popular vision is the Walking Dead in both its comic and TV format. Delving into what we would do after the Zombie Apocalypse and survive the inevitable collapse of society?

It would seem quite appropriate that as a creature of horror and storytelling, since they shambled into pop culture almost a hundred years ago, they just won’t die. So what are the Zombie films you need to check out? I have put a list of the top 10, in my opinion, below:

1.    White Zombie (1932)

2.    Night of the Living Dead (1968)

3.    Dawn of the dead (1978)

4.    Return of the Living Dead (1985)

5.    The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

6.    28 days later (2002)

7.    Shaun of the dead (2004)

8.    Dawn of the Dead (2004)

9.    Quarantine (2008)

10. Zombieland (2009)

 

Horror Novels that still scare me

As I am writing this the sun is shining, it is a wonderful summers day, we have to treasure them in the UK, we don’t get many. Looking out the window as a wisp of cloud floats past on the midday breeze it doesn’t feel like a day of Horror … for most. I, like so many horror fans, love it all year round. The greatest horror novels don’t care whether it’s night or day, foggy or bright sun, Halloween or Summer Solstice they will take you somewhere horrific and make your skin crawl. That is what a good book can do and that is why I love them.

As I have gotten older and a little more world weary the affect these books have has changed. I no longer cower under my bed sheets, hoping that a thin piece of material will protect me from some unseen terror waiting in the shadows. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t put down a book and still have it sneak around in my brain, creating a feeling of unease. Over the years there have been several books that have affected me to the extent where they might have affected my sleep. In the light of day, it is ridiculous but there have been moments when my foot has fallen from the covers and a little voice in my head tells me to pull it in asap.

I had a think about which books have stayed with me the most over the years. After a while I landed on two books that have I enjoy and scare me in different ways now to when I was young. The first is Stephen King’s “The Shining” and the second is James Herbert’s “Haunted”.

When I first read The Shining, I was in my late teens and I read it as a haunted house story, which it is. The book is packed with a creeping and ever growing sense of dread expertly written by King. There are scenes in that book that give me physical shivers. I think Joey had the right idea to keep it in the freezer at night. Now that I am older, have a growing career and a family the book reads in a very different way. Where once I focused on the spooky inhabitants of the overlook I now see more fear and terror in the mental breakdown of Jack Torrance. A man desperate to prove that despite his faults and mistake he is a good man. His guilt and repressed frustration being manipulated by isolation as well as supernatural forces are the real backbone of this book.

This book is one of King’s best and is one of his most personal, his own struggles with drink and drugs are well known. His fears and struggles are clearly reflected in those of Jack. While I don’t have similar substance issues I can relate the frustrations and worries of wanting to do the best for a family. This great book speaks of the dark shadows that move in the night as well as those that cloud a man’s heart. This is one of the highest recommends I can make.

The second book I want to mention is James Herbert’s “Haunted”. I love this book so much that I have several copies of the book, including a signed limited edition. This is a slim novel but has so much to love. A gothic tale of a sceptic being invited to a house in a remote area that is supposed to be haunted. The story is simple and very well paced.

This was one of the first Herbert books I read when I was younger and much like with The Shining I focused on the spooky element of the story. I still really enjoy this part but again as I have gotten older I have noted that there is more to this book. The sceptic, Ash, so solid in his beliefs, being twisted not only to be made to believe but to be broken for what he believes. More and more we line in a world so twisted and manipulated by large forces that it is hard to hold on to any single belief or idea. The book explores the idea of faith and belief in an idea and yourself. The story of Ash continues in two sequels. The best of these is The Ghosts of Sleath, a story which continues the ideas of faith while maintaining the great spooky scares.

Both books are amazing ghost stories that will creep into your brain and unsettle and scare you. As the books are so well written that can be enough to enjoy. However, each of them have so much more to offer and so many more ways to keep you awake at night.

What Horror Novels do you love and you love being scared by?

The Horror writers that made me love Horror

Well it's July so what better way to celebrate the long sunny days than with a review of the Horror writers that got me hooked on to the genre as a kid. 

I am a big horror fan and I made a start on Horror novels when I was in my early teens. As soon as I started I started to try different writers. Below is a list of the writers that had the most influence on my tastes.

1.    Stephen King: Is it any surprise that ‘The King’ ended up on this list? I don’t think you can talk to anyone about horror writing without talking about Stephen King. A King novel was one of the first ‘grown up’ books I tried to read. I was trying to run before I could walk by taking on Pet Semetery and IT before I was out of ‘Point Horror’ (how good were they!). I failed to get through either and so took on Carrie. I loved it and wanted more King but after my failure to conquer the first two books I was a little intimidated. It was then that I found out there were several collections of short stories available, perfect. I got a copy of Night Shift and ploughed though it as quickly as I could. It was like being prepared for the bigger King books. Since then I have read a load of his books but it’s always good to know that there is more to read.

2.    James Herbert: My Mum introduced me to James Herbert when she read ‘Ghosts of Sleath’ when it was first released in paperback. She handed me the slightly worn paperback and suggested that it might be something I would enjoy. She wasn’t wrong and I read it in a week. It would be a year or two before I would get another Herbert book. This was the mid 90’s and the internet was not what it is now. I had to wait until I found another book in a shop or car boot sale. The second Herbert book I read was ’48. A totally different read but just as thrilling. Years later I have a complete collection of Herbert paperbacks and I am about 2/3 of the way through them. James Herbert was a great writer and a wonderful example of British Horror sensibilities. His books cover all aspects of horror and no matter your favour I am sure there is a book that you would like.

3.    Dean Koontz: Koontz is another one that I was introduced to by my Mum. This time however, I pinched a couple of the books from the shelves to take on a school trip. I took Midnight and Phantoms (Affleck was the Boom in Phantoms!) and of the two I loved Midnight. The stories were a bit pulpier, fast paced and filled with some great gory horror. I can’t say that Koontz is one of my favourite authors; however I enjoy most of his books. A few other that really stood out for me are Tick Tock and Demon Seed. The Odd series are also really good and worth reading.

4.    Clive Barker: Barker is a funny one; I was first introduced to his work via the Hellraiser film when I knew very little about how things worked. I just assumed he only made films. I was happy to find out how wrong I was in the late 90’s when I was given the paperback omnibus editions of the books of blood for Christmas. Wow was I in for a shock! This collection of wonderfully twisted and gory tales sucked me in. Barker’s imagination is vast, dark and compelling. His books vary from full on Horror to more fantasy but I enjoy them all, for the most part. While I enjoy his books you have to commit to them, they will challenge you and there are time when I am not sure if they are genius or in need of a more strict editor.

5.    Point Horror: I was too old to appreciate the Goosebumps books when I found out about them. Luckily a series of books existed for the early teen market, Point Horror. These books are written by a number of different authors, so it’s a bit of cheat but this series is still a milestone for me. They are predominantly based around urban legends horror tales and basic horror tropes but for the 12-year-old me they were perfect. These are a great entry point for younger readers, they are a horror enough that they aren’t for young kids but not overly complex or too violent or gruesome.