Adapting Ender’s Game

Ender's GameEnder’s Game strikes me as a good example of the pros and cons of adapting novels for the screen. In a novel, psychological complexity is on full display and the internal life of the protagonist generally occupies our attention. Movies are visual and aural, so they are more spectacular, but movies can only show us so much psychology. This is why most adaptations miss the mark.

The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a beautiful, insightful science fiction novel in which a young cadet comes to terms with his destiny as humanity’s savior in a war against a powerful alien race. His training, begun from a very early age, is emotionally ruthless and isolating, and our hero is deprived of an outlet for his gentle nature. Instead, all his hours are occupied by the schemes of Colonel Graff, whose job it is to hone Ender Wiggin into a mercilessness, strategic genius, even as Ender struggles against bullying and the playground politics of his fellow cadets.

The “plot”, the external actions taken, the strange environments, and the other characters are in the novel totally subservient to Ender’s emotional journey. It’s this journey that makes the novel great, and these elements are the most difficult to translate to the screen. For one thing, Ender’s sustaining love for his sister and the fear he has of his brother are almost completely cut from the film simply to accommodate a normal run-time for a blockbuster.

Much of the emotional nuance also has to be cropped from the screenplay for time, so what remains are the larger emotional notes, the most obvious conflicts with the least subtlety. All the minor wins and losses Ender experiences in the novel must be swept under the rug, and only when they’ve cut that content and finished the screenplay do they begin looking for an actor to portray what’s left.

Actors have a tall order when it comes to adapting literature. They bring their own experiences to bear when they read a screenplay, and do what they can to express their roles. But they can’t really compete with our imagination, which in a novel fills the ambiguous details and idealizes characters and action. Asa Butterfield played Ender and did a fine job, though I felt none of the deep empathy that I felt with the character in the novel.

But movies do have their own weaponry that novels cannot touch. Where the movie really delivers is in its special effects. Unlike reading the novel, watching Ender’s Game is a treat because we actually get to see the amazing sets, the charismatic faces of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and the slow ballet of a zero gravity practice chamber. We get to experience it empirically. The novel describes these elements very well, but it’s a different experience altogether to engage your eyes and ears, visual and auditory cortices with the crafts of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, what I loved most about the book, what I thought truly made it a great one, didn’t make it into the movie. The novel was fairly inspiring while the movie was merely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised by this, as I can probably count on one hand the number of film adaptations that stand up to their prose counterparts.

Rated R – For Ridiculous

The MPAA movie rating system really baffles me. I’ve always found it totally amazing that The Blues Brothers (1980) is rated R. A few swear words, an N-bomb (spoken by Cab Calloway), and some mild blasphemy must be the reason for the rating since the mild violence is comedic and there is no other questionable content. Are these really the ideas we need to protect young people against?

Compared to the average R-rated comedy these days (think The Hangover or The Wolf of Wall Street), Blues Brothers is mild in the extreme. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has the same rating and features several gut wrenching rape and torture scenes. The MPAA, the supposed moral authority on these matters, feel the content of Dragon Tattoo is just as risky for young viewers as The Blues Brothers.

What’s more confusing is that in the U.S. a child can see an R-rated movie as long as he or she is accompanied by a parent or guardian. An 18 year old can take his 12 year old brother to see most horror movies. It’s only when you get into the NC-17 rating that these supposedly condemnable contents are truly off-limits to younger minds. That is, younger minds without internet access.

Because a child is accompanied by a guardian, he or she must be psychologically sophisticated enough to separate fact from fiction and come away from the movie unscathed. Or do they think that guardian will tell them exactly when to avert their eyes and plug their ears? Or do they think the contents of a movie like Saw couldn’t really be damaging to a child? No more damaging than The Blues Brothers, I suppose.

I don’t think the MPAA should try harder to keep kids out of the theaters. I agree with them that the onus should be on the parents, but those parents will be able to do a much better job when the ratings make consistent sense.

Now everybody go watch The Blues Brothers.

The Blues Brothers

How To Suck At Commercials

For a while I’ve been enjoying these stupid smear ads run by the Conservative Party against Justin Trudeau. They seem like the work of high school girls who are pissed Justin didn’t ask them to prom. Every ad uses the same clip of Trudeau taking off his shirt.

These ads are mysteriously hard to find online, but you can watch and learn all about them in this nice Huffington Post article. They also point out that the clip of Trudeau taking off his shirt is from a mock striptease at an Ottawa charity fundraiser, not that it should matter.

Someone was kind enough to post twelve seconds of one to YouTube:

All the commercials have been exceedingly dumb, but my favorite is this one about marijuana. Trudeau has said he is in favour of legalization and regulation. The commercial asks us to “Imagine. Selling marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol,” while on screen it reads “MARIJUANA available in stores. More accessible to KIDS.”

Would any conservative argue that we should make cigarettes illegal because they are too accessible to kids at the corner store? No, because the age limitation and the policing of it are part and parcel of the legalization.

We all know smear campaigns are the lowest form of politics, so the conservatives are at least being upfront about being grimy. But what blows me away is their incredulous “Selling marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol.” Could you pick a better sentence to prove you’re divorced from reality?

Let me embellish the sentence with a fact or two. “Imagine. Selling marijuana, which causes 0 deaths every year and which users have described as ‘pleasant’, just like cigarettes and alcohol, which cause over 40 000 deaths per year (in Canada), and which we are happy to sell to your 18 and 19 year old kids because we make sweet, sweet profits from it.”

I do not understand the mentality of the target audience of these commercials. Who, sitting at home on a Tuesday night, sees this commercial and is struck with horror at the thought that marijuana might be sold alongside cigarettes? Most modern research has show marijuana to be mostly benign and medically beneficial. There is obviously some deviously idiotic dogma at work here.

It’s true; Harper’s generation inherited their beliefs from a massive propaganda campaign to smear marijuana, and maybe conservative old dogs don’t learn new tricks. So despite every piece of available evidence and good sense, they want to go on selling cigarettes and alcohol but suppress cannabis because they just “know it’s bad.”

So here is what I get out of these conservative ads: Conservatives are willfully ignorant of “empirical evidence” and “truth”, they feel morally superior and they’re willing to play dirty to get what they want. I’m not generally a political person, but they’ve got my attention now. And that’s how to suck at commercials.

RIP Malcolm Mooney The Cat (2004-2014)

Malcolm

I’ve had a handful of cats in my life and I’ve never had to put one down until this weekend. Malcolm Mooney was a rescue cat and would have been ten in April. I had him since he was a couple weeks old. He is survived by his brother Damo Suzuki.

Malcolm acted high and mighty when guests were around, sitting on the back of the couch, arms folded under him, looking at you like he’s got your number. If you tried to call him out on it or draw attention to him, he’d look the other way as if to say “Get over it.”

Privately though, Malcolm was the most compassionate cat I’ve ever known. When I felt sick or down he always came over and leaned into me, purring like a lawn mower, and tried to rub some of his feelgoods off on me.

A heart condition led to large clots that paralyzed his back legs. Hearing the emergency vet talk, we realized quickly there two options, and only one would be painless. He passed away peacefully in our arms and I’m glad I was there with him when it happened.

Now who’s going to shed hair all over my fresh laundry?

Suspension Of Disbelief

In 1989, an uptight schmuck named Richard and his terminally unserious buddy Larry found a $2 million accounting mistake at the insurance firm they worked at and, seeing it as an opportunity to brownnose up the corporate ladder, took it upon themselves to point it out to their boss, Bernie, who was so impressed with their insight he invited the both of them to his Hampton Island beach house for a weekend of number crunching and partying in off-hours, which struck both Richard and Larry as a huge opportunity—Richard might finally make enough money to move out of his parent’s place and Larry, who wore sunglasses around his chin dangling from one ear because that’s what a party animal he was, would finally get the weekend of R & R he felt he deserved—however since Bernie is in fact embezzling the money he decides to do what most filthy rich tycoons would do and puts a contract out on his employees, and he’s taken off guard when the mobster he hired, whose wife Bernie was sleeping with, decides to kill Bernie instead, which puts a damper on the weekend’s party since Richard and Larry arrive just in time to find Bernie’s body, comically laid out with a smirk on his face, and despite all reason they decide not to call the cops and to instead try to “figure out what to do”, at which point a roaming group arrive and our heroes find themselves in the midst of a party where all the guests, presumably because they are very superficial, don’t notice the corpse grinning on the couch, so Richard and Larry first try to “roll with it”, pretending nothing is amiss even after the night passes without anyone realizing what’s going on, so Larry decides to string up this carcass like a marionette so he can wave casually at passersby and play a one-sided game of Monopoly™ while drinking all Bernie’s champagne and hitting on the babes, and all the while Richard doesn’t call the cops because he’s distracted by a very 80’s-looking girl (so much so he forgets or neglects his and Larry’s reprehensible behavior and the fact that now they’ve been carting around their dead boss, with no plan whatsoever, for more than a day, dropping him haphazardly, vacuuming beach sand from his face, letting the mobster’s wife have her way with him, Bernie, a dead man) and by this point they’re in so deep they don’t realize they’ve become side-targets of the contract killer, who looks like a long-haired Joe Flaherty and has a tickle trunk full of improbable costumes, and who, seeing Bernie supposedly alive and well on the beach (vis-à-vis the puppet show, the posthumous smirk and rigid, upright posture) decides to go back and finish the job, and meanwhile Bernie, who is still dead, has successfully haggled the price of his Porsche up $15000 from the previous bid and has somehow staved off any of the bodily rot and voiding of bowels so common in these situations, even maintaining well-coiffed hair and a ruddy complexion despite being mishandled by Larry and Richard who seem to want to keep the charade up so they can drink booze and get laid, which actually seems like it might happen for Richard with the typical 80’s girl, and by the time the contract killer finds Bernie again, he (the killer) thinks he’s going crazy and drops all subtlety and shoots Bernie several times through the chest in front of Larry, Richard, and Richard’s love interest, sending them running for a hiding spot until Larry gymnastically wraps the killer up in a phone cord in one smooth, spiraling move to be held until the police arrive who rightly charge the killer for murder and set our heroes (I include the love interest in this group at this point) free to lounge on a beach and enjoy their good fortune until Bernie, whose body had been gathered up by medics and rolled in a gurney into an ambulance that drives off only to hit a bump, opening the rear doors and sending the gurney carrying Bernie down the boardwalk only to land right behind our heroes who run away screaming before a small child finds the unfortunate corpse and buries it in the sand.

Weekend At Bernie’s was a box office hit that prompted a sequel in which voodoo is used to reanimate Bernie for continued hijinks.

Weekend At Bernie's

The True Detective Finale [SPOILERS]

[WARNING: This is not a show you want spoiled for you.]

Easily the hottest new television show this season is HBO’s True Detective. Social media sites have been crackling with theories, projections, analyses, breakdowns, synopses, praise, criticism, and so forth, and speculation on season two is in full swing as we speak.

The build up to the final episode, fueled by social media, was intense and exciting, and the scope and depth of the show made it impossible to forecast what direction the finale would take. Now that it has has come and gone, I find myself feeling a bit deflated. All that hype sweetens the anticipation but contributes to disappointment later; with so much chatter and speculation, it’s easy to feel let down, to be critical and cynical.

True Detective was easily the best show I’ve seen this year. From the start, the show was an example of visual storytelling at its finest. McConaughey and Harrelson gave truly impressive performances, the writing and directing were riveting, the cinematography was beautiful, and the show seemed to open into the mysterious worlds of psychosis and even the supernatural. This stuff is right in my wheelhouse.

The build up to the finale was intense. There were so many questions that needed answers: Who or what is the green-eared spaghetti monster? Has Cohle lost it completely? Has Hart made up his might to end Cohle? With such a network of horror out there in the Bayou, can Hart and Cohle even make a difference?

I thought the finale was great. The bad guy was thoroughly twisted, the chase and showdown made my heart thump in my ears, the denouement was touching and solidified McConaughey as the best performance of the year (as if anyone had any doubt), the detective work was engaging, and the dialogue was sharp and memorable.

So why do I feel let down? It might just be because it’s over (a 2-hour special might have been nice), or it might be because the wild twists I imagined would happen might have been more mind-blowing. Should they have let the bottom drop out and reached into the supernatural abyss of Chtulu? To be sure, a CGI demon would have been stupid, would have short-circuited the whole series. Yet somehow Cohle’s “vortex of chaos” hallucination worked perfectly.

Sure, I would have loved to learn more about the occult ethos, sure I would have loved it if the ending involved Maggie, the daughter, or that cellphone-selling rocket that Marty…did things to. Sure I would have been okay with one or both of the main characters dying, and of course I would have loved some sort of bizarre black magic showdown, but what would I be willing to trade away from the finale as shot to accommodate these speculations?

A dip into the supernatural would have been a mistake. True Detective is not Twin Peaks. The latter wove the supernatural or dream elements into the fabric of the show from the start, which allowed them to knock the roof off in the mind-blowing finale. But True Detective was always about real people chasing real people who may or may not be insane.

A wider focus on the evil underground network of child abusers might have meant a less penetrating look into our main characters. To delve into the occult rituals and sacrifices might have been delicious, but those details would never be the focus in a police investigation. There is only so much narrative, and I think Nic Pizzolatto made strong decisions throughout.

The one decision I immediately questioned—something that usually rubs me the wrong way in detective shows—is that the final episode showed us Errol’s world, even showed us three or four of his personalities without any detective work. The infraction here being that, in a detective show, the audience should learn about the bad guy at the same pace as the detectives. But if Pizzolatto had shown only what the detectives saw, the finale would have been 45 minutes of detective work and then a five minutes showdown. The audience wouldn’t have tasted Errol’s mania, which drives the anticipation through that beautiful Heart Of Darkness chase scene.

We can all nitpick from our couches, but here’s the thing: I don’t know what would have made True Detective better. What are your opinions?

Evolving Computers

My oldest brother was born at just the right time to participate in the groundbreaking new world of home computing. My dad bought the family a Commodore 64 and I invested huge swathes of time playing games, occasionally learning very basic computer programming from my brother. A 386 (one of the first modern PCs) and later a Pentium processor found their way into our home. Soon after that, the internet was born. My brother stayed with the developing technology and is now a programmer at Google.

His kids, on the other hand, have never known a world without the internet, PSPs, streaming video and Bluetooth. Technology has insinuated itself into the fabric of their lives, and they may never experience such a severe paradigm shift as home computing or the internet made when I was a kid. (To give you a sense of my age, I remember the world without the internet, and I remember being frustrated when this new thing called Windows triumphed over my familiar text-based DOS. I also remember the command prompt: LOAD”$”,8,1)

For kids today, computers are second nature. They cannot fathom the complexity of these devices because it is masked by the ease of use. A child has no need to consider the circuitry, the silicon, the programming language or the million increments in technical achievement that accumulated to this incredible moment in history, where we can summon seas of information with the click of a button.

But just because they can’t understand the million steps leading to such ease of use, they will suffer no handicap when it comes to understanding future computers. Indeed, they are already experts, of a sort, and the evolutionary history of computing hardly matters; the outmoded technologies both mechanical and programmatic are not useful any more except to historians or theoreticians. When was the last time LOAD”$”,8,1 did anything useful for me or the people at Google? (Playing Dig Dug on an emulator doesn’t count.)

We might think that kids today are spoiled, reaping rewards accumulated by generations of brilliant minds without fully appreciating it. But this has been the case with all technologies since the wheel. And this time binding faculty of humankind extends to more than just “technology”.

We are all guilty of this ignorance, for example, with our own bodies. We don’t consider the incredibly complex specialization of our eyes, how perfectly the lens focuses light onto the retina, how the rods and cones react, and how our brains parse information about shape, colour, shade, edges, depth, context and so forth. We just see a red curtain and go about our day.

Everything in our bodies is in fact the end result of innumerable biological adjustments, mutations that have been use-tested and refined through the ages by our ancestors’ survival and procreation. And not one of us needs to know these millions of stages of evolution in order to use our own biocomputer at least decently.

There will always be those who have a passion for the specifics, the evolutionary biologists, art historians and so forth, and we need them to impart their knowledge on the next generation of hungry minds. But you can’t blame someone for being born too late to really get it. It’s all we can do to work with what we’re given, do research when necessary, and move forward. Even my brother, currently on the cutting edge, was born about 150 years after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

Deepak Chopra’s Cosmic Confusion

In all of history, no topic has been the subject of more bullshit writing than the spiritual side of life. We all live through the lens of our own experience, and it’s commendable to try to explain internal experiences, but because consciousness is such a mysterious and strange aspect of life, an unfortunate majority of opinions about it are sadly misguided.

Deepak Chopra, for example, says that matter is an illusion and consciousness is all there is. This is wrong. I’ve voiced my disagreement with his opinions before, but I assure you I’m not holding a grudge; I’m simply voicing my reaction to the ongoing dissemination of his ideas, which I find pernicious. We should all strive to understand our selves, so I don’t hold his efforts against him, but I would love to share a coffee with the man and let him in on the following:

Matter is real. It is one of the fundamental facts of the universe, as all sane people know. Even most insane people know this. Under some very special conditions, matter gives rise to organisms. As those organisms evolve, some gain tremendous complexity and computational powers to employ for survival, and very few attain what we would call consciousness. Referring to a persistent fact as an “illusion” isn’t helpful.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

Some of the functions of consciousness remain a mystery, but we have no evidence to assume that consciousness is all there is. What we know as consciousness today has only been around for the tiniest sliver of the history of the universe, and there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. How can Chopra’s theories explain prehistory? If consciousness is all there is, does he believe that there was absolutely nothing in the universe until the first conscious being was born? What gave birth to that being?

Chopra’s philosophy seems like redressed Hinduism, where matter is maya (illusion) and we are all facets of Brahman (God). He redresses it with the ill-fitting jargon of quantum physics, a perplexing topic that arose from the exploration of matter. Chopra is certainly no authority on this dense and confusing field of study, and most quantum physicists disagree with his interpretations.

Chopra and his ilk love to refer to materialism as “reductionism” as if materialism reduces our significance in the universe. But this is bush league word play. Pay attention to how often they use that word and you’ll realize this is a cheap tactic in a mind game and has no relation to how the world is described by materialism.

And besides, not one facet of our internal experienced is “reduced” by materialism. Whatever explanation we throw at it, we all have an internal experience. Belief in God or spirits or a soul—even the belief that we are all biological puppets—doesn’t change the fact that consciousness as we know it arises from the brain. Beliefs don’t change our qualia and don’t change our perceptual apparatus. It only changes our explanation of these phenomena to ourselves. But those explanations are just words.

I’ve experienced the feeling of being in the true presence of divinity. It was a fully conscious experience and it came stamped with an undeniable feeling of authority. I came out of the experience thinking, “Oh, that’s what they mean when they say ‘God’.” In no way does this experience prove that there is some sort of external divine intelligence; it only proves that such a conscious experience is possible. Such a feeling is possible. It’s a beautiful feeling, but it says nothing about the fundaments of the universe, and the experience would have been totally impossible without matter (my brain, for example). I spend time every day cultivating that experience, and I need no belief of any kind to justify it. These are purely pragmatic concerns, denuded of metaphysics.

I’m sure these facts have been laid out for Mr. Chopra over and over again, yet he keeps on with his message, adjusting his pseudo-scientific jargon ever so slightly but failing to learn or change or grow. It makes me question his motives. The fact is that his name has become a brand, and to admit his prior confusion hurts the brand. After all, what does an enlightened spiritual guru need with a net worth of $80 million? He doesn’t need any of your money, and you don’t need any of his nonsense.

New Holidays

I’ve written before about my inability to connect with a lot of popular holidays. In Canada, we’ve just had two of these in Valentine’s Day and Family Day, a statutory holiday inaugurated in Ontario in 2007. While I respect, for the most part, the emotions these holidays are meant to evoke, I find these celebrations arbitrary and unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily take the day off.

Holidays motivate the economy in dependable ways and give people an emotional framework to relate to one another, but the attendant values promulgated for each are not usually values that I hold. I have trouble getting into the spirit of many holidays and find myself feeling like I’m basically just along for the ride.

In case the ruling Illuminati ask me what holidays I’d prefer, I have a few ready.

Reading Day

There is already such a thing as Canada Book Day (April 23rd) and the intentions behind it are similar to what I would propose, but on a larger scale. People remind themselves of the importance of books and more importantly, of reading, arguably the most important activity in the development of human intelligence. But I want a day off. A whole day to read, talk about books, and remind ourselves as a society that we can connect with each other across cultures and generations through words. The economical benefits of a day devoted to books could compete with the economical benefits of Valentine’s Day. A book costs $20, a Valentine’s Day card costs $5, and chocolates go equally well with either.

Day of Silence

In the interest of global sanity, I’d like to see everybody take a vow of silence for one day a year. Such a thing already exists in the GLBT community as a protest against discrimination, but what I’m after is silence for the sake of silence. One can learn a lot about oneself doing this practice; the habits we unconsciously carry out through language come into the spotlight when they are not an option. When we stop worrying about filling the awkward silences between us, we start to observe the emotions that drive us to inane chatter. Besides, with so much noise in our society, wouldn’t it just be nice? Again, here, I want a day off.

Day of Debate

Get together with friends and enemies and have a civil conversation with the goal of analyzing your own beliefs. It’s so easy to feel complacent in our beliefs and we spend a lot of time finding arguments for beliefs we already have. That’s why debates are important; our opposition, if they’ve done their homework, are bound to point out something we hadn’t considered. A day like this might help our myopic, partisan culture to share ideas in a productive way. Granted, most debates don’t solve anything on the spot, but sometimes when we hear an argument against our position, it takes root and develops over time. And naturally, one cannot be expected to work on the Day of Debate.

Yoga Day

This would be a day to cultivate yoga practice around the world. The physical and mental health benefits of yoga are undeniable, but the practice turns off a lot of people because of a maelstrom of misconceptions. I currently know of no particular day dedicated solely to yoga (the closest I found was World Healing Day), but one day per year devoted to serious education and practice would help dissolve these misconceptions and turn people on to this gentle, invigorating, ancient art.

Fast Day

Corporations would try to kibosh this before it got off the ground, but the health benefits of one day of fasting per year would probably have such a dramatic trickle-down effect on healthcare that it might be worth considering even from a purely economic standpoint. Unless you’re working a demanding physical job where you need calories, you can survive one day of fasting. It flushes out the system, gives the digestive tract a break, and points out all those instances during an average day where we reach for food simply out of habit.

Weekend of Absolute Hilarity

I joked about this previously but I do think it’s a good idea. I try to have a few of these per year. Just do what it takes to laugh your stress away. It’s a cliché, but who doubts that laughter eases our emotional tensions and leads to better health?