Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dabbling in other genres

I've talked plenty about the kinds of books I like to read and the kinds of movies I like to watch. For the most part, this is comparable with my D&D fandom; I like swashbuckling action movies, rip-roaring pulp take-offs, and even a bit of gothic and cosmic horror. My favorite books include Lord of the Rings and the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and my favorite movies include Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, the 1970s Michael York adaptation of The Three Musketeers, and anything that features Errol Flynn, Olivia de Haviland and Michael Curtiz working together (why didn't I ever consider naming one of my boys Errol, anyway?)

That said, I've often said and read that it's important to look outside of ones chosen genre and see what else is happening in the world of entertainment lest one become so insular and calcified in ones taste that one is missing out. So, today, I'm going to talk briefly about another of my favorite movies of all time, one which on a whim I watched again last night, the 2005 big screen adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice (using the ampersand in the movie title, although not the novel title.)

This may seem surprising to some, and maybe even heretical. Seriously? Pride & Prejudice? The ultimate chick flick storyline from before there even were flicks for chicks? Yep, that one. And yes, this really is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Although I've never read Austen's book in its entirety (and probably never will) I first fell in love with the story when my wife made me watch the 1995 BBC/A&E adaptation featuring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the two starring roles. Pride and Prejudice takes place, like all of Jane Austen's books, during the Regency era, and I'm convinced that living the life of the landed genry during the Regency must have been one of the most boring professions in the history of the world. In a society where laughter, emotion, or wit was considered vulgar, and the gentry prided themselves on not working, or really, in not doing much of anything at all, I couldn't imagine how I could possibly enjoy five and a half hours of what I imagined to be the driest, most dull bit of television ever filmed. Frankly, my sympathies were with the Regiment; going to the Continent to fight the French seemed a perhaps desperate, yet also desperately needed cure for a life of unremitting dullness.

While that description may possibly have applied to the five or six previous attempts to film Pride and Prejudice as a BBC miniseries (I don't know and am unlikely to at this point; the two P&Ps that I've seen almost universally beat the pants off of any prior adaptation in every review of the subject), the 1995 one humanized the main characters considerably, and I found myself surprisingly charmed by the likeable and often humorous characters and the fantastically witty dialogue. I later went out and bought a copy on DVD for my wife, and found that more often than not, I wasn't able to convince her to invest the time in watching it when I was interested, so I watched it alone or with her several times.

In 2005, when the Keira Knightly and Matthew MacFadyen led cast put their efforts out on the big screen, I was a bit sceptical, yet excited to see what they'd done with it. And, for the most part, I found that the things I liked about the 1995 adaptation were strengthened and bolstered. In the words of Roger Ebert, "this is not a well-mannered "Masterpiece Theatre" but a film where strong-willed young people enter life with their minds at war with their hearts." The movie felt very much more alive and passionate than anything that even the 1995 adaptation had done. While I found myself a bit dizzied at times by the pace, and disappointed with things that had to be cut from a five and a half hour long adaptation vs. a slightly longer than two hour adaptation, everything that the movie did do, it did better than its predecessor. I even thought MacFadyen managed to carve out his own niche in the long shadow that Colin Firth cast in the role as Mr. Darcy. And the soundtrack, largely piano with some subtle string orchestra at times as well, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written to accompany any cinematic endeavor. The only thing I found disappointing was the casting and reduced role of Mr. Wickham, which felt like barely more than a nod to his role in the longer adaptation or the book. In fact, if he wasn't actual crucial to the development of the plot, I think the screenwriters would have eliminated him entirely, which they nearly succeeded in doing anyway, making his pivotal role seem almost a bit surprising when it occurs (or well, it would if I wasn't mentally filling in the gaps with material I remembered from the prior adaptation.) Both adaptations fail to provide the epilogue that the novel does, which is probably wise, but as we come to quite admire and like these characters, it is unfortunate that we don't get to see just a hint of their further development.

How is this helpful to fantasy adventure roleplaying? Well, honestly it probably isn't, at least not directly. If you're planning on integrating Regency manners stories into your game, you're on your own. Even an avowed fan of the movie like me wouldn't touch that with a ten foot pole. However, indirectly, the interactions and the dialogue have had a big impact on my portrayal of characters in general.

And that's really where I'm going with this. If you don’t expose yourself to conventions and viewpoints and plots and characters and paradigms from other genres, your toolkit when it comes to portraying all of these elements is going to be extremely shallow and limited. I've even heard some fans express the fact that they only read D&D novels… not even other fantasy novels! This needlessly limited and sadly provincial attitude can perhaps be overcome by a person with a natural talent for developing plots, characters and situations, but wouldn't it be easier to simply tank up on good influences you can adopt with less work? I make no bones about the fact that my fantasy RPGs tend to feel like fantasy versions of Robert Ludlum spy thriller plots, and that my settings' hinterlands bear an uncanny resemblance to the Old West, especially as portrayed in the darker and grimmer spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. My urban scenes feel like fantasy gangster flicks or hardboiled detective novels.

Are those unusual influences in fantasy? Possibly. But, I'd like to think that's part of what keeps my games somewhat fresh. To be honest with you, I'm completely done with retreading tired old high fantasy cliches or reflecting the "hero's journey". It just doesn't sound appealing to me at all anymore.


Anonymous said...

I can't imagine limiting myself to D&D novels. The only D&D fiction I remember fondly is the Chronicles of the Lance, and that recently turned out to be mostly nostalgia when I reread the first few chapters. The others get a four letter word from my critic.

That said, I only watched Pride and Prejudice because I was in love with a fan at the time. ;)

Joshua said...

I have to admit, I picked Pride & Prejudice on purpose because I knew it would be the complete opposite of what most would expect.

I'm not immune from the temptation of going for cheap shock value.