The Stopping Point of Sympathy

Warning: Here be spoilers for the latest Game of Thrones episode 7×04, for them as hasn’t seen it yet.

There seems to be a line that people draw in the sand when it comes to the amount of bull they will put up with from characters. Puppy kicking is usually the first one. As soon as you see a character harming an animal, that character has to die.

Different people draw different lines in the sand, of course. For some people, Cinderella saying that she stays with her awful step-family because she needs to keep living in her parents’ house that they lived in for hundreds of years, well, that’s a bit too stupid for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for her. (I am very much not one of those people. But that’s an opinion for a different post.)

For some people, the fact that Wesley threatens to strike Buttercup in the movie (and actually does strike her in the book) despite how much he claims to love her, well, that rings a billion alarm bells for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for him.

And for some people, the fact that Daenerys Targaryen refuses to help Jon Snow to the benefit of every life in Westeros Essos and beyond, purely because she wants him to bow and he won’t (because there’s no time for politics when literal ice zombies are coming)–

Well. You can imagine that some people might lose all sympathy for her.

It’s amazing how a formerly sympathetic character can become, well, former, in the space of a few short episodes. Daenerys had a complicated personality; most people on the show do; so it wasn’t like she was entirely pure and perfect before Season 7 started. But someone had to bring King’s Landing around Cersei’s ears, and Dany was the girl to do it.

But as Jon Snow points out, they’ve got bigger fish to fry these days. The problems that these characters face are literally life and death. And Daenerys is too focused on her personal goal of conquering Westeros to acknowledge that.

And even when Jon shows her a most convenient proof that White Walkers are real, she still insists that unless he swears fealty to him, she will not help.

This is the point when my BS indicator went into overload. Sorry, Daenerys, but for that last battle between the Dothraki and the Lannisters, I was actually rooting for Lannisters this time. Roasting people alive is an effective tactic, sure, and no one ever said war was nice. But the Casterly Rock plan was created specifically to avoid roasting people alive. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean your next step is to start roasting people! And I wouldn’t be surprised if her dragon Drogon died from this. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted an incredibly valuable resource for no reason whatsoever.

Try to divorce yourself from the Mad King’s reputation now, Dany. I dare you.

The trouble with Bad Boys

Aka: the Twilight phenomenon.

Acknowledging that I was a wee middleschooler when the Twilight books first boomed kind of dates me — as either Too Old To Be Cool or Very Much A Young’Un — but hey, I have an insider’s point of view. Yes, I was Team Jacob. Hold on, this is actually relevant.

The fact that Jacob was a werewolf was the main reason I was Team Jacob, but there were other reasons too. (Hold on, I’m getting there.)

My sister was very much Team Edward. One of the mutual friends we had at summer camp was also incredibly Team Edward. And naturally we had big arguments about who was better and, naturally, which of us was right and which was a soppy idiot. Ah, middle school. Preteens are savages.

In fact the main reason I was so firmly Team Jacob and so anti Team Edward was that Edward was a creepy vampire stalker who literally wanted to drink Bella’s blood, but Jacob, on the other hand, Would Never Hurt Bella Ever.

Yes, I believed this even after reading New Moon. You know, the one where Jacob forcibly kisses Bella and she punches him to try to make him stop, and then he tells her it’s her fault her wrist is broken.

So romantic, right?

</sarcasm>

But this whole Girls Liking Bad Boys, whether the boys in question are vampires or leather-studded bikers or powerful demigods hellbent on conquest, is a bit of a puzzler. Loki murders hundreds of people on the screen and girls swoon? I mean, really? I was fourteen and embarrassing once too, but really, younger self?

I think I’ve figured it out, though. Here it is, the Theory of Awkward Antihero Obsession:

“Bad guys are attractive because they have the ability to do bad things to other people BUT, and this is the important caveat, they would never hurt ME.”

Makes sense, mostly. There’s a sense of self-preservation in there somewhere, so that’s alright.

The problem with the Twilight books, while we were mid-craze, is that our definitions of the word “hurt” varied so much. Now, of course, we’ve grown up a bit and we can recognize that both Edward and Jacob are creeps.

But was it a good story?

It seems like most of the movies and books that I like include at least one minor (or major) character that I like, who bites the dust. Well, considering a book like Les Misérables, where only three major characters make it out alive, basically any character you attach yourself to is going to die horribly; the disclaimer is right there in the title. But even regular things like, well, like GotG2 or Wonder Woman, have cool characters that I really like that somehow manage to die. For a reason, yes! For a reason that is consistent with their previous characterization, yes! But still.

I can still remember the first time a character I liked died, because I pitched a fit in the Sears by the refrigerator section and my dad had to calm me down again. What can I say, I was a weirdly emotional seven year old. These days I don’t have melt-downs in public places, I just write fanfiction. A much better coping mechanism, if you ask me.

But when I tearfully described how Rose had been killed in Martin the Warrior, my dad asked a question that made me very reluctant and also very mutinous and also very, very confused: “But was it a good story?”

Uhh, sure, Dad, it was a good story, I guess. But the character died. And I didn’t want that character to die, I wanted the bad guys to die. Only the bad guys are allowed to die. (What can I say, I was seven. I still believed an evil alien was mind-controlling my third grade teacher.) And the fact of that character’s death hovered over everything else. I haven’t read any Redwall books in uh, probably about a decade, but off the top of my head I can tell you that the ones I reread included Taggerung (because it had an otter as a main character) and the ones I didn’t reread had Martin the Warrior at the top of the list.

But was it a good story? Well, that’s the kicker, because it depends on what you think of as the story.

To some people, it’s the plot and only the plot that constitutes the story. The swashbuckling pirates steal from the rich and escape the British Navy and ride away into the glittering sunset. The girl escapes from her evil stepfamily and sews a beautiful dress by hand and marries the handsome prince. Keanu Reeves kills a bunch of people as revenge for Theon Greyjoy killing his pet dog, and the Green Goblin, sorry Willem Defoe, helps his old buddy Keanu out.

To other people, it’s the characters that are the story, and the plot is nice and they enjoy it but it’s basically window dressing. Say what you like about Jane Austen, but Pride and Prejudice is about characters making decisions about themselves and each other. The plot isn’t grand, and it doesn’t have to be, because the characters are strong enough to propel the plot by themselves.

So when my dad asked, “Was it a good story?” and I sullenly answered “I guess,” we were working off different definitions of the word.

It’s pretty difficult to want to return to a story that includes part of the story dying off, unless (like in Les Mis, or Rogue One, or Romeo and Juliet — stop giving me that side-eye, they do have this one thing in common) there’s a big old disclaimer stamped everywhere and really what you’re reading is how and why they die. But meanwhile, people who focus on plot are just puzzled as to why you’re sobbing into your handkerchief in the theater.

“The movie was better”

“… and other sentences to irritate the heck out of nerds.”

When it comes to films like The Golden Compass, or the Harry Potter movies, then “the movie was better” becomes utter sacrilege. But for other films, sometimes it’s actually the truth. No, wait, hear me out.

Take Coraline for example. Yes, it added a character; yes, some of the scenes were completely rearranged, or even nixed; yes, the end result is very different from the original book. But having another person her age around made Coraline’s situation a little more stark. Having more scenes with the Other World enchanting her made more sense. And the end result, while different, was an enjoyable film with not only cool stop-motion animation but a story that had more than one lesson to take away from it.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like Coraline the book. I just enjoy Coraline the movie as its own, separate, entity. And the same can be said for other book-film or book-musical adaptations. Does Les Mis the musical slightly butcher themes and character development in order to fit over 500,000 words into a three hour play? Yes. But, taken as a separate entity, it’s just as much fun as the book, and much more accessible. Fewer people are likely to run screaming from Hugh Jackman’s singing in the 2012 movie than they are from the Waterloo digression in the book.

What’s cool is when you have something like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, where the director lifted an obscure comic character, Yondu Udonta, and took the bare bones of his identity and then created a whole new personality for the films. Maybe comic nerds are tearing their hair out over this, but I think it’s pretty neat. Take a look at Yondu’s page on the Marvel wiki. He’s a big blue alien with a bow and arrow, and he’s one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Well, James Gunn sure expanded on that. An empathically controlled floating arrow, a space pirate crew, a tragic backstory, some truly hilarious dialogue, and a character arc that I think could make a pretty decent oneshot movie. I haven’t read the comics that feature the original Yondu, but dang if I didn’t enjoy the new Yondu.

And that’s what it’s all about, really. Pandering to the masses is what entertainment is for. There can’t be room for snobbery.

Cursing in YA

On the one hand: You need a relatively good imagination to be able to insult people without using a curse word, and if you cram enough multisyllabic words in there it can be quite satisfying in and of itself. Shakespearean insults are nice for this sort of thing, but pull out a thesaurus and I guarantee that you’ll find something that not only came from one of the past two centuries but that sounds pretty impressive. SAT words! Yay!

On the other hand: There’s no substitute for the pure simplicity of saying a four-letter word. It gets across your meaning exactly.

On the other other hand: Characters who want to swear, but who can’t swear for one reason or another, are freaking hilarious. See Calhoun in the Pixar film Wreck-It Ralph. Now there’s a lady who wants to cuss a blue streak.

On the fourth hand: Characters (and people) who swear all the time, at the drop of a hat, can also be funny, but it’s a fine tightrope between “okay that was hilarious” and “dude, what the heck, you use these words so much that they’ve started to lose all meaning”. See the Melissa McCarthy movie Spy, where every single scene contains at least three four-letter words.

And YA is a touchy subject because, you know, kids are involved. Teenagers. I shudder to think what teenagers would do with the knowledge of swear words! Swearing in their literature! They’d start swearing in real life!! Oh the uncouth youth!!!

Yeah, I went to public school, and I guarantee you, they already know all of those words. They just don’t say them in front of you.

So when it comes to YA — books written for and about teenagers — it doesn’t really make sense to cut out swearing altogether. Like I said, they already know the words; a lot of them use them like they’re going out of style; frankly it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. And to quote from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day:

“I didn’t hear you swear.”

“Yes I did. I said ‘damned’ and ‘hell,’ and I meant them.”

“Oh, that’s not swearing. They came out of the sinful category an age ago!”

I’m not going to tell you that you have to swear. Sometimes coming up with alternatives can be way more fun, a way to flex your creative muscles. But let’s keep the pearl-clutching censorship to ourselves, shall we?

Wonder Woman

Warning: spoilers ahead for the movie.

When practically the first piece of exposition is a tale about how all the Greek gods were killed except Ares, I was pretty skeptical that this would turn out better than another Wrath of the Titans movie (or that awful Gods of Egypt thing). Having extensively read Greek mythology as a child, movies like that tend to make me cringe. The Greek gods can’t, don’t, die. That’s kind of the whole point. So the first few minutes I was just a little bit waiting to see how bad it was going to be.

The interactions between Steve and Diana were everything I could have hoped for. The culture clash was interesting and sometimes quite funny. Walking away from the movie, I was glad we finally got a superhero movie where the female character is the main focus and not the sidekick; and especially where the female character is just as well developed as any male protagonist. But mostly I thought about the antagonists in the story.

On the one hand, Hades was refreshingly absent as the bad guy; on the other hand, Ares was the bad guy, and Ares in the original myths is actually a pretty chill dude for being the god of war. Okay, substitute one stereotype for another. War is bad, rah rah, men are all good hearted if it weren’t for the devil’s sorry I mean Ares’ influence, rah rah. You know the drill.

The movie set out to fool you. Clearly David Thewlis and his mustache were not the bad guy. Clearly the fellow with the German accent was the bad guy, especially when he breathed the weird blue fumes. See? Evil comes in a little glass vial, or behind an unsettling mask. I do have to admit I was a little disconcerted when he revealed himself and went full armor mode but still had the signature Thewlis mustache. I’m sorry, dude. I can’t take you seriously anymore. All I can see is Creepy Remus Lupin in a metal suit.

It’s a study in assumptions. Diana makes a lot of them through the movie — part of that previously mentioned culture clash. The part where she declares that the Germans are all good people when out from under Ares’ influence made a lot of people in the theater cringe, and made Steve cringe too. The world is messy and imperfect and you can’t always win. And even when you do win, there are losses. I’ll admit that on a storytelling level I appreciated why Steve didn’t make it, even if on the audience level I was disgruntled.

It was an interesting movie with good characterizations, an interesting premise, and a lot of explosions. All in all, not darn bad, even with the skewed Greek mythos.