Monday, January 16, 2006

Stories Within Stories

I had a plan to spend this evening evaluating the latest in state-of-the-art film publishing from Wallflower and Reaktion, but a) I'm kind of scared of Reaktion's insectoid logo and b) it's Sunday evening, goddamnit. Traditionally, chez famille, Sunday evening was a time of cold cereal and quality children's television, usually of the literary adaptation variety: A Little Princess, The Diary of Anne Frank, My Family & Other Animals... which tells me I was conforming to this ritual even in my early teens, as the adaptation was broadcast at the same time as I was reading the book in secondary school (1989, for data queens).
But best of all, and now available on DVD for trips down nostalgia lane, was The Storyteller, brought lavishly to life by Jim Henson's production company. This would have had the best place by the fire in my house anyway, because it was by the Muppet guy -- and we loved the Muppets. That his company was also responsible for Labyrinth, my favourite film until I was 16 (and saw Jean Cocteau's not-dissimilar Belle et la Bete), didn't hurt the show's chances of stopping tea time in its tracks.
When I stumbled across the DVD in [insert megastore name here] last year (while looking for Eerie, Indiana, another massively under-rated show that has aged worse than Pete Burns), I was astonished to see that there were only ever nine episodes of the series made. In my head, it assumed epic proportions, running for at least as long as Fraggle Rock, and possibly longer: it seemed to have pervaded my entire conscious life as a pre-teen. Was that just because I was obsessed by fairy tales? Or because I took on the role of family storyteller?
Strangely, as I read down the DVD booklet, I found that there was only one episode that I could remember with any clarity: Sapsorrow, whose epigraph "based on an old German fairy tale" gives no hint of the complex mesh of tales woven together here, or of the basic structure, which is from the Jacques Perrault story, Peau D'Ane (Donkey Skin).
It's hard to call it a "basic" story. It's not one of the beloved canon of English fairy tales. In fact, I'd forgotten its existence - and the existence of the show - until I was in my first year of university (Shakespeare class), reading Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde. Her chapter on father/daughter incest plots (in which she includes all of the Shakespearean romances) describes in detail the transmission of the basic structure a saint's tale (Saint Dympna, I think) to Shakespeare to Perrault and elsewhere. In the Henson version (written by Anthony Minghella), it is a magic ring, owned by the now-dead queen, that binds the king to marry the woman whose finger it fits - and, with the tragic logic of fairy tales, it fits the finger of his youngest, sweetest daughter. The king is decidedly reluctant - and this is where Minghella's version makes its change.
In Peau D'Ane, in Saint Dympna's story, and at the start of Pericles, the father is all too willing to comply with the mythic or cultural logic that precipitates the incestuous marriage. What Minghella can't change is the result: it's the girl who is punished, fleeing her father (as in the Goose Girl or Love like Salt) into servitude, disguised by being disgusting. In Jacques Demy's bizarre film version, Peau D'Ane (Catherine Deneuve) struggles to project or perform degradation, being clearly Catherine Deneuve at all times. In Sapsorrow, the disguise is effective in a truly Hensonian way, turning the actress playing Sapsorrow (Alison Doody) into a Muppet-like creature of matted fur and feathers, something tufty and puppet-like.
Although our minds have grown used to smoother integration between puppets, animation and live action, the herky-jerky of Hensonia reminds me that the figures in these tales are all puppets of fate (even the Storyteller himself is subject to the whim of the tale's logic in A Story Short). Now I can watch the episodes with enough book-larnin' to unpick and critique the mish-mash of references melded into portmanteau tales (some more successful than others) - and point to the absence of other references in this Euro-dominated "mythic" canon - I wonder whether my reason for watching isn't still the same: to hope that each retelling presents the characters with an opportunity to resist fate's string-pulling and change the tale? Writers like Angela Carter, and Warner herself, have used feminist narrative logic to do just that, but ultimately their work - as with my viewing habits - is compelled by the tales themselves, their inexorability and repetition, their unsettlingly neat happy endings that never deal with the unhappy dealings that have gone before.
If this all seems a little heavy for a Sunday night, it makes me wonder what else I absorbed (or resisted) from lessons learnt at the television's knee - and also at the lack of small screen adaptations being made for children right now. There's the adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson's Tracy Beaker, but that's weekday programming - quite different. On a Sunday, when the whole (mythical) nuclear family is gathered to watch, what's being shown that helps children learn to see their family as "other animals," to protect themselves from the worst stories as they repeat endlessly?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Breaking the Mood

Just finished indulging in Rebel Angels, the sequel to A Great & Terrible Beauty, a YA fantasy novel that I dismissed on first reading and then discovered surprising depths to when I re-read it. Both books stand out among the current crop of YA fiction for being set in historical London, as opposed to a fictionalised historical London (like the Bartimaeus books). They remind me of Phillip Pullman's Ruby in the Smoke series, both in having the requisite feisty heroine, and in their fascination with the diverse and dirty nooks of Holmesian London (there's even a character in Rebel Angels who lives on Baker Street).
Of course, the feisty heroine is surprisingly modern - in a way that reminds the reader just how modern the educated women of the late nineteenth century were. Yet Gemma Doyle is not just advocating for women to get the vote; her liberal thinking encompasses revisionist feminist history, anti-racism, a narcotics harm reduction policy, sexual liberation, an awareness of sexual abuse, bulimia and self-cutting. All this in 500 pages. It's a heavy book in more ways than one. Jan Mark describes the weight of this generation of YA novels when she writes in her review of Girl & Gander that "[there was] a time when it was believed that children were not equal to the demands of long books. Now it has been established beyond doubt that they are, it need not be forgotten that they can still appreciate short ones."
On the one hand, I salute Ms. Bray, the funky livejournalling New Yorker who hit the bestseller list with A Great & Terrible Beauty, for her courage in including these meaningful contemporary issues, and considering how they might play out in Victorian London, with its opium dens, Indian servants, corsets and "benevolently" dictatorial patriarchy. On the other (and in fairness, I've read very few Victorian novels but more than the average 14 year old), the inclusion of these glaringly modern tropes - particularly the character who cuts herself - is as jarring as twentieth-century Americanisms like "intermission" (for "interval" at the opera) and "gotten."
But while a careful editor might have picked up on the rips in the linguistic fabric (which, to be fair, are few and far between), it requires a complete rethink on a narrative and symbolic level to imagine telling the story of young women in another era through the bodily and emotional tropes through which they would have conceived themselves. Bray is excellent on fainting, dancing and suitors, but in her attempt to make the book "relevant" and educational - or inclusive - to contemporary teen readers, she destroys the very illusion that makes the book so compelling: the construction of a world that is different from our own, that may experience the same situations, the same feelings, but expresses them in its own way. While I'm all for the conceit of a fantastic feminism (inspired, in the novels, by a magical realm controlled by a powerful group of women known as the Order), Gemma's inclusion of her friends in the new Order - one sexually abused by her father, one poor and self-harming, one an Indian servant, one insane - smacks simultaneously of modern multiculturalism and of a tokenist sentimentalism for the victimised that is all to Tiny Tim.