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The secret book sweatshop behind Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys

March 15, 2013 3 comments

The Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries Television Series

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have been foiling thieves, smugglers and pirates for a long, long time. So long, in fact, that their authorship is what you might call the Curious Case, or the Mystery, or perhaps the Secret of the Immortal Authors.

The Hardy Boys series was first published in 1927. Nancy Drew debuted in 1930. That’s over 80 years ago, yet every single book has been written by the same authors. Franklin W. Dixon has written about 400 Hardy Boys stories, and the ever-so-prolific Carolyn Keene has penned over 200 Nancy Drew cases.

Turns out that – as you’ve probably guessed by now – Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene are like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride.
Read more…

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Author Agatha Christie’s death pact with her hated hero Hercule Poirot

February 15, 2013 3 comments

David Suchet Hercule Poirot Agatha Christie

Imagine you’re stuck working with someone you absolutely despise, but the only way you can do your job is to remain with that person. Maybe you married the boss’ daughter and things are rocky. Maybe someone’s got nudie pics of you and they’re using them to get favours. Whatever the case, your success is tied to keeping that despicable person around.

Now, imagine you could have that nasty individual killed as soon as you yourself passed away. It could be in a month, a year, or half a century; no matter what happens, when your will is read, that person will die.

Aside from being illegal, that’d be a pretty sweet piece of revenge from beyond the grave, wouldn’t it?

Well, that’s exactly what Agatha Christie did, only the person she hated wasn’t her publisher, her ex-husband, or her agent.

It was a fictional character of her own creation: the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

Look at the ancient hate in those eyes.

Detective Hercule Poirot was arguably the most storied character to come out of Agatha Christie’s illustrious writing career. He was short, prim, fussy, prone to stomach problems, and extremely good at solving murder mysteries. Fans loved him, but Christie considered him to be a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”

That didn’t stop her from writing him, though. Christie was a smart woman, and she saw Poirot for the cash cow he was. She grudgingly accepted him as a necessary part of her writing career, but she had a plan in place to prevent him from achieving Sherlock Holmesian immortality. She even acknowledged her fear of the Holmes effect in an essay she wrote called “Why I got Fed Up with Poirot”. In the essay, she advises young writers of detective fiction to “be very careful what central character you create – you may have him with you for a very long time!”

With words like that, you might think Christie was a one-hit wonder with Poirot, but that wasn’t the case at all. Poirot was huge, but so was Christie’s mystery-solving granny Miss Marple, and the author also received plenty of accolades for her stage play The Mousetrap.

Hasbro Mouse Trap board game

The script has seen some loose reinterpretation over the years.

But for Christie, it was all about Poirot. She saw her relationship with Poirot as a sort of shotgun marriage; he’d gotten her far, and she was obliged to stay with him for the sake of her fans, despite her hatred for the character. That said, Christie was great at writing murder mysteries, and in her own way, she had the perfect murder cooked up for Poirot himself.

You see, Christie was British during a time when it sucked to be British: namely, during the Blitz of World War II, when the Nazis had Britain under siege. Bombs were dropping, people were dying, and Christie had no guarantee that she would live through it.

So, with mortal danger in the sky, Christie tended to what might well have been her dying wish: the death of Hercule Poirot.

That’s right; Agatha Christie wrote Poirot’s death story “Curtain” in 1945 – along with the death story of Miss Marple – and included both stories in her will, complete with publication instructions in the event of her death. She even stored the manuscripts in a bank vault to ensure their survival.

That’s dedication to your craft – or dedication to your hatred.

Luckily for Christie, Poirot, and poor Miss Marple, Christie survived the Blitz and continued to write both characters for another 30 years.

Old hatreds die hard, though, and Christie was a determined old woman. In 1975, with her health failing, the 85 year-old writer lived to see Poirot die of a poison-induced heart attack when she published “The Curtain” in October of that year.

The public reaction was incredible. Christie’s “ego-centric little creep” got himself a front page obituary in the New York Times, complete with photograph. It was the first time a fictional character had ever received an obituary, proving that – even in death – Poirot would continue to haunt Christie’s last days.

And they were her last days, as the aged author died mere months later in January of 1976.

Thus ended the storied career of Agatha Christie, but Poirot was far from done.

As is always the case with famous characters, they live on long past their literary deaths through repeated film and television incarnations. Christie killed Poirot in part to keep others from writing future stories, but she couldn’t control adaptations of her existing tales. Poirot has been portrayed by a long list of accomplished actors ranging from Ian Holm and David Suchet to Alfred Molina and Albert Finney.

He’s also seen his fair share of send-ups that would have Christie rolling over in her grave.

Jason Alexander George Costanza Muppets as Hercule Poirot

George Costanza as Poirot. Eat your heart out, Christie!

It was a great move by Christie, but fans of Hercule Poirot have kept him alive long past his expiry date.

If anything, Christie can be thankful that her name will last as long as Poirot’s does – together forever in their twisted literary shotgun marriage.

Multi-film novel adaptations becoming a disturbing Hollywood trend

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Peter Jackson The Hobbit Part 1 An Unexpected Journey Bilbo Thorin Dwarves Martin Freeman

It’s becoming an all-too-common trend: popular novels are being awkwardly hacked into chunks and transformed into overlong feature-length films to prolong franchise life and score extra ticket receipts. Fans love it, but for the uninitiated it’s resulting in poorly-constructed stories that fail to offer the closure expected out of a traditional movie experience.

So far, film producers have only had the cojones to do it with much-beloved book franchises with cult followings, and that’s unlikely to change. In a movie era where the cinemas are dominated by nostalgic reboots, novel adaptations and comic book superheroes, film companies clearly place an incredible amount of faith in pre-established audiences.

That’s why they’ve pushed the boundaries of solid filmmaking by creating incomplete movies: they know a die-hard (or Twi-Hard) fan is willing to accept an incomplete movie and pay for admission twice because they’re already committed to the product. Making two Twilight films prolongs the fantasy experience and adds double the ticket receipts, plus an extra boost for 3D and IMAX surcharges.

Given that most moviegoers wouldn’t stomach an original film that’s only partially written (unless it’s from Quentin Tarantino), it’s safe to say we won’t ever see Anchorman 2: Part 1.

Anchorman 2 Will Ferrell Ron Burgundy

“Great Odin’s raven! Why not?”

But these multi-film novel adaptations are a practice you simply won’t get away with in any other area of life.

Imagine you’re in high school English and your first term paper is due. 500 words on one of the major themes in The Hobbit. Due Friday.

You pick power as your topic. Easy one, right? Just slot your argument into the old five paragraph essay format and you’re golden: intro, body, conclusion. Boom.

Now imagine you write the essay in 1800 words. You chop it at exactly 600 words for each, and you shrink the font and expand the margins to squeeze it all into the typical page length. You turn in the first chunk and think: “That’s way more words than the teacher asked for, so she’ll be impressed that I’m so smart. And I’ve got enough to turn in for my next two essays, too. I’m covered for the year!”

You get an F. In the top corner, written in red, your teacher wrote: “This is a long intro with one paragraph and no conclusion. Next time, write an essay.”

English class teacher gives an F Fail

“Also, you’re over word count, dumbass.”

That’s exactly what Peter Jackson did with The Hobbit. He took a book with the subtitle “There and Back Again” and made a movie about getting partway There. His next two movies will be The Desolation of Smaug (i.e. There for a While) and There and Back Again (i.e. Eventually Going Back Again). And if you haven’t read the book, Bilbo’s journey home is a total victory lap; nothing gets in his way or slows him down to make it interesting.

Hobbit An Unexpected Journey Martin Freeman Bilbo smoking a pipe Tolkien

He just does a lot of this.

There’s a lot of narrative padding and extra story added to An Unexpected Journey to get it up to an unwieldy three hours. the film could have realistically been done in two. Now, consider how much Jackson is going to have to pad the next two movies to make each one three hours.

There’s also the near-inevitability that the Blu-ray release will see an extended cut for each film, the same way Lord of the Rings was released. Jackson added two and a half hours of footage to those films from the material he had to cut. So rest assured, Tolkien fans: you’ll eventually get to see the scenes Jackson left out of this Hobbit trilogy. You’ll finally see the origin of Radagast’s bird poop haircut, and Jackson will certainly add back in every single song from the novel, including the Rivendell elves’ song:

O! What are you seeking,
And where are you making?
The faggots are reeking,
The bannocks are baking!
O! tril-lil-lil-lolly
the valley is jolly,
ha! ha!

It’s really not the same story without a tril-lil-lil-lolly.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the first to try splitting one book into two movies. In fact, Warner Bros. toyed with the idea of making Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire into two films back in 2004, but scrapped the idea and – much to the chagrin of Potter fans – made some aggressive story cuts instead. Not so with Deathly Hallows: according to producer David Heyman, the choice to split the movie up was left entirely in the hands of the filmmakers, and they opted to do it because there were too many plot points to hit in the final film for them to squeeze it all into a reasonable length. They were looking at a 4.5 hour single film unless they split it up, so they went ahead with the divison. They also had plenty of support from J.K. Rowling herself.

So, while critics were annoyed by the sudden halt midway through the plot, fans delighted to know that J.K. Rowling’s epic Potter conclusion would get all the screen time it needed to tie up every loose end for the franchise. Shooting both movies together meant a prolonged two-year break between Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, but the result was a fully-realized adaptation for fans, and a box office bonanza for Warner Bros. Together, the two Deathly Hallows films grossed nearly $2.3 billion in worldwide revenue.

Harry Potter Gringott's Goblin Bank Money Counting

“$2,284,510,930 to be exact.”

If J.K. Rowling was supportive of a proposed split for her final book, then Stephanie Meyer was downright adamant: she insisted that there was too much content to Breaking Dawn for it to be anything but a two-film finale. The announcement that Breaking Dawn would be a two-parter came just five months before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 hit theatres, and Twilight fans were stoked. Meyer’s rabid fanbase devoured both parts of the final sparkling vampire story, and the two films grossed a combined $1.5 billion worldwide. Critics panned it, but the only complaint you heard out of Twi-Hards was that they had to wait in line twice – and subject their ear drums to prepubescent girl screams twice – to see Bella marry Edward and pop out a vamp kid.

Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn Bella Edward Vampires Wedding Kristen Stewart Robert Pattinson

“OMG we’re so happy to be vampire married!”

Fast-forward again to Peter Jackson, who is creating a nine-hour trilogy from a 150-page book originally written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children, with all the bits that weren’t coherent enough for The Lord of the Rings shoved in around the edges to fill in run time. There are added subplots and artificial end points to get each movie out the door in a more or less self-contained form, but it’s clear this is a trilogy that never should have been.

Unlike with Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga, Hobbit fans need not fear that the book will be shortchanged. Instead, the danger is it’s getting lost in the noise of all the added material.

The audacious part about the Hobbit trilogy is that it was initially planned as a two-film project. A third film was added just five months before the first movie debuted, meaning Jackson had to scramble to re-edit his movies and re-shoot footage to make everything coherent.

There is plenty to like about An Unexpected Journey. It’s well-acted, the special effects are grand and Middle-Earth is as beautiful, dangerous and exhilarating as ever. But this series is too much of a good thing.

The Hobbit is about a band of dwarves in pursuit of a pile of riches.

The story of its film adaptation is about that same pursuit.

Movie Review: The Hobbit Part 1: An Unexpected Journey

December 14, 2012 Leave a comment

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Tolkien Peter Jackson Martin Freeman Bilbo Baggins with Sting

By turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – a children’s book that spawned The Lord of the Rings – into its own film trilogy, director Peter Jackson has made three Misty Mountains out of one hobbit hill. The Hobbit Part 1: An Unexpected Journey suffers from a script trying to do too many things at once, and some strong acting performances are dwarfed (pardon the pun) by a lack of cohesion in the plot.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes a band of 13 dwarves on a quest to retake their ancestral home from the dragon who has taken up residence there. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and accompanied by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), they are set up with a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and sent on their way.

Tolkien’s book gets them to the end of their story in under 200 pages; Peter Jackson plans to get them there in 9 cinematic hours. For those following along at home, Part 1 takes the story up to the party’s rescue by the eagles on the other side of the Misty Mountains.

Jackson seems so gleeful to be back in Middle-Earth that his source takes a back seat to his previous achievements.

For fans of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he seems to have inserted absolutely every cast member who agreed to come back. Ian McKellen is once again splendid as Gandalf; Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, and it’s great to see octogenarian Christopher Lee come out to play Saruman again.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Gandalf with Elrond holding Glamdring in Rivendell

LOTR alums Gandalf (Ian McKellen) with Elrond (Hugo Weaving).

Andy Serkis is frightening and sympathetic all at once as Gollum. Elijah Wood’s return as Frodo is cute, but unnecessary. Cate Blanchett is a fantastic elf queen, but her Galadriel doesn’t need to be in this story. Jackson is clearly a stickler for continuity, but he doesn’t do much to show us something we haven’t seen before. He’s so clearly established his version of Middle-Earth that the most interesting parts are the areas he’s only now filling in.

The real success of this film is its new lead. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is too awkward and polite to say no to anything. He manages to be uncomfortable and homesick without being a whiner, and there’s an underlying strength to him that really carries the film. He’s supposed to be the center of this story, and Freeman is up to that challenge.

Too bad the story strays from Bilbo far too often.

An Unexpected Journey is a flabby shadow of The Lord of the Rings, overstuffed with extra bits of footage and links to the trilogy that only bog it down for a three-hour running time that could have easily been trimmed to two. It’s appalling to know that they’ve stretched this story into two more films, with even more filler subplots crammed in to get it up to the proper size.

There is so much to this film that is absolutely needless. There’s a meandering intro from old Bilbo (Ian Holm), who is trying to write while a young Frodo (Elijah Wood) pokes around Bag End. Compare this doddering start to the grand opening of The Fellowship of the Ring, with its haunting score, Cate Blanchett voiceover and quick summary of the backstory, and it’s clear Peter Jackson has been given too much leash with this second crack at Middle-Earth.

The movie smacks of a director too much in love with his source material, and it’s positively brimming with fan service moments. Jackson unabashedly recycles camera angles and bits of dialogue to the point where it goes beyond the occasional wink at the audience and becomes more of a sharp jab in the ribs: “Remember when Gandalf hit his head on the chandelier? That’s still funny, right?”

That said, Jackson also makes numerous departures from the source text that serve only to muddle the tone of the film. Tolkien’s novel was meant for children; it had a lot more humour and a lot less morality than his later books. Jackson appears to struggle with that difference as he tries to marry the epic scale of The Lord of the Rings with the ridiculousness of 13 loud, hungry dwarves showing up uninvited for a house party. He tries to make the story larger than it needs to be.

One of the biggest changes to Tolkien’s source text is that Jackson has essentially grafted on other bits of the Middle-Earth story to create a prequel for Sauron’s rise. He draws from The Lord of the Rings appendix to create a subplot for Gandalf and his fellow wizards Saruman and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Sauron and his Ringwraiths are gathering themselves in Mirkwood, and Radagast – who we do not see in the novel – is the first one to warn his allies. It’s tough to take him seriously, though, as he drives a sled drawn by rabbits and he quite literally has white bird shit plastered to the side of his face the entire time.

Radagast the Brown the Hobbit an Unexpected Journey Tolkien Peter Jackson Sylvester McCoy

Note the white mess on his face.

The Hobbit wasn’t written as an intentional prequel to what The Lord of the Rings became. It simply didn’t have the grand scope of good versus evil that the later books had. The Hobbit is an adventure tale about a mild-mannered person who discovers new strengths in himself when he is put in extraordinary situations. The Hobbit is about Bilbo. By forcing the Sauron plot onto it – and by inserting an Orc nemesis for Thorin to square off with at the film’s climax – Jackson is creating too many threads to tie up. Obviously they will be tied up by the third film, but this first one should be able to stand on its own feet.

Jackson may be reliving his LOTR heyday, but there’s little evidence he’s grown since then in An Unexpected Journey.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable return to the magical and picturesque Middle-Earth. It doesn’t hit the high notes or plumb emotional depths the way it’s predecessors did, but it’s absolutely worth seeing.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Dracula: Lord of the copyright undead

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Bram Stoker Dracula Vampire

Dracula is the granddaddy-baddy of vampires: just about every long-running vampire story in film, TV, comics and fiction has eventually thrown him into the mix. He is the template for every modern variation (even the sparkly Twilight ones), and there’s a reason he keeps coming up: Bram Stoker’s legal mistakes made it impossible to keep a copyright lid on Drac’s coffin.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Dracula

Even Buffy couldn’t keep him down.

The major reason Dracula never truly dies is that there are no legal chains to keep him in his coffin. While Stoker wrote a bulletproof publishing contract in England for the book’s 1897 release, something went wrong in the process of debuting it in the United States, and as a result, it was in the public domain from the start.

Monsters Inc. Disney Roz

“You didn’t file your paperwork!”

That basically opened the door for anyone to swoop in and use the property, and the door’s been open ever since. You can get a copy of Dracula absolutely anywhere, legally, for free. Paperback printings are pure profit; the only expenses are printing costs and a fee to whichever English professor they pick to write the foreword. Go to the iTunes store and look up free eBooks. Dracula is about as common as the Bible or anything by those Bronte chicks.

The US copyright bungle hurt Stoker’s estate in the long run, but he still made a healthy profit off it during his life. It was loose in the US, but in 1900 the planet was a long way away from becoming a global village.

Stoker went on to write a few other things that weren’t nearly as successful as Dracula before taking the final dirt nap himself in 1912.

One year later, his widow Florence needed some cash, so she put ol’ Bram back to work again. She sold off his working notes for Dracula that year, then in 1914 she published Dracula’s Guest, a collection of short stories from her husband’s unfinished writings. The title story was a chunk from Dracula’s first section that Stoker had cut from the final draft.

Children of Hurin JRR Tolkien

Sound familiar?

That kept Florence going for a little while, but she long outlived her husband and had to keep milking his achievements. Women’s rights, voting and skinny jeans were still years away, meaning Florence couldn’t go out and get a job. with Bram dead, she was married to Dracula‘s earnings.

In 1922, A German adaptation of Dracula called Nosferatu was produced, and Florence went right after it with a lawsuit. She liked the idea, though, and sold the rights to Dracula for a theatre production that Bram had put on once. After the play’s success, Florence cashed in her chips for good: she sold the play to Universal Studios, and unloaded the novel rights, too. Universal kept the actor from the Broadway production as its Dracula for the film.

Bram Stoker Bela Lugosi Vampire Dracula

Some guy named Lugosi.

After hocking his notes, his deleted work and the rights to the greatest thing he’d ever written (in all of its forms), Florence wasn’t done. No one knows when, but at some point she pawned off one of Stoker’s manuscripts for Dracula. That manuscript contained author notes, revisions and an alternate ending. And where did they find it?

Bram Stoker Vampire Dracula Pennsylvania Manuscript Barn

Hint: not a dark scary crypt.

That’s right: it was dug up in a barn in the 1980s, unearthed by a tax lawyer. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought it at auction and has locked it away. Few have seen it, and Allen makes anyone who looks at it sign a non-disclosure agreement.

And who can blame him? Paul Allen is the first man in over a century to actually control a copy of Dracula that you can’t get off Project Gutenberg.

Paul Allen Teeth Microsoft

You think he’s jealous of Drac’s nice teeth?