Book Adaptations: Should you Read First and Watch Later?

the men who stare at goats

Recently some friends and I got into a discussion about The Men Who Stare at Goats, a truly hideous film based on an equally hideous book. The book is a depiction of some of the U.S Army’s exploration of the military benefits of holistic techniques, such as the idea that staring at goats could kill them. The film, of the same name, is a fictionalised portrayal of the goat staring project and the sheer absurdity of it.

Much like A Short History of Tractors in Ukraine or Purple Hibiscus, readers expect there to be more to the title of books than first meets the eye; however, with The Men Who Stare at Goats, there is simply a lot of staring at goats, interceded with weird anecdotes about other, equally strange projects that America’s military and secret services have untaken over the years.

When I informed my friends that I have in fact read the book prior to watching the film, they were aghast. Surely, if I knew how dull the subject matter and how dire the execution was already, I was incredibly stupid to waste my time watching the film?

This got me thinking about whether it was better to read the book or watch the film first. As my recent review will testify, I was hugely looking forward to Kenneth Branagh’s recent film adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, despite having read the book, therefore already knowing whodunit, which is effectively the point of a crime story.

Despite this, I felt that this does not dampen my enjoyment of the film. Knowing the plot did not change the experience, perhaps because they are different mediums. After all, apart from watching the David Suchet version, I had only ever encountered the story in book form, and even different film adaptations use different cinematic techniques to bring a story to life.

That being said, I do find it difficult to read a book after I have seen it adapted for either film or TV. I find that my imagination automatically strays towards the film’s version of the setting and characters, and I often struggle to accept even minor alterations in plot or characterisation.

As such, personally I believe that books should always be read first, to allow the reader to adjust to the style and characters before they are exposed to the filmmaker’s view of the story. Film and TV are both very visual, whereas with books one tends to visualise depending on how their imagination decodes the words on the pages. I would be interested to hear other people’s opinions on this, and whether you think you should read first, or if you feel that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

 

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Pigeon Blood Red Review: An Interesting Gangster Novel With Nothing to Do With Birds

BOOK COVER

Despite the frankly ludicrous title, this book is actually an enticing and fascinating thriller with absolutely nothing to do with dead birds (the name refers to the novel’s innovative description of the colour of rubies).

The novel has everything you need in a thriller, from gangsters such as the protagonist, enforcer Richard “Rico” Sanders, a missing jewel belonging to his thuggish boss, a chase around the world and a group of innocent bystanders who get caught in the crossfire.

Then Rico goes and spoils it all by falling in love, and the next thing we know there is a great deal more emotion going around than I like in my thrillers. I prefer more tension and fewer adoring adjectives, although the chase more than makes up for the mushiness and there are some truly tense passages that give the novel an air of suspense.

Author Ed Duncan is a lawyer, and that made this novel even more interesting, as it is not the legal procedural I was expecting. He provides a unique insight into the novel and the reason he enjoyed creating it.

“It’s always been said that you should write what you know. I am a lawyer – as is a pivotal character in the novel who is being pursued by a hit man – and I’m excited to be able to use my legal training creatively as well as professionally.”

Overall a solid thriller, Pigeon Blood Red loses momentum in places, but benefits from evocative description, a wealth of interesting characters and an interesting plot.

Pat Krapf Interview: “What drew me to darker fiction was my fascination with delving into the sinister side of human nature”

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Pat Krapf, author of the Darcy McClain and Bullet series of mysteries, talks me through her work and the journey she made to create it.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you toward darker fiction?

When I began my career, I worked as a copywriter and technical writer. Writing concise, snappy advertising copy kept me focused on the message. As a technical writer, I wrote and edited operation and service manuals, which helped me hone my organizational and descriptive skills, paying close attention to small details but never losing sight of the big picture.

What drew me to darker fiction was my fascination with delving into the sinister side of human nature. But out of the darkness, there is light—that light being my main character Darcy McClain, who, with help from her giant schnauzer sidekick Bullet, does her best to right the world’s wrongs.

What is your background in writing and how did you get into writing crime fiction?

At age nine I became addicted to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries and started penning short stories, all the while wondering if I would ever have enough to say to write an entire book. In college, I worked for the school newspaper and wrote a weekly column. After I earned my journalism degree from the University of Oregon, I worked in the aerospace and medical industries, which introduced me to a wealth of scientific and technological data. Intrigued by this knowledge, I’ve used it in my series to do some good, but mostly to weave dark plots.

Tell me about your books and how you came to write and then publish them.

My debut novel in the Darcy McClain and Bullet Thriller Series was Brainwash. The gist, is that what begins as a missing person’s case soon escalates into a dangerous game that places Darcy’s life at stake after she infiltrates the top-secret biotech labs at LANL, where shocking neuroscientific research soon comes to light.

Book two, Gadgets, was also set in New Mexico. The reader is introduced to The Carver—Albuquerque’s most brutal serial killer. Only one person can end his carnage—Darcy McClain. That is, if he doesn’t kill her next.

This year, I released Genocide. Sean Ireland, the first gay presidential candidate in US history, is guaranteed the election—until he’s found dead at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

I completed my first novel in 1987. By 2010, I had five completed manuscripts for my thriller series and rough drafts for an additional four. Rather than pursue the traditional route—a very slow process—I decided to self-publish.

Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?

My inspiration comes from nonfiction books, current news stories, and/or firsthand experiences. Many of Darcy’s adventures were at one time also mine. As for the settings in the series, they are global. Like me, Darcy grew up overseas. The series begins in the US, but with book five I will transition to setting the novels abroad. I’m constantly reading or searching for the next theme to my next novel. It’s an ongoing process and inspiration is everywhere. No, I don’t have any rituals because Darcy is constantly calling me back to the computer to continue her adventures with Bullet. My only complaint is that I can’t always shut out real life.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Robert Ludlum. I started reading Ludlum in 1971 and was captivated by his powerful storytelling. His Bourne series is the inspiration for a future Darcy McClain thriller that will be set in the EU. Posing as a double agent, Darcy finally realizes her dream to become a spy. But at what cost, and to whom?

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

Yes. Besides being a prolific blogger—I post on a weekly basis—I am polishing the fourth novel in my series—CLON-X. The storyline: while out for a run in Texas, former FBI Special Agent Darcy McClain and her giant schnauzer, Bullet, find a trash bag submerged in a creek. Inside are the pulverized remains of renowned geneticist Dr. Catherine (Cate) Lord, who has been receiving death threats for her alleged research on human cloning. I recently received the cover design for CLON-X and am quite pleased with the outcome.

What new books or writers are you looking forward to later in the year and beyond?

When it comes to reading, I search by topic as opposed to specific authors. For instance, currently I am hooked on spy, espionage, and bioterrorism as subjects for future novels, so I will seek out books on those subjects, and about 75 percent of what I read is nonfiction.

Anything you’d like to add?

If you’d like to know more about me and my books, visit us—Pat, Darcy, and Bullet—at patkrapf.com. Thank you, Hannah, for the opportunity to talk about our thriller series.

Many thanks for your time Pat, it has been fascinating to hear your thoughts.

Trading Down Review: Financially Sound But Fictionally Flawed

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In my day job I write corporate copy for a number of publications, including many specialist financial magazines, therefore I was greatly very excited to read ex-CIO of RBS Stephen Norman’s debut novel Trading Down, which explores the threat of cyber-crime on the modern world from the perspective of an insider at a major financial institution.

It is clear from the very first sentence that Norton has a wide understanding of financial practices, strong technical know-how and all the jargon to go along with it. Drawing on 20 years’ experience at the forefront of investment banking IT, Norman delivers a strong debut that offers a great insight into the financial world.

The novel follows Chris Peters, who works in IT at a major investment bank. As Chris climbs through the ranks he finds himself in the midst of a massive international crime of epic proportions. His investigations lead him to Yemen, and the parallel plot of a family as they race against time to save their captive father from execution. Every aspect of the novel comes together as Chris wrangles with the issue of unmasking a criminal could be much closer to home than he would like.

Despite introducing many incredibly complicated technical concepts into the novel, Norman is skilful and manages to avoid the issue of ‘information dumping’, and as such Trading Down is a great way to learn really interesting information about the financial IT space in a fun and enjoyable way.

Whilst factually this is a well-written dramatization, it lacks the depth to be a full novel. Many of the characters are one dimensional, and frankly, there are too many of them. The main criticism I have of this otherwise gripping and fascinating novel is that it is simply too long. There is a good 200 pages worth of material that could have been removed without the reader even noticing, and this would drastically cut down the length of the book and made it a far more pleasurable reading experience.

Fundamentally, Trading Down would have benefited from being a fictionalised account of a real event, rather than a novel in itself. Norman’s skill is in his vast knowledge of the global financial markets and the role IT plays in them, not in storytelling. I would be more than happy to read more of his writing, providing he hones his narrative and tidies up his plot in any future novels. Overall an interesting if tough read, this book is ideal for anyone looking for a real thought-provoker that they can get their teeth into.

Trading Down by Stephen Norman is published by Endeavour Press on 9th November.

My First Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express

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As I have mentioned in my previous POST, I have been anticipating Branagh’s big budget version of one of Agatha Christie’s most overrated novels since the trailer dropped earlier this year. I have now had the privilege of watching the film, and so have decided to share my thoughts with you.

Visually, the film is stunning, with an all-star, A-list cast including Branagh himself, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Olivia Colman and Judi Dench, all of whom offer exceptional performances. The costumes are sumptuous and the setting lavish, with the visual effects designed to thrill; the scene where the viewer witnesses the moment of an avalanche advancing upon the train is a feat of real cinematic beauty.

It has everything you could possibly want from a Hollywood Blockbuster, with witty dialogue, funny one-liners and a lavish soundtrack that would make a true connoisseur proud. I am sure any real historian (I make no bones about the fact that I am not one) would be able to tear the film apart for its historical inaccuracies, but there’s nothing overly glaring and overall the effect is enticing, engaging and a real pleasure to watch.

The problem is that, whilst this is a really great film, it is not an adaptation of a Christie novel. It may have the plot of the Queen of Crime’s most acclaimed book, but the film has something crucial missing. The protagonist.

There are many ways in which Branagh tries to link the film back to Christie’s novels, utilsing many of her key tricks, such as humour, racial tension and stereotyping. It also has the air of an older film, with many cinematic techniques derived from great old-school cinema. The scene in which the body is discovered, which is shot entirely from above the characters heads, lends the adaptation the feel of a play.

What this adaptation of a famed Hercule Poirot novel does not have, is Hercule Poirot. Branagh may have named his character that, but he does not embody the finickity, bizarre Belgium detective in any way. In some ways he does play lip service to the character’s traits, such as his fastidious nature (the opening scene shows him measuring eggs and blaming the chicken for not laying them the exact same size), but this is not a real part of Branagh’s depiction, and is only mentioned in passing. In his investigations, Branagh’s Poirot jumps from subject to subject in a haphazard and disorganized manner that does not befit the neat and orderly Hercule Poirot.

He is also far too attractive for Poirot, who, in Christie’s novels, is depicted as a strange little man with an egg shaped head and a massive moustache which dominates his face. Branagh’s moustache, impressive though it is, does more to accentuate his features than it does to overpower them, and he is far too tall and slim to be the round little man Christie created. One of the other characters repeatedly refers to him as ‘funny looking’, when the truth is that he is incredibly handsome, and far too much of the archetypal Hollywood man to be Poirot. His accent fluctuates constantly between camp faux-French and French-Canadian, to the point where I wondered if this was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke. If it was, it fell decidedly flat.

The character’s Hollywoodisation extends to being far too active. Christie’s Poirot was a man who enjoyed comfort and preferred to sit and think, whereas Branagh’s detective is incredibly strapping, and is shown taking down a man with his walking stick in the opening scene, using said stick to smash open a door to uncover the body, and then strutting about atop the snowbound Orient Express rather than sitting in a comfortable chair inside, as would be the sensible option. Chasing a suspect down icy scaffolding to apprehend him is no issue for Branagh, making his Poirot far more of an action hero than Christie’s beloved protagonist.

The acting itself is masterfully done, and Branagh is constantly in a state of extreme nervous tension that makes his performance unsettling to watch, and helps ramp up the tension in an already intense experience. Depp is brilliantly creepy as both the villain and victim of the piece, although Dench is the least convincing Russian I have ever seen. Many of the actors, such as Derek Jacobi in his depiction of a dying manservant, are nuanced and complex, offering the viewer a fascinating insight into the inner turmoil of these characters as the plot races towards its confusing but, characteristically for Christie, human nature centered conclusion.

Overall, this is a stunningly crafted adaptation which does a good job of making Christie’s frankly ludicrous plot seem almost sensible, although it does tamper with the ending a little in a way which displeases me immensely (I cannot tell you how, for fear of ruining the film, so you will just have to see for yourselves). There is a hint at the end of Murder on the Orient Express that Branagh may adapt another of the more well known Poirot novels, and I would be more than happy to watch that also. However, if you are a die-hard Poirot fan, I would suggest you stay at home and re-watch the ITV series, or better still re-read the books. This is, by no stretch of the imagination, an accurate portrayal of the Queen of Crime’s most celebrated detective, but it is a great film that has spent its massive budget well, and is definitely well worth a watch.

Mark Pepper Interview: “I definitely approach character building with an eye to my acting training”

Mark Pepper

Following on from my review of his novel Veteran Avenue, I spoke to Mark Pepper about his writing and what he thinks makes truly great crime fiction.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime and mystery fiction?

I’ve never given any thought to my writing ‘style’ and have never considered trying to adopt one. I hope I write with style rather than in one. My sole intention has only ever been to write well, with fluidity and intelligence. It’s clearly not up to me to say if that’s worked; that’s up to the reader. I think if a writer tries too hard to adopt a certain style, they run the risk that their expression becomes subservient to a certain effect they hope to achieve. You see this in some ‘literary’ work, where the meaning takes second-place to the word-play the writer believes is clever. For me, clever writing is simply that which the reader only has to read once to understand.

Again, the genre is not one I pursued; it was just the natural vehicle for the tale I wanted to tell, in this case Veteran Avenue. But I have always enjoyed stories that keep the reader guessing, so I do enjoy the mystery element, and crime fiction is something that never seems to go out of fashion. It is one of our strange human foibles that, as much as we fear pain and death in real life, we cannot get enough of it in books and films when it happens to someone else.

What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing crime fiction?

I tinkered with some (dark dark) poetry at university (it’s on my website), as befitted my mood, but properly started writing in 1991, about a year after leaving RADA, when I realised my plan to crack Hollywood was beginning to run a tad behind schedule. It was an alternative outlet. And I had read some stuff I wasn’t too impressed with, so challenged myself to do better.

My first novel was entitled Returntime, which got me an agent, but by that time I was halfway through The Short Cut, which was taken on in a two-book deal by Hodder & Stoughton. That and Man on a Murder Cycle were published hardcover and paperback between 1996 and 1998. They were both horror/thrillers. There’s a story behind the near-twenty-year gap until Veteran Avenue, but I’ll leave that for another day. At the heart of Veteran Avenue is the core idea from Returntime, so Veteran Avenue is actually the first book I wanted to write. But, although there is crime in it, it’s not really a crime novel in the traditional sense.

How do you draw on your work as an actor when writing? Do you use any of the skills you gained in this profession when creating a new book?

Excellent question. I think I have a very good ‘ear’ for dialogue, but whether I’d have that without my acting experience I don’t know. I certainly ‘run’ the lines out loud to make sure they sound right, as actors do with their scripts. I find that bad dialogue in a novel can ruin the otherwise sterling work of the narrative, so I believe it’s just as important in a novel as it is in a movie screenplay. Novelists really do need to ‘run’ their dialogue for authenticity. I find it off-putting when I read dialogue that’s not only unrealistic for the character, but for any human being.

It’s also possible I use my acting head to view the scenes as I’m writing them; something Stephen King brilliantly dubbed his ‘Skull Cinema’. I see everything as though I’ve seen the movie of the book, but that’s probably more from a director’s than actor’s point of view.

I definitely approach character building with an eye to my acting training. I think about how I would tackle the character for the screen. What traits and behaviours do they exhibit? What’s their back-story? It all helps to build three-dimensional characters that engage the reader. Having said that, I don’t believe in banging the reader over the head with character information and description that holds up the narrative, such as their appearance. There are two characters in Veteran Avenue who I give an age to and nothing more. Unless a character’s physical appearance is crucial for the plotting, I think it’s perfectly okay to do that. A lot can be gleaned from a character’s speech and behaviour, and the other characters’ response to them, and the reader’s Skull Cinema fills in the blanks on the rest. I think it’s fun to let the reader do that.

What features do you believe are vital to creating good crime fiction?

Apart from the obvious, such as clever plotting, a writer needs to get their facts straight. Research is paramount, especially when you’re dealing with crime and police procedure. It bugs the crap out of me when writers have clearly not done their homework, and have instead relied on what they think they know to be true, often trusting TV clichés or mistakes so oft-repeated in books that they have become accepted. For example, the myth of a sympathetic cop closing the eyes of a murder victim with the gentle downward stroke of two fingertips. It can possibly be done within the first hour after death, but not beyond. I know this because I attended an embalming as research for Man on a Murder Cycle and watched the undertaker superglue the open eyelids shut – something he said he always had to do.

Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?

I know this may sound weird, but my main inspiration comes not from great writing but from bad. Nothing is as certain to get me tapping at the keyboard as someone else’s published work I have had to discard because it was poorly written. I think aspiring authors can be put off if they look at the greats because they think: Well, I could never write something like that. So they don’t bother trying. Far better to read something awful and think: Bloody hell, I could do better than that.

I have no rituals, as such. I need a good few hours so I can get a flow going, and I do prefer silence.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Stephen King. I haven’t read any of his stuff for years, but I have most of his early work. He did inspire me – in all the right ways.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I’ve started a fourth novel but I try not to get too excited about it all these days. I’ve had too many let downs in the past. Excitement creates expectations, and they are the source of much misery in this world.

Anything you’d like to add?

My favourite bit of writing advice: Give the reader what they want, but not in the way they expect it. When you work that one out, your plotting shifts up several gears.

Thanks for taking the time Mark; it’s been a pleasure. You can find out more about him and his writing HERE.

The Top Five Best Short Reads to Spook You Out On Halloween

the raven

Happy Halloween!! I love this holiday, as it incorporates all my favourite things; food, dressing up and being a bit pratty. OK, so there’s not as much food as Christmas, but it’s still a bit of fun, and as such I thought I’d show you my top five favourite short stories and novellas to scare any bookworm. I already had a look at the best horror stories last year, so this year I thought I’d try something a bit different. I hope you like it and encounter an old favourite or find something new to try!

5. The Thirty Nine Steps: OK OK, I know that this isn’t technically a scary story, but it is a really awesome novella, and what’s more scary than having your whole life turned upside down? A thrilling spy story, if you’re looking for something that’s thrilling in a different way this Halloween, or you’re too scardie to try out anything truly frightening, then give this a go and you will not be disappointed.

4. The Withered Arm: I’ve been a fan of Thomas Hardy’s work for a long time, particularly his less renowned short stories, such as this creepy tale of a woman whose arms begins to bruise and become disfigured following the discovery of a secret about her new marriage. She is advised of a strange and vaguely sinister cure which leads her to her spectacular downfall.

3. The Boogeyman: As you may have noticed from my recent post, I am a big fan of Stephen King and his work. Whilst everyone tends to focus on his novels or the stories that have been adapted into successful films or TV shows, there are some truly great short works that have gone neglected, which deserve more credit than they get. The Boogeyman, the story of a man whose family is plagued by a mysterious, terrifying, child killing creature that haunts them even as they travel the country, is definitely one of them, and is the ideal tale to scare you witless this Halloween.

2. The Raven: Every year, at Halloween, I re-read Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem about a man being terrorised by a mysterious bird. Psychologically this creepy poem is brilliant, and the atmospheric description invokes a feeling of pure terror, as the reader and the protagonist are both engaged in a battle of wits with the raven, which draws the narrator slowly into madness. Intelligent, witty, and stunningly crafted, this is perfect for creeping you out and making you think on the scariest day of the year.

1. The Aspern Papers / The Turning of the Screw: I was completely unable to pick which of these two excellent Henry James stories should be top, so I chose both! My edition contains both and each is not particularly long so it’s easy to devour them both quickly and they make for great scary bedtime stories. James is excellent at imbibing even short descriptive paragraphs with real horror, and as such these are really condensed frightens that wills stay with you for years to come.