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Because I enjoy eating and living indoors, I have a day job.
I’m in the marketing and communications departments of a regional health system. Part of my job involves media relations. Most weeks, that means interacting with reporters from local television, radio and print media. Recently, we had calls from reporters Cosmo and the Huffington Post, but that was a weird week!
What does all this have to do with you, my little parfait? Well, because I arrange interviews, I also help to prepare the interviewees, many of whom are new to the experience and naturally nervous. Since there may be interviews in your future, I thought why not share these tips with you?
Practice with a friend. Video your interview. Look for what you’re doing
Doodle by Vicky Lorencen
well and do more of that!
Look at the interviewer, not the camera.
Bring a copy of your book with you. Don’t assume the interviewer will have one.
Don’t wear checks or stripes.
See tips for radio interviews.
Smile as you speak.
Be sure you know how long the interview will be, so you can pace yourself.
Ask if you can send questions ahead of time. The interviewer may really appreciate it, and you’ll know what to anticipate and how to prepare.
If you can’t send questions ahead, it’s absolutely okay to ask the interviewer the direction of the interview (is it more about your book, about you, about your writing journey, about advice, about your favorite panini–you just never know).
Prepare yourself a cheat sheet with answers to anticipated questions, but DO NOT write out every word. Make it more a “grocery list” of prompts. If you create a word for word script, you’ll be too tempted to just read it and you’ll come off sounding stiff even when we all know you are super cool.
Have a cup of water handy. (A bottle takes too much time to open.)
Thank the interviewer.
Use a landline, if available, so you don’t have to worry about your call being dropped mid conversation.
Try to be relaxed and conversational. Listeners will respond to your personality, not your perfect diction.
See tips for a radio interview.
For any type of interview
It’s easy to get flustered. Make yourself a cheat sheet with basic information so if your mind goes blank, all you have to do is read–
The title(s) of your book(s)
Web site name and address
How readers can can contact you
Where your books are available
Details about the event or signing you’re promoting (date, time, place, etc.)
And finally . . .
It’s not uncommon for an interviewer to wrap up an interview with a question like, “Is there anything else you’d like to say?”
Think about using this as an opportunity to promote someone else’s book. David Sedaris does this every time he goes on tour for his own newest book. Isn’t that a beautiful, generous gesture? It’s a delightful chance to pay it forward for an author or illustrator who has been especially supportive of you.
Now, if you have an agent, publicist or your publisher’s marketing team advising you, please listen to them and learn. Use my suggestions when/if they seem useful to you. Most of all, no matter how an interview turns out, remember you, my little blueberry scone, are still one of the coolest, most talented people on ten toes.
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
What is all around us, terrifies a lot of people, but adds enormously to the quality of life? Answer: chemistry. Almost everything that happens in the world, in transport, throughout agriculture and industry, to the flexing of a muscle and the framing of a thought involves chemical reactions in which one substance changes into another.
This past weekend, we noticed an unusual number of superheroes, cosplayers, and characters from our favorite TV shows flooding thesubways, buses, and streets of New York City. Did we unknowingly fall into an alternate universe?
Turns out that it was just New York Comic Con, the annual pop culture phenomenon dedicated to comics, graphic novels, anime, video games, movies, and television. The first convention was held in 2006 and it has continued to grow steadily over the past several years, bringing an ever-growing number of comics and pop-culture fans to New York City. And not only has Comic Con continued to grow, but so has programming dedicated to issues of diversity and diverse creators. We were lucky enough to get a pass for LEE & LOW staff. Below, three staff members share their highlights from the show:
Keilin, Marketing and Publicity Associate
Oh Comic Con. What a crazy event to go to, but definitely worth every minute!
I went to a Geeks of Color Meetup, hosted by Diana Pho (editor, Tor Books), and featuring Shelley Diaz (editor, School Library Journal), and author Melissa Grey (The Girl At Midnight). It was great to mingle with other “geeks” and to get to know Diana and Shelley.
The greatest thing about the Meetup was seeing the diversity in the room. There was one group of people that I joined that was talking about the new Star Wars movie coming out, and it didn’t matter that we were all from different backgrounds because we all could geek out about something we were all collectively excited for. Diana often hosts these types of meetups for people of color, and if anyone is interested, you can contact her on her website, Beyond Victoriana.
After the Geeks of Color Meetup, I booked it over to the Asian American Comics and Creators panel, which unfortunately was full. On the positive side, that just meant that there was a full house to participate in a discussion on Asian Americans in the comic book industry. While the depictions of Asian Americans in comic books has improved, there is more that can still be done.
The thing I like most about conventions like these is that it shows you the wide spectrum of people within fandoms, whether it’s seeing a black Wonder Woman or an Asian Peggy Carter. Nerding out is for everyone!
Rebecca, Marketing and Publicity Assistant
Thanks to things like the We Need Diverse Books campaign, diversity has been on people’s minds more than ever before. Last year, we saw one of the most diverse television seasons we’ve gotten in a while. It’s no surprise that diversity in comics and geek culture was on a lot of people’s minds at New York Comic Con! I attended 4 panels focused on various aspects of diversity at the show this year.
At the Pushing Boundaries panel, there was a discussion about representation. Author Marjorie Liu spoke about the burden that authors of color often face when they are the only ones representing entire cultures. They have to make sure that their characters are “perfect” and not stereotypical; however, trying to tell a “perfect” story gets in the way of an authentic narrative. This is the danger of a single story: one person from a marginalized or underrepresented group can’t represent everyone from that group.
Some of the other panelists, like Jeremy Whitley, the creator of Princeless, spoke about using their work to fill a need. Jeremy Whitley’s daughter is a person of color, so he wanted to write a comic where a young black girl would see herself as a princess that went on adventures. Geek Out was started as a space for LGBT+ fans of comics. At one point in the discussion, the panelists spoke about bad representation. Is bad representation better than no representation? There was no clear answer, as one panelist said he preferred bad representation to none at all. But author Marjorie Liu said, “As a woman of color, I’m allergic to bad representation.”
The pervading feeling at the “Geeks of Color: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” panel was that while people are paying more attention to diversity and things with diverse content, we still have a long way to go. Industries need to diversify from within as well as to seek out diverse creators. Diversity naturally happens when there are a variety of people creating things.
Authors Melissa Gray, Daniel Jose Older, Sara Raasch, and Kim Harrison discussed what made the protagonists of their novels “kick ass.” Melissa Grey (The Girl at Midnight) discussed how female characters are never allowed to be unlikable, like male characters often are. They’re usually expected to be “nice.” Daniel José Older wants his books to show the diversity in Brooklyn, because a book should be like a friend and tell you the truth.
At the Women in Geek Media panel, the panelists encouraged the room full of people to create their own works. Everyone, they told us, has a unique story to tell. Many of the women talked about having to create their own spaces and writing with a unique voice, which is what made them stand out. They also encouraged everyone there who was fed up with the lack of representation of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups in media to channel their anger thoughtfully and to hold content creators accountable.
All the panels I attended were full almost to capacity. It was great to see how much people are clamoring for more diverse representation. But the real highlight of Comic Con was meeting Amandla Stenberg!
Stacy, Publisher of TU BOOKS
On Thursday night of Comic Con, I went to the #BlackComicsMonth panel moderated by Dean MizCaramelVixen. It was an all-star lineup, including Chad L. Coleman (who played Tyreese on The Walking Dead), who is producing a new comic that stars his likeness, and comics artists and writers Scott Snyder, David Walker, Mikki Kendall, Shawn Pryor, Steve Orlando, Christine Dinh, Mildred Louis, Jeremy Whitley, and Afua Richardson. If you want to see the whole panel, you can view it on YouTube.
The panel started out by talking to a standing-room-only crowd of at least 300 people about what “diversity” meant to them. Christine Dinh spoke about how there are more young women reading comics—that kids are more diverse than ever. Another panelist talked about how what it means to be black could mean so many different things, and that all those representations were important—that there is no one way to be black.
Everyone on the panel emphasized how important the voices of people of color are in comic books. Kendall said, “If you don’t see yourself out there, put your stuff out there.”
Later that night was a fangirl panel (“She Made Me Do It: FanGirls Lead the Way”) discussing how important women are not only in the creation of art but also in the appreciation of it. On the panel were Jamie Broadnax, who created Black Girl Nerds; Rose Del Vecchio and Jenny Cheng from myfanmail.com, a site that sends fandom products to subscribers; and Sam Maggs, author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy and writer for The Mary Sue.
One of the main topics of the panel was discussing how women and girls get challenged to show their “credentials” as geeks. “I’m so over the cred thing. You don’t have to prove anything to show your passion for fandom,” Broadnax said. Maggs agreed and went on to discuss how those fans should also be reflected in the stories they consume, saying, “A range, diversity of stories can only mean better content for everyone. Why can’t white dudes look up to a black girl protagonist and have her be their role model?”
On Sunday, the We Need Diverse Books panel focused on the hashtag #IAmNotYourSidekick, discussing the importance of narratives that center the experiences of characters of color. On a personal note, the panelists discussed the first time they’d ever seen a “mirror” of themselves in a book. Some never did, at least until adulthood. Dhonielle Clayton, a Harlem Academy librarian and WNDB VP of librarian services, mentioned that she had mirrors, but only about slavery and civil rights, not fun books. Variety in representations of marginalized people is so important, she said.
The panel also discussed the importance of opening doors for writers of color, talking about the quotas of some houses (“we already have our ‘black book,’” even if the topics are completely different), and how writing cross-culturally is possible to do well, but how it must be done responsibly. Daniel José Older pointed out that too often white writers want to jump on the bandwagon of “diversity” as if it were a trend, but, he asked, “We talk about writing the other, but can you write about yourself? Can we write about whiteness?” (Older wrote an excellent article on this topic last year at BuzzFeed.)
Everyone on the panel agreed that the way to fix the problem was to talk up diverse books. “Buy diverse books!” YA author Robin Talley said. “The more you do, the more there will be.” Older also noted not to assume that a traditionally published book that stars a diverse character will have a million-dollar marketing campaign. “It likely won’t!” he said. Panelists agreed that word of mouth is one of the most important marketing tools for diverse books—sharing them with friends, talking about them on social media, and requesting them from libraries and bookstores were all mentioned as important methods of helping diverse books grow in the market.
According to Hollywood Reporter, FX has a Y: the Last Man TV series in the works. Written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Pia Guerra, the Vertigo comic was Vaughan’s breakout success and led to his producer role on ABC’s Lost. Vaughan is slated to be joined by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson from Color Force, a studio […]
In two weeks, we’ll be getting some quality time with the cast of Netflix’s next Marvel Defenders series, Jessica Jones, at New York Comic Con. The followup to the incredibly lauded Daredevil, the series will focus on the titular metahuman, portrayed by Krysten Ritter, as she attempts to salvage her life as a detective after a brief […]
She’s dead, Jim! Back in 2006, when the first season of the NBC superhero drama Heroes was debuting to rave reviews and mass audience acclaim, the show managed to turn its tagline, “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World,” into a meme. It was incredibly prolific, albeit a little nonsensical– describing the show perfectly. It looks like the […]
Not only are we living in a Golden Age of television, it also feels in many ways like we are living in a Golden Age of diverse television. While TV may still be more segregated than we’d like it to be, both in front of and behind the camera, 2014-2015 saw the emergence of several critically and commercially successful shows with lead characters of color.
A few years ago, we published an infographic and study exploring the diversity gap in the Emmys and on television. Today we’ve updated that infographic and tried to answer the question: Has the Diversity Gap in Television decreased?
Last night Viola Davis made Emmys history by becoming the first woman of color to win an Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Drama Series!
In the most moving moment of the night, she directly addressed the discrimination that people of color face in Hollywood, saying:
The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.
The 2015 Emmy nominees were an exceptionally diverse crowd by Hollywood standards and happily Viola Davis was not the only talented person of color to go home with an Emmy in hand. Actors Regina King (Supporting Actress, Limited Series or Movie), Reg E. Cathey (Guest Actor, Drama), and Uzo Aduba (Best Supporting Actress, Drama) all went home with Emmys in hand. This also makes 2015 the first year that women of color won Emmys in the Drama category for both Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actress.
Last night also saw several women honored in the directing category, an area usually dominated by men. Jill Soloway took home the Emmy for Best Director for a Comedy Series for Transparent, making her the third woman in a row to win this category. Lisa Cholodenko also took home a Directing Emmy for her work on the Limited Series Olive Kitteridge. In other words, two out of four Best Directing Emmys this year went to women.
The Bad While last night saw some groundbreaking firsts, it’s not time for Hollywood to pat itself on the back just yet. Despite this year’s big win for Viola Davis, it’s important to remember that in the last 25 years, only one person of color has ever won in each of the four Lead Acting categories. There were no people of color nominated this year in the categories of Lead Actor in a Drama Series, Lead Actress in a Comedy Series or Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
In addition, it’s worth noting that all of the people of color nominated in Acting categories this year were African American, with the exception of Louis C.K. (who is half Mexican). Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Native actors still don’t have enough roles, leading or supporting, to be represented in any meaningful way at the Emmys. When Hollywood’s definition of “diversity” is reduced to Black or White, everyone still loses.
When it comes to gender representation, things are improving but some categories haven’t budged. 96% of winners in the Best Director of a Drama Series are still men, although one woman (Lesli Linka Glatter, Homeland) was at least nominated this year.
What Remains to Be Seen
It was clear this year that diversity was on people’s minds, and some big wins proved that it was on people’s ballots, too. But a good year, or even a few good years, are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to boosting opportunities and visibility of people of color and women in Hollywood. It may feel like progress is being made, but looking at our 2012 and 2015 infographics back to back, we can track whether that’s actually the case:
In some categories we do see improvement, but in most categories the percentage of winners who are people of color has actually decreased as the total number of years we track increases. While some people may dismiss this as a numbers game, it demonstrates an important point about diversity: it requires a conscious effort to change the status quo. If you do nothing, the numbers actually get worse.
Host Andy Samberg hit on this point in his opening monologue by congratulating Hollywood on such a diverse list of nominees:
The big story this year, of course, is diversity. This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history, so congratulations Hollywood. You did it. Yeah, racism is over. Don’t fact check that.
Racism isn’t over and neither is sexism, but let’s hope that we’re moving into an age where both issues are treated by Hollywood as more than just a punchline.
The universe has conspired to turn my research work this summer into mass culture — while I've been toiling away on a fellowship that has me investigating Virginia Woolf's reading in the 1930s and the literary culture of the decade, the mini-series Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury group and Woolf's family, played on the BBC and the film Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain's 1933 memoir of her experiences during World War One, played in cinemas.
I've now seen both and have mixed feelings about them, though I enjoyed watching each. Life in Squares offers some good acting and excellent production design, though it never really adds up to much; Testament of Youth is powerful and well constructed, even as it falls into some clichés of the WWI movie genre, and it's well worth seeing for its lead performance.
The two productions got me thinking about what we want from biographical movies and tv shows, how we evaluate them, and how they're almost always destined to fail. (Of course, "what we want" is a rhetorical flourish, a bit of fiction that would more accurately be expressed as "what I think, on reflection, that I want, at least now, and what I imagine, which is to say guess, what somebody other than myself might want". For the sake of brevity, I shall continue occasionally to use the phrase "what we want".)
Testament of Youth is easier to discuss in this context, partly because it's a single feature film based (mostly) on one text and not a three-part mini-series depicting the lives of people about whom there are shelves and shelves of books. Though the filmmakers clearly read some of the biographies of Vera Brittain, as well as her diaries, and occasionally incorporate (or at least allude to) some of this material, the structure of the film of Testament of Youth is pretty much the structure of the book, even though the screenplay takes some massive liberties. (I expect the 1979 mini-series was able to be more faithful, since it had more time, but I haven't gotten around to watching it on YouTube, which is pretty much the only place it seems still to be available, never having been released on DVD.)
For any 2-hour movie of Brittain's memoir, massive liberties are unavoidable, and overall I think the filmmakers found good choices for ways to streamline an unwieldy text — 650 pages or so, with countless characters who constantly bounce from one locale to another.
I should admit here that I don't much like Brittain's book. Some of the war parts are compelling, and it's certainly important as a historical document, but it seems to me at least twice as long as it needs to be, and Brittain simplified the main characters to such an extent that I find it hard to care about any of them. For instance, when Roland, the great love of her life, dies, it's all supposed to be terribly sad and devastating and I just thought, "Finally! No more of that insipid pining and those godawful letters back and forth and that hideous poetry!" (Which is not to say that I wanted more of the slog of the first 100+ pages of the book with all the details of Oxford University's entrance exams.) Someone could create an abridgement of Testament of Youth, maybe reducing the book to 150 or 200 pages, and it would be vastly more interesting and compelling, because there really is some excellent material buried amidst it all. Concision was not among Brittain's writerly skills.
I am not the right reader for Testament of Youth, however. None of us are, really. The book became a bestseller for a number of reasons, but one of them was that readers could fill in its thin parts with their own memories, experiences, and griefs. What the film of Testament of Youth achieves is to evoke some semblance of the emotion that was, I expect, present in the book for its first readers, most of whom would have had memories of the war years, and many of whom would have suffered similar losses as those described by Brittain — losses both of loved ones and of a certain, more innocent, worldview.
The deaths in the film were, for me at least, far more powerful than the deaths in the book. One reason is the change in medium: the move from the words on a page to actors embodying roles. Deaths in books can be hugely powerful, of course (see A Little Life for a recent example), but Brittain's ability as a writer was not up to the task, at least in a way that would transfer beyond the experiences of people for whom the First World War was still an event that had defined important portions of their lives. The characters in the film are less idealized than in the book, more human. The screenplay by Juliette Towhidi creates situations, moments, and dialogue that allow the characters to live a bit more than they do in Brittain's narrative, where the characters are more asserted by the writer than dramatized. The acting by the men is generally good, and Taron Egerton is especially effective as Brittain's brother Edward. (Kit Harrington struggles a bit in the role of Roland, but it's a nearly impossible role, since its primary requirement is for the actor to make poetic mooning somehow alluring.) But I think the real reason this film of Testament of Youth ultimately succeeds at evoking some emotion and making us care about what we watch is that Alicia Vikander is a truly extraordinary actor. Her portrayal of Brittain manages to convey the important overall arc of the character: from naive, idealistic girl to war-hardened woman shattered not only by the events of the war but also by the deaths of all the men she most loved.
Life in Squares might have been saved by its performances as well, given the talent of the actors in the show, but they never get a chance to do much. Writer Amanda Coe tries hard to give focus to the story she wants to tell, but she was unfortunately undone by the limitations of time — three episodes of not quite an hour in length is simply too little for what Coe and the other filmmakers attempt, and the result is mostly thin and unaffecting. Coe does some great things with the material, but there's just not much for the actors to work with, because the scenes move forward so quickly that there's no chance to build up anything. It's a real waste, unfortunately, because the lead actors in the first two episodes, James Norton (as Duncan Grant) and Phoebe Fox (as Vanessa Bell), capture some of the energy, attraction, and personality of young Bloomsbury in ways I've never seen before. The mise-en-scene is important, too, and marvelously rendered, giving a sense of the physical world through careful attention to the detail of sets, props, and, especially, costumes. But it's a mise-en-scene in service to ... well, not much.
For anyone who doesn't know the intricacies of the personal relationships among the "Bloomsberries", Life in Squares must be terribly confusing, especially given the choice to have two sets of actors play the main characters: a younger group and an older one, with the older group seen in quick flashbacks in the first two episodes, then dominant in the third, which is set in the 1930s. (The BBC has a helpful guide to the characters on their website.) With so many people coming and going through the show, and only a handful of characters given more than a few lines, it's difficult even for a knowledgeable viewer to know who is who.
The best decision the show makes is to focus primarily on Vanessa Bell, a fascinating person who has too often been invisible in the pop culture shadow of her sister, Virginia Woolf, but who was really much more at the core of the Bloomsbury group than either Virginia or Leonard Woolf. Her life also exemplified the ideals and aspirations of the group — she was an artist, had an open marriage to Clive Bell (with whom she had two children), and had a child with Duncan Grant, who preferred sex with men but for whom Vanessa was about as close as a person can get to what might be thought of as a soul mate. Their lives included mistakes, prejudices, jealousies, and great grief, but nonetheless seem to me to have been quite beautiful.
The problem Life in Squares fails to solve is the problem of showing entire lives over a long period of time. This was a problem Virginia Woolf knew well, and tackled again and again in her novels. But the problem of narrative time in a movie is very different from the problem of narrative time in a novel, because cinema's relationship to time is different from that of prose narratives, as lots of filmmakers and film theorists have known (Deleuze's second Cinema book is subtitled "The Time-Image"). This is one of the big perils of biopics, since they seek to show the progression of a life, and yet cinema is usually at its best when taking a more focused, less expansive view. Some wonderful films have covered entire lives — Citizen Kane comes to mind, as does 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould — but most history-minded movies that take on such a large expanse end up feeling thin, especially if they try to tell the story in a fairly conventional way, as Life in Squares does. (For comparison: The Imitation Game can thrive in its utterly conventional, audience-pleasing form because its narrative is relentlessly straightforward and the history is simplified to fit the linear movement of the plot and the characters' desires. Life in Squares doesn't simplify the historical figures or events nearly so much, but it also doesn't find a form that fits what it seeks to depict.)
Actually, the problem for Life in Squares is that it can't decide quite what approach it wants to take — will it be fragmentary and impressionistic, or will it try to string events together in a more linear structure? Linear becomes impossible because there's just so much material, and thus the show has to skip over all sorts of things, but it still retains an urge for linearity that sinks it. (How much better it would have been to, for instance, show us just three days in the lives of the characters. Or to take a page from Four Weddings and a Funeral and base it on the weddings of Vanessa, Virginia, and Angelica and the days of the deaths of of Thoby Stephen, Lytton Strachey, Julian Bell, and Virginia. Or base it on particular art works. Or ... well, there are any number of possibilities.) Coe structures the story around the love lives of the characters, but there's too much else that she wants to throw in, and it all ends up a muddle that, sadly, too often domesticates people who, in reality, very much did not want to be domesticated.
What's worse, Life in Squares ultimately fails to show anything much of what's important about Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and the people around them — their contributions to culture. We see paintings around, we see the artists working now and then, and there are a few brief moments when we hear talk of books (Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, is, if I remember correctly, the only one we actually see, though there's some brief mention of The Years being a bestseller in the third episode). If not for the significant contributions to art, literature, and politics (hello there John Maynard Keynes, who gets maybe three lines in the whole show), these would not be especially noteworthy people, nor would there be much historical record of them. But more importantly, it's impossible to think of these people without their contributions to art, literature, and politics, because they lived for art, literature, and politics. (Well, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were less politically inclined than many of the others, but that's relative — the first biography of Leonard Woolf, for instance, was a political study.) Life in Squares does an admirable job of showing the truly radical sexual politics of the group, but it subordinates everything else to the personal relationships, which of course makes for easier drama, even if that drama is, as here, unfulfilling. But what it looks like and feels like and sounds like to devote your life to the things the Bloomsbury Group devoted their life to ... that isn't really here in a meaningful way.
(Is there a movie about a writer that gives a real sense of the writing life? Nothing comes immediately to mind. For artists, yes — Mr. Turner, Vincent & Theo — but the making of art is itself visual action. Carrington, which could almost be Life in Squares Episode 2.5, was better because it focused very closely on its two protagonists and allowed Lytton Strachey to talk to Carrington about books and Carrington to work on, and discuss, her art. It's still pretty flat as a movie, but it's earnest and Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson are quite good in their roles.)
Which brings me back to the original question: What do we want from biopics? Why was I excited to see a new film of Testament of Youth and a mini-series about the Bloomsbury Group? Why, even now, given all I've said especially about Life in Squares, am I glad these exist?
Partly, there's a sense of validation. It's a powerful feeling when mass culture recognizes the perhaps strange or esoteric thing you yourself obsess over. I watched the first episode of Life in Squares with a friend who only knows Virginia Woolf's name because he's seen her books around my house. He was bored by the show, but seemed amused by my ability to expound on the various relationships and histories of the characters flitting across the screen (and indistinguishable to him) — and in that moment, suddenly all of the work I've done this summer (not to mention the past twenty years of sometimes casually, sometimes obsessively reading in and around Woolf and her circle) felt somehow less ... hermetic. This, I could say, is something the wider world cares about, too, at least a little, at least superficially, at least... It's possible that Life in Squares was a more fulfilling experience for me than for most viewers who know less about the characters and era. Not only could I figure out who was who, but I could also fill in the blanks that the show didn't have time or ability to dramatize. In that way, the show was, for me, pointillistic: my mind's eye filled in the space between the dots and extrapolated form from the individual moments of color.
Knowledge of the book of Testament of Youth is not necessarily helpful for the movie, because the film takes so many (mostly necessary) liberties that it's likely the knowledgeable viewer will become distracted by thinking about where the book and movie diverge. Both Testament and Life in Squares suffer from common problems of biopics, particularly name-dropping and random, obligatory cameos. Characters in Life in Squares constantly have to say each other's names because there are so many of them and they're all so quickly dealt with. Large historical moments must of course be alluded to in dialogue. And then important people must at least show up — there's a pointless moment with Vita Sackville-West in Life in Squares, for instance, and the presence of Winifred Holtby in Testament of Youth is only explicable because Holtby was so important in Brittain's life; but she gets so little time in the movie that she feels like she's been airdropped in at the last moment, and the portentousness of her announcing herself is never really dealt with. This brings me back, as ever, to the wonder that is Mr. Turner — director/writer Mike Leigh in that film and in his other historical movie, Topsy Turvy, avoids this sort of thing, because he knows that a movie is not a history book, and that what matters is not so much who people are as what they do and how they behave with each other.
What do we want to be accurate in our biopics ... and why? Does it matter if three minor characters are melded into one? Does it matter if chronologies are rearranged or simplified? Does it matter if people are put into places where they never were? "Well, it depends..." you say. Depends on what, though? I want to say that it depends on the ultimate goal, the effect, the meaning.
For me, the only changes that feel like betrayals are ones that distort the personality of characters I care about. Both Testament of Youth and Life in Squares do pretty well on that count, which is why, for all my grumbling, I was overall able to enjoy them and feel not great animosity toward them. I wish that the makers of each had been more imaginative, certainly — Life in Squares needed more imagination in order to come alive and feel vital, while Testament falls into too many clichés of the WWI story (plenty of which are directly from Brittain's text, which is why circumventing them requires significant imagination) and adds a couple of credibility-straining coincidences (particularly with Edward in France). If the Vera Brittain of the movie is a bit less naive and jingoistic at first than the real Vera Brittain was as a girl and the textual Vera Brittain is in the book, there is still a strong sense of her development in the film and, especially, in Vikander's performance, which begins with idealistic energy and ends with something far more profound.
In the end, I suppose what I want from biopics is a sense of the ordinary moments of extraordinary lives and the emotional realities of worlds gone by. This is something that drama in general can give us, and that cinema can give us especially well, with the camera-eye's ability to zoom and focus and linger and look. I got a sense of all that now and then in Life in Squares, especially when it calmed down and didn't try to squeeze so much in — I got a sense (imaginary, of course, but real in the way only the imaginary can be) of why everybody who ever met him seems to have fallen in love with Duncan Grant, and why Vanessa Bell was such a bedrock of the group, and what, in some way, it maybe felt like to wander those rooms and landscapes when they were not museums but just the places these people lived. Testament of Youth offers a bit more, and also shows some other virtues of the historical or biographical film — it enlivened the material for me, and I returned to the book with a certain new appreciation, a new ability to find my way into it, to care about it and to imagine how its first readers cared about it.
The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to this moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says: 'Here is Anna Karenina.' A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says: 'That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.' For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind -- her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then 'Anna falls in love with Vronsky' -- that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform, and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connection with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene -- like the gardener mowing the lawn -- what the cinema might do if is were left to its own devices.