Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Maze Runner film adaptation and it's fellow competitors

This weekend yet another young adult novel adaptation hits theaters. The Maze Runner, based on a best-selling trilogy, is expected to top the box office with 33 million, according to Exhibitor Relations. That would give it the biggest opening of any movie since August 8th when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brought in 65 million opening weekend. According to movie ticket sale website Fandango, The Maze Runner is the biggest seller accounting for more than 50% of early ticket sales.
But to put that number into perspective, 33 million isn't a fantastic opening weekend, especially for a movie that has franchise potential. Divergent earned 54 million opening weekend. The first Hunger Games movie earned 152 million.
The Maze Runner may go on to make a decent profit for Fox studio. But it is unlikely to turn into the kind of profit spewing franchise that studios are desperate for these days. One-off movies don't pay the bills. Repeat hits like Marvel films, The Hunger Games and Transformers are what studios really need.
In the post-Harry Potter world, young adult seemed like the best place to find those kind of new franchises. There are plenty of series that come to studios with built-in audiences. Young readers devour books like The Maze Runner and Beautiful Creatures. But that doesn't mean they are slam-dunks. Over the past few years we've seen plenty of YA adaptations that have failed to become the next Hunger Games or Harry Potter. Beautiful Creatures grossed a total 60 million at the global box office. The Mortal Instruments earned 90 million and Ender's Game, which cost an estimated 110 million to make, brought in only 125 million.
Divergent is the only recent film to earn it's franchise stripes. The first movie brought in 286 million at the global box office and three more movies are in the pipeline. But even Divergent isn't rising to the level of a giant YA phenomenon. The first Hunger Games movie ended up earning 691 million at the global box office. Looking at future releases of what Box Office Mojo qualifies as young-adult adaptations, the slate is thinning. 
While there are Hunger Games and Divergent sequels hitting theaters in the next two years, there aren't many attempts to jump start any new franchises. Plenty of YA books have been optioned, but few are actually in production.
The exception is Goosebumps which hits theaters next summer. Starring Jack Black, the film is a sort of meta-take on the line of kids books with Black playing author R.L. Stine whose demons are on the loose in a small town. But the Sony film is aimed more at kids than at the teen/adult audiences that obsess over most YA adaptations.
Holly wood is always chasing trends and it may be that YA, as a franchise, is just getting played out. Especially when a movie like The Maze Runner hits theaters on the heels of yet another dystopic-future film, The Giver. Despite legions of loving fans, that film has earned just 52 million at the global box office. 
As the old saying goes sometimes, the book was way better.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Dragging Along The Dominican Republic- Junot Diaz

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Junot Diaz doesn't shy away from the heart wrenching.  He has written the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner about a multi-generational family curse (lots of dying); several short stories about a young man who just cannot stop cheating on women he loves (lots of thoughts about dying); and about people who try to ingratiate themselves in America for a better life (leaving behind lots of death in the Dominican Republic, just to face having to die in the American ghettos where they live).  Life and death go hand in hand in Diaz's stories, along with failure and success, and the desperate need to be better than one's parents, while maintaining their heritage.

Diaz, who writes both short stories and novels, creates an unique central character: the Dominican Republic (DR).  The DR holds a strong place in Diaz's heart; he too immigrated to the US as a child and was raised in New Jersey.  Currently a creative writing professor at MIT, Diaz strives to highlight a segment of the American culture that often gets forgotten: the immigrant population from the Caribbean. The DR is a central theme throughout his 1996 debut collection, Drown, where the reader is exposed to a series of short stories that are snapshots into the characters' souls.  We see how they struggle to convey a macho (or slutty, depending on what they want) persona to the public, all the while mourning their inability to achieve higher goals like college or at least staying out of jail.  Failures and triumphs are also in his Pulitzer Prize novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Having a generational 'curse' hanging over his head, Oscar is an overweight nerd, the exact opposite of what a Dominican man is supposed to be.  He is a constant source of woe for his mother, who hopes that he can become more manly or at least more healthy, and for his beautiful and popular sister, who is completely unsure how to deal with her awkward brother. Diaz's latest award winning collection, This is How You Lose Her, we see how the DR paints the characters' (several characters resurface through all of his stories) relationships.  Several stories are about how men want to stay with the women that they truly love, but they just can't escape the pressure to be 'manly' by cheating with several different women.  In others, the reader is shown how women also can't stop playing men for money, cars, or whatever they want.  The constant back and forth in their relationships is blamed on the instability of relationships and sex in the DR; however, this cultural norm for the DR does NOT translate well in the US.  Throughout their struggles with themselves, their history, and their family, the DR hangs over their head, like a past they cannot escape and a future they cannot avoid.

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Diaz writes his stories with a modern, yet uniquely Dominica-meets-East-Coast vernacular, almost a type of Spanglish that is easy to follow along with, all the while pulling the reader into the characters' world.  The descriptions he gives of the varying settings create a stark contrast between the overall pictures of the DR and of the USA; however, the reader can also see the glaring similarities between the two with descriptions of crime and the abject poverty the characters experience.  Junot Diaz is not only telling a story; he is bringing the Caribbean immigrant story to life, a story in which a reader will be completely immersed in.  The stories which Diaz tells are beautiful in their simplicity; uncomplicated phrases and clean descriptions enhance the complexity of the characters' interactions and the depth of their emotions.

Love, loss, poverty, and, most importantly, a loss of culture is what drives Junot Diaz's characters; these people feel the stinging pain of trying to mesh their Dominican culture and identity in with the oft-sterile culture of the USA.  They cannot regain what they left behind, thus they tend to fill the void with destructive behavior, almost barreling themselves towards the stereotype of a "ghetto" immigrant.  It is these descents, these personal struggles, both real and imaginary, that Diaz creates for his readers.

Have Some Louisiana Pride!!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Trading In Harry and Magic for Cormoran and Murder

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Robert Galbraith achieved two things with his 2013 debut novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. 1) He wrote a mystery that was fresh with its approach to a flawed hero, the man who can't exactly get the girl, who doesn't make too many self-improvements, but somehow manages to come out on top. 2) He also was able to use his pen name to hide behind his real identity as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and prove to the world that SHE could write books that didn't involve wands or Hogwarts. And prove it she did. The Cuckoo's Calling received spectacular reviews upon it's debut, while the world still thought that Galbraith was a new, male author; it was hailed as being darkly fascinating, with its mystery solving hero being a “a complex and compelling sleuth," according to Publisher's Weekly. Her sequel, The Silkworm, has received equally positive reviews, with Cormoran Strike proving once again that he can be the hero without being perfect.

Cormoran Strike. An amputee veteran from the Afghan wars. A huge man that elicits stares wherever he goes. The illegitimate child of a famous rock star. A detective. It is these traits, good and bad, and so many more that make up Strike's personality, thus influencing his business as a private detective. Strike is that person that men want to be and women want to be with. In Cuckoo's, the reader finds Strike trying to pick up the pieces of his life after a long-term relationship implodes. He is drawn into the high-stakes and high pressure world of fashion, modeling, and the lives of the wealthy, where one of their own has committed suicide. The dead woman's brother convinces Strike that maybe something else happened. In Silkworm, Strike is once again entangled in a strange, cult-like world, this time of book publishing. An author has been brutally murdered and it seems like EVERYONE wanted him dead. Throughout both books, Strike is assisted by Robin Ellacott, his pretty and quietly intelligent assistant; she too is plagued by her own demons and continues to surprise Strike and the reader with her bravery and cunning.

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But, you ask, how is this different from EVERY, SINGLE mystery series ever? Somehow, Galbraith/Rowling makes it different. It is set in modern day London, so American readers are introduced to the British life of today. It is written with the same rolling, but at the same time, succinct descriptions that brought us the magical world of Harry Potter. The dialogue is crass, witty, emotional, and engaging; I was never bored by the back and forth between Strike and the suspects. Galbraith/Rowling does not shy away from violence; the crimes depicted in the book are not gruesomely described, but are conveyed in a way that the reader will feel very involved in the crime investigation. The people killed are not innocent saints of humans; they too are flawed. But the reader, along with Cormoran, becomes convinced by the straight-forward violence that justice must be served. How it is served is a departure from the cut-and-dry police procedural plot line that many mysteries follow. Galbraith/Rowling twists and unwraps the mystery at hand, resulting in several problems caused by several people, which will lead up to the main crime. The multifaceted aspect of the books keeps the reader hooked until the very end.

I am hoping that Galbraith/Rowling can breathe new life into the mystery genre. Recently, the genre has been overtaken by cozy mystery series (I love me some cozy mystery series but they all tend to be the same over and over again) and by gruesome, gory mysteries (Sorry, Jeffrey Deaver, but wow!). Galbraith/Rowling can be categorized with Dennis Lehane, Marshall Karp, Stieg Larsson, and those who don't shy away from gritty mysteries, flawed heroes, and the often violent nature of people overall. Perhaps, as the fan base of Harry Potter gets older, they can graduate to Galbraith/Rowling's new series; its written just as well as Harry Potter and also has the action, the tension between good and bad, the wit, and the ever-proper Britishness that we all grew to love.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unbroken- The Story of A Man More Awesome Than You

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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, published in 2010. It is going to be a movie directed by Angelina Jolie, to be released on Christmas 2014. It's an incredible book, spending 180 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list. It is about a man who has done more and survived more than most of us could even dream of achieving. His life should make all of us aspire to be more.  The book is gripping, suspenseful, romantic, heroic, and inspiring; I read it in three days, calling into work sick so I could finish it. The movie is already generating Oscar Award buzz, even though it hasn't officially been released; the trailer alone made me cry. Why haven't you read it yet? I'm not sure.

Louis Zamperini overcame QUITE a bit to become the very embodiment of the idea of a 'true' American. An small-town boy, who became a Hitler-dissing track star in the 1936 Olympics, Zamperini joined the military in World War 2, was shot down in his plane, floated adrift in the Pacific for 47 days, only to be rescued by the Japanese forces and then spent more than two and a half years in a POW camp. Surely this must end in tragedy, with this hero dying horribly? He did die... July 2, 2014, at 97.  Zamperini was everything the "Greatest Generation" epitomizes: courage, faith, hard work, and an undying love for country and for family. The book is about Zamperini's journey to sports greatness, to military defeat and torture, accumulating in a self-realization and salvation that played a huge role in improving American and Japanese relations after the war.  

Is this a tear-jerker? You bet! Hillenbrand, her first success being the underdog story of Seabiscuit, is in perfect form in Unbroken.  Known for her meticulous research, Hillenbrand uses military archives, news archives, and personal stories from Zamperini, his family, and his friends to weave a tale that leaves the reader breathless and terrified, yet hopeful.  Although clearly a non-fiction work, Unbroken reads almost like a fiction; the story is almost unbelievable and the outcome is incredible. Hillenbrand has a real talent for drawing the reader completely into the story and relaying emotions to where the reader can vividly feel them. No detail is left unexplored, no emotion left untouched. She takes you on the journey of Zamperini's life, from the angst of teenagehood fistfights to the unbending belief that he would survive his time in the POW camp. Hillenbrand, who became close friends with Zamperini while researching the book, wrote in her eulogy to him, "If anything defined Louie, it was that. What made his life transcendent, what made it resonate in millions of hearts, was not the hardship he encountered, but the way in which he greeted it, how he turned it to joy, and what that told the rest of us about the potential that sleeps within ourselves."

Why should you read this? Well, it almost seems unpatriotic to NOT read about an ultimate American patriot.  He served his country as an Olympian, a soldier, a veteran, and a good citizen; all of this, and he never gave up.  If that isn't the true American spirit, I don't know what is.  And the book is an intense, but utterly gratifying read.  You will never be the same after reading this.  

Besides, you need to read the book before you see the movie!!

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