Why I Converted From a Pantser into a Plotter

I think most people in the writing blogosphere know what a pantser and plotter are by now, but just in case you don’t, here’s a quick definition:

A “pantser” is someone who writes based on their intuition, or “flying by the seat of their pants.”

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Actual footage of me as a pantser

A “plotter,” however, well….plots.

That isn’t to say pantser doesn’t have a picture in their head of where the story is going, they just trust more in their innate ability to navigate the story.

I used to be one such person.

It was fun.

You discover this brave new world with characters and settings, world-building and plot. Every action is unpredictable, every environment as new to you as the characters. It’s basically like the universe is telling the story to you and it’s up to you to transcribe it for others to read.

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The winds pick up and the story accelerates faster and faster until you look at the clock and discover it’s nearly 11 p.m.

You reluctantly carry yourself to bed, head buzzing impatiently for the new day to begin so you can start the whole process over.

The next day comes and you sit before your desk, ready to feel the metaphorical winds in your hair yet again, but then…..

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You get stuck.

You have no idea how your MC is going to vanquish their enemy. The momentum of the story is lost. Worse than that, you know the beginning and tiny fraction of the climax but absolutely nothing in between.

You wrack your brain for a solution, but nothing comes. You doubt the validity of your own talents. Eventually, you either convince yourself the story was never worth telling in the first place, or you form the delusion you’re just “taking a break” from this story until something comes to you.

Your computer becomes a graveyard of incomplete projects.

This was my story.

It wasn’t as though I’d never tried to be a plotter. It just seemed to me as though I wasn’t cut out for it. The muse didn’t like restrictions, you know?

I didn’t need Siri to tell me to turn left at the stop sign. My heart would lead the way!

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…….Except it didn’t.

Or it only lead me to a certain point and then ditched me.

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My muse after I hit a plothole

I spent so many nights marinating on my affliction. I was a failed pantser and a failed plotter. So what was I to do?

After a long while, I found myself once again bitten by the writing bug. Yet again, I tried playing it by ear only to fall flat on my face for what felt like the 550th consecutive time.

And so I decided I would give plotting one more try……

Holy shit was that a good idea. 

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Turns out I was doing the whole thing wrong.

Rather than slowly building up to a story, planning out the characters and their arcs, I tried boiling my entire story down to a couple of sentences jotted on notebook paper. Mostly because–while I acknowledged the benefits of plotting– I simply didn’t want to do it. I was aching with anticipation to get started. I wanted to craft sentences not make a map.

Maps are boring.

Writing is fun.

What I didn’t realize is it didn’t have to be that way.

Instead of relegating my entire novel to 500 word essay, I made an outline for each. I broke them down based on what I wanted to achieve, what I wanted the characters to think and feel, and how it impacted the plot.

I was able to create cultures and histories as well as characters and plots.

I anticipated plot-holes before they happened.

I could re-work and experiment with story elements without having to completely start over from scratch because I hadn’t actually begun the writing stage yet.

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Most importantly, I saved myself weeks, months, maybe even years of turmoil trying to make all the puzzle pieces fit together.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still hard work and I do get stuck occasionally. However, it takes a lot less time to re-write a plot-map than it does to completely restructure your story over again because you decided to go another direction.

If being a panster has been working for you and you’ve had no issue completing projects, God bless you, you beautiful freak of nature.

For the rest of you that have found yourself frustrated and directionless, I whole-heartedly recommend you give plotting a serous looking into.

It’s not nearly as boring or regimental as it sounds.

I’ve actually found it more enjoyable than flying by the seat of my pants because I actually have confidence that my story is going in the direction it needs to go.

If it worked for someone like me, I’m willing to bet it will work for many of you.

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Happy Writing!

 

 

Thoughts on “You” Season 2 Netflix Series

Warning: The following contains spoilers for season 2 of You. If you have not seen this season but would like to, reader discretion is advised. 

I confess over the years I’ve become jaded towards thrillers. True-crime podcasts left me feeling cold. Shows like Law and Order and CSI were all cookie-cutter snore-fests that made me question the whole crime genre.

I began to despair that I would never find another show with bite. One that would leave me on the edge of my seat, craving more.

Then…. there was You.

There You were with your unique first-person perspective, biting social commentary and oh so binge-worthy content. You constantly kept me on my toes. You gave me many a sleepless night. You sent my heart racing in a way no other show has.

When I learned You were to have a second season, I was pleased. So pleased. And when the day finally came when I could watch You….

You sucked.

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There’s no nice way of putting this, this season was a mess of catastrophic proportions.

I wasn’t expecting this season to be as good as it’s predecessor but holy shit–

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While there were issues with the plot and the pacing, I think the biggest reason this season is a failure in my eyes is because the characters are so woefully bad.

Time for an autopsy everyone!

Let’s begin with Candace, Joe’s ex-girlfriend and returnee from the grave.

We, the audience, are expected to route for her as a matter of course. After all, she was a victim of a terrible crime and left for dead by someone she trusted.

But I cannot get behind this character.

Is it because she is a strong, independent woman trying to bring down the toxically masculine man?

No, it’s because she’s a complete dumbass.

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Let’s review: She knows Joe has a body count. She knows he has gotten away with unspeakable things in the past. She knows she has no evidence to back her up. And she knows she’s been off the grid so long people wouldn’t notice if she disappeared. That being said, she decides her best move is to confront this guy, with no backup and threaten him.

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Thanks to the power of plot convenience, she is spared. At least temporarily. For a while she is graciously out of the limelight, but when she comes back she only serves as an unnecessary distraction.

Candace disguises herself as Amy Adams, flirts her way into a relationship with Joe’s girlfriend’s brother and then….does nothing but lob veiled threats at Joe. She claims to be “protecting” people, but she waits so long to tell Love about Joe. Why didn’t she just say she was his ex? Why didn’t she expose him earlier?

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What’s so tragic about all this is they could have made Candace a good character. They could have made the revenge plan a viable plot point as well.

Instead of threatening Joe outright, she could have covertly stalked him and found out who he was lusting after. From there she could have set a trap and exposed him for who he really is. Joe is the POV character and narrator of the show, but they have broken POV before. They could have had a 20 minute flashback to everything Candace has been up to since season 1 and shown us her masterplan for getting back at him.

But Rachael, we wouldn’t have gotten that cliff-hanger at the end of season 1!

Easy fix: Joes discovers an anonymous note accusing him of the murder which spooks him into leave town.

So the story would be basically the same only, you know, not completely stupid.

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Speaking of stupid, let’s backtrack to Candace and Joe’s first meeting at the coffee shop post-Beck murder. Since the screen-writer never clued us in, it’s up to me to ask the obvious question: Why doesn’t he just kill her? No one else knew she was there and it’s doubtful anyone would be looking for her. All of his problems would have been over.

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Candace: You would go to prison as you. You would sit there for the rest of your life and think you’re a good man. I’m going to show you who you really are. And when you see it, you’ll be begging me to turn you in. It’s going to be really fun fucking destroying you.

Joe:

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Unfortunately, Candace isn’t the only disappointing character in this season. 

Our ensemble cast is a veritable assortment of a-holes.

Delilah and Ellie Alves, the residence of Joe’s new apartment complex, are supposed to come across as spunky and independent, but I could not connect with them.

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From the moment they meet Joe they are antagonistic towards him for no discernible reason. Even when he is helping them out he is insulted and accused of “man-splaining.” I know he’s a psychopathic murderer and worthy of scorn, but they don’t know that.

Many people seemed to latch onto these people, but I just couldn’t. Delilah is a bitch of epic proportions and Ellie was a tedious know-it-all.

Then there are the twins

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Forty isn’t a terrible character. The issue is he shouldn’t be in this show. He clashes with the tone of You something terrible. In season 1, You was a show engrained in reality. Yes, there were the occasional funny moments sprinkled in but most of the situations were plausible, the characters were three-dimensional, and the stakes were real. In season 2, he takes the show to near cartoonish levels of silly. The scene where he and Joe are tripping balls is straight out of a Hangover movie.

Love, it must be said, is a pretty underwhelming successor to Beck.

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I wanted to put Beck through a wall many times, but she was a well-written character. Her past demons, deeply imbedded insecurities, and her damage made for a realistic person and it was heartbreaking watching her go through all the devastation Joe brought to her life.

Love, on the other hand, is a major step down in terms of character development. Frankly, even with her co-dependent brother and dysfunctional family, she is pretty dull. It wasn’t until the end, after we discover she is as crazy as Joe, that she actually starts showing promise.

Since her previous husband died from a mysterious disease, I was kind of hoping she had secretly poisoned him because she found out he was cheating or something. Sadly, his death seems to have been a result of natural causes. Pity. Even after we discovered her murderous past….I found it difficult to care because the quality of the show had deteriorated so much.

Then, finally, there is Joe.

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Sigh.

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Remember how in my  previous post about You I said I wished they had discussed Joe’s backstory a bit more? Yeah, I take it back. It was basically you’re paint-by-numbers my-daddy-beat-my-mommy/mommy-was-a-whore scenario. It didn’t add any new or interesting dynamic to the character and the child actor they got to play young Joe could not emote for shit.

I know I shouldn’t be hard on a child actor, but it’s difficult being invested in a scene when one of the pivotal characters looks like he’s stuck in a calculus class taught by Ben Stein.

That wasn’t the only Joe-related issue of this season either.

A major plot thread of this season involved Joe’s eyes being opened to the monster he truly is. As Candace promises, he finally understands the pain he has put other people through….

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Normally I applaud character development, but in this case it fell flat for two reasons.

Problem #1: Joe has high-functioning narcissistic personality disorder

Someone with his level of psychosis  would not have the self-awareness necessary to question their behavior on this level. He may acknowledge he has done bad things, but he is able to compartmentalize it all under the banner of “love” and “protection” and thus cleanse himself of guilt. 

This is evidenced by his behavior going all the way back to season 1.

When he discovers Beck’s friend Peach has been taking lewd photographs of Beck without permission, he is disgusted, noting how much of a violation this is. It doesn’t even occur to him to examine his own actions from an outside perspective and realize he has done literally the same thing by inserting himself into Beck’s life.

Only he knows what Beck deserves. Only he can help her reach her full potential. It was his responsibility to weed out all the toxic people in her life.

It’s a humorous scene, but it’s an honest one. This is how people like Joe genuinely think. They are lying, manipulative, hypocrites that are virtually incapable of self-reflection.

Problem #2:  The season was much slower as a result of Joe trying to be a better person.

What made season 1 so captivating (apart from the superior character writing) was the shock-value. You never knew what depths of depravity Joe would plumb to next.

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The intensity was turned up to 11 in every episode.

What was he going to do with Benjii? How would he deal with Peach’s codependent control over Beck? How would he evade detection? Could he actually make things work with Beck and get away with it all scot free?

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During this season, however, they pulled all the punches.

I never felt like anything was at stake. Mostly because I didn’t give a crap about any of the supporting cast.

The most excited I became was when Forty and Joe were reenacting his confrontation with Beck while high on LSD and Joe begins strangling Forty to death!

source.gifAnd….then Joe stops.

This was a common thread. Almost every time we thought someone was going to get killed, or Joe was going to do something super messed but the writer’s would pull us back. They were really trying to push for A CW vibe with comedy and drama rather than what we came for a.k.a a serial-killing psychopath.

I didn’t want to look further into Love’s life. Her family is dumb. Her brother is a nuisance. The Old Joe would never let that happen.

Come on, writers, what are you waiting for?!

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As for that ending. That….stupid ending.

You mean we went through that whole bs about how he was going to be a good person now for no reason. You denied us high-stakes, intricate plans, and general messed-upness for nothing!

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Honestly, I could go on longer, but I believe this is a good place to cap this review.

TLDR; this season was a disaster.

The characters sucked.

Nothing anyone did made any sense.

The plot was stupid.

This was a disaster.

They should never have made a follow-up to season 1. It was a perfectly good self-contained story that didn’t need to be continued.

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Goodnight, You. 

May you suffocate in your glass prison of death.

Thoughts on “The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

Amazon Summary: When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

***Author’s note: I think it’s fair to make it clear that this book is meant to be a modern retelling of The Turn of the Screw (a book which I have not read) and so I am basing this book entirely on its own merits.***

Rowan makes for a great protagonist, but in my mind Heathbrae House is the true star of the novel.

From the outside, Heathbrae is a dignified and eye-catching piece of real-estate with old Victorian aesthetic and flashy gadgetry.

The inside, however, reveals a much darker truth.

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As Rowan notes, the house’s transformation from a run down Victorian into a modern home replete with fancy technology is not a smooth one. Rather than blending together to form a charming country estate, the modern amenities and old architecture clash with one another in garish ways. The house itself suffers from an identity crisis which is perfectly in keeping with the story’s themes, especially relating to Rowan.

 Rowan has experience as a care-giver, however, it’s obvious she lacks a lot of the matronly appeal one in such a position is supposed to hold. She, herself, comes from a cold, loveless household and is desperately trying to find one of her own. She does her best to fit into the role but as the horrors increase, her facade begins to crumble. 

I found Rowan’s struggle heartbreakingly relatable. She’s found herself in a difficult position, where all her actions can and will be monitored in a strange and new environment. I think all of us have found ourselves in such a struggle, so it was easy to route for her as she goes through all these trials.

It doesn’t help that she’s constantly second-guessing both herself and those around her as strange events keep occurring.

In spite of the fact that I’m a total scaredy-cat, most books don’t have the power to truly scare me. This is especially true when they take place in modern times. The suspension of disbelief in the day of iPads and internet streaming is so weak it can take a great deal of co-ercing to get me to go along with the program.  However, The Turn of the Key literally made me afraid to turn the next page. I know, I know,  it’s a cliché, but the environment Ware created was so creepy and foreboding, I genuinely dreaded turning the page. What was a I going to discover? A corpse? A murder weapon? A ghost?

It legitimately kept me guessing as to what was going to happen, even though I knew for certain a child was going to die at the end.

Speaking of the end…..

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Perhaps it’s just me, but I was incredibly disappointed.

It didn’t seem to me that the twists worked very well as none of them were built up to.

The best kind of twists are the ones that make perfect sense upon second reading. All the clues are there but they are so innocuous you don’t notice them from the start. However, upon reflection it all makes perfect sense and you kick yourself for not recognizing the signs. In this case, however, I think Ware played her cards too close to her chest.

She gave away so little in the fear that her audience would figure out the ending that when the reveal happens it feels like she pulled it out of her arse.

For those that don’t want to the ending spoiled for them, don’t go any farther.

 

*********Spoilers ahead, reader beware***********

 

Okay, so I thought the twist that Rowan was actually Bill’s daughter was kind of….um…

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Even after rereading Rowan’s first encounter with Bill, it still didn’t make sense to me.

When Rowan is describing Bill’s appearance she says she can’t tell how old he is, but she speculates he could be forty.

Rowan is in her late twenties.

That would mean her father would have been 12 years-old upon her conception.

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To be 100% accurate, she guess-stimates his age from 40-60, but all the same. Why would she think he could possibly be 40?

Not to mention, there’s never any indication that there was more to the scene than what information we were presented with. If I went to all that trouble to find my biological father (stealing my roommate’s identity, uprooting myself from the country, and agreeing to live in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers) I would be devastated to learn that he was a pervert.

Nonetheless, Rowan carries on as if it were nothing more than an inconvenience.

What makes this twist frustrating is I believe it could have been fixable if enough care was taken.

For instance, instead of saying “Sandra and Bill” in her narration, she could have said “Bill and Sandra.” A reader might question why she was putting Bill’s name before Sandra’s even though most of her interactions are through the matriarch of the family, but I doubt anyone would think enough about it to put two and two together.

As for the big reveal that it was actually Maddie pulling the strings all along…that’s fine…I guess…

Her motivation does makes sense and it’s easy to see how her father’s bad behavior could result in her acting out in a big way.

The problem with this revelation is I seriously doubt a child her age could pull off something that elaborate. This kid would have to be Hannibal Lector-level crazy. Think about it. She gaslighted Rowan, found out how to by-pass all the security (I know kids are good with tech but come on), snuck into a boarded up attic and a whole host of other things.

Let’s be reasonable here, this is all very, very unlikely.

The twist that Ellie accidentally killed Maddie was….okay, I guess.

It’s difficult to articulate why I was disappointed by this. Perhaps its my own personal hang-up with Scooby-Doo-isque endings where there’s always a guy in a mask behind everything instead of an actual ghost.

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I get it.

It’s the 21st century.

We are supposed to be beyond superstitious nonsense, but come on.

Can’t it ever be an actual ghost?

Ghosts are fun.

Throw me a bone, here.

Overall, if Ware had just re-written a couple of things, I think she would have a first rate book on her hands. As it stands, I can’t give this book anything higher than a 6/10.

I won’t say the twists ruined it for me, but they did take away a lot of enjoyment for me.

 

Unpopular Opinion: The Current State of Poetry

While poetry isn’t my favorite medium, it will always hold a special place in my heart. Edgar Allen Poe’s Alone speaks to me in ways few other works ever have. The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe gets my heart pounding with its haunting lyricism and captivating imagery.

Poetry in itself is a small miracle, able to impart a whole cornucopia of emotion in such a small amount of time.

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That being said, my appreciation of poetry has waned over the past few years and I think it may have something to do with how much it has changed.

It’s not like I didn’t expected poetry to evolve.

The world is becoming a different place and, as such, the arts are destined to change with it lest they become irrelevant.

It was destined to leave the loving arms of William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson to make its own way in the world.

But post-modern poetry is like a child from a super-protective household that became hooked on cocaine in college and drop out to live in a Los Angeles slum.

Some of the more recent poems I’ve seen published in books and lit mags don’t even seem like they should count as poetry. This may sound harsh, but hear me out.

I willl come–

across poems

written

like this for

no particular reason

that breaks off at

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like

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They are so distracting visually it’s impossible not to imagine William Shatner narrating them.

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I realize “free-verse poetry” is a thing, but shouldn’t there be some logical structure? If not, aren’t the words just floating around aimlessly?

Often times there will be no rhyme scheme or word-pictures to make them pop either so my mind instantaneously purges them as soon as I’m done reading.

I literally cannot remember these poems five minutes after I’ve read them. 

When the poet does attempt to create a word-picture, the metaphors tend to be so muddled and confusing I honestly have no idea what they are talking about.

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Is that meant to be part of the fun? Just figuring out what the poem is supposed to be about? The titles are no help either. A poem that details a burning forest could be called “Tapioca Pudding.” 

Is that in reference to the fire reducing everything to sludge? Is that the color of wood after it has burned? 

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I’ve taken many an English class, studied the creative arts year after year, yet I’m no closer to determining if these poems are deep or dumb.

Do I just not “get” it?

Oh God, am I a boomer?

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*Sigh*

Then….. there’s slam poetry.

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Slam Poetry has been around since the 80s, but it has risen to prominence over the last decade, especially in academic circles  and….I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps all the political and social issues of the day have inspired creatives to take to the stage to express their angst in a more public forum.

Regardless of how much passion or earnestness is put into the construction of these pieces….can we admit that it’s super corny 99.9% of the time?

It’s not necessarily the poems themselves. It’s a combination of the half-baked stanzas with overly-dramatic readings that would give an acting coach a hernia.

I can’t think of a single one I’ve witnessed that didn’t make me want to chloroform myself mid-performance.

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How all slam poems sound to me

I understand how important your subject matter is, but saying something dramatically does not make it deep. If I recited I’m a Little Teapot while doing interpretive dance, it’s not going to give the song a new meaning. It’s still about a teapot being short and being tipped over to pour liquid in a cup for someone to drink.

…Now I want someone to write a slam remix of I’m a Little Teapot. It would have made that awkward Ashley Judd poetry reading way more interesting.

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I. Am. A. Naaaaasty little teapot.”

For those of you that write and enjoy post-modern poetry, I’m genuinely happy for you.

I am pleased that you can derive meaning from something and be inspired to create as a result of it.

But I think I will continue to appreciate your passion from far, far away.

“Knives Out” Film Review

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Knives Out. If you have not seen this movie but hope to do so, do not continue reading. 

I’ve been on a murder-mystery kick for the last several days, so I was interested in giving Knives Out a try. The trailer gave off some serious Agatha Christie/Clue vibes and so I was instantly hooked by the premise.

In spite of my excitement, I was preparing myself for disappointment. There have been many trailers over the years that have gotten me pumped up over the years, only to disappoint me when I actually went out of my way to see them in theaters.

I’m happy to say this was not the case in this instance.

Not only did the film deliver, it exceeded my expectations.

While the premise intrigued me, I went in expecting the characters to be one-dimensional. Even murder-mystery staples like Christie can be guilty of creating characters severely underdeveloped for the sake of plot progression. However, I was quickly proven incorrect on that score as well.

While not likable, the family members are all quite believable each in their own respect. They are all greedy and self-absorbed but not to a cartoonish degree. Even when their avarice is on display it’s usually done in a subtle way.

I was especially impressed by Marta Cabrera, the heroine of the movie. Considering she is supposed to be the moral center of this film and surrounded by such awful people, they could have easily made her cloying or Disney Princess-y, but they managed to make her an exceedingly good person in a realistic manner.

Even Detective Blanc, for all his hamminess, was enjoyable and a nice change from Daniel Craig’s normal catalogue of characters. It’s great to see a movie where Craig has more than one facial expression. Turns out he has some comedy chops as well as he constantly had the theatre laughing with his languid analogies such as the donut hole. 

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His Southern-Georgian accent was…pretty terrible but it grew on me the longer I heard it. And the way he chewed the scenery like a cow chews cud brought me endless joy.

While we’re on the subject of characters, I have to say, the scene where the family members are fighting over politics is probably the most realistic depiction of a political argument in a familial setting that I’ve ever seen put to film. I was also struck by how balanced it was, portraying all members as being lunatics rather than one side being completely right or wrong. It added a layer to realism to the movie that I wasn’t expecting. While the events transpiring around them were unreal, the characters themselves were very authentic and thus made it easier for the audience to suspend disbelief.

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As for the plot, I admire it on many different levels. On one level, it clearly wanted to exude Agatha Christie vibes (as previously stated) but it quickly became its own entity. In fact, I suspect the old English murder-mystery tone was created as a way of subverting our expectations of what was to come. It certainly did mine. While I thought the idea of the grandfather’s “murder” being the result of a tragic accident rather than malicious intent was genius, the movie hadn’t even reached the halfway mark yet. If the murder had been solved, then what the hell was the rest of the movie going to be about? As it happens, the movie was in much more capable hands than I suspected.

Through the course of the story, we learn that what happened that night wasn’t nearly so cut and dry as we thought. While we knew what occurred superficially, we didn’t realize we should be looking for a why. We didn’t think to ask why Marta had mixed up the drugs. We just assumed it was an honest mistake. Happens all the time. As a result, the movie was able to play with our lack of curiosity and create an even bigger, more jaw-dropping story.

The writing for this movie is some of the smartest I’ve seen. I think Joker beats it out as my favorite movie of the year, but the amount of care that was put into this script really shows. It wasn’t just a murder-mystery epic, it was also heartbreaking at times, and funny.

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You would think, granted to severity of the character’s circumstances, the humor would be jarring. On the contrary, it’s delicately woven in and genuinely had me and many others laughing out loud.

Then there is the ending.

The ending is pure genius because it encapsulates a forgotten principle in film-making: Show don’t tell.

After the climax, Marta is left debating whether or not she should help the Thrombey family financially. Since they were each ceremoniously cut from the grandfather’s will and she was given everything, she wonders if it is morally just to honor Harlan’s wishes, or if it would be better to have pity on them.

Her decision is never spoken out loud, but the movie clearly gives us an answer to her moral dilemma. While out on the lawn, in the wake of Ransom’s arrest, the family gaze up at Marta as she stands above them (metaphorically and literally) on the balcony, nursing one of Harlan’s mugs. She wordlessly takes a sip, her hand covering the bottom of the mug’s topography. However, we can clearly see two words engraved on the front above her hand: My house.

Brilliant.

If I had to nitpick, I might argue the movie is a bit too long, but honestly I don’t care. This was an amazingly written, fun, and exciting romp to the movies and I loved it.

10/10

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Thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” by Gary Stewart with Susan Mustafa

“My father wrapped me tightly in the dirty blue blanket and laid me there on the floor, making sure the pacifier was in my mouth so I would not cry before he was able to make his escape. He turned away, leaving me alone on the stairwell, clad only in a white towel that served as my diaper. Decades later, I would realize that the day my father abandoned me was the luckiest day of my life”

After thirty-nine years of zero contact, Gary Stewart is reached by his biological mother, hoping to form a connection. Elated, Gary accepts her offer and learns as much about his parentage as he can. However, the more he learns about his father, the more complicated things become.

Not only was his father a criminal, wife-beater, and a statutory rapist, he might have possibly been one of the more notorious serial-killers in American history: the Zodiac Killer.

The Most Dangerous Animal of All” is unlike any true-crime book I’ve ever read.

In fact, to call it a true-crime book is being overly simplistic. It’s not just a book about a murderer and his victims, it’s also about survival and the power of hope in the face of insurmountable odds.

I enjoyed the book for the same reason a lot of people didn’t. I scrolled through several one-star reviews on GoodReads, complaining this wasn’t like most true-crime books and it read too much like a novel.

I, personally, liked this stylistic choice, even if it took away some of the authenticity. Of course, as many reviewers pointed out, there is no way Stewart could know about conversations that took place decades before his birth, nor is it likely he had perfect recall of discussions he himself had with other people. But when you are dealing with a book like this, it can be necessary to take some artistic license provided you are true to the character of those involved.

There’s also the complaint that we didn’t need all this background information of the author.This gripe is honestly confusing to me. If you read the dust jacket it’s easy to see this is a personal story and would involve a lot of information about Stewart. After all, this is about his father and some background information is required for context. Not to mention, his personal story is fascinating.

Now, of course, there is the question as to whether or not Earl Van Best, Gary Stewart’s father, actually was the Zodiac killer. From the evidence he compiled to make his case, I would be very, very surprised if he wasn’t.

I don’t want to give too much away as I encourage you to read this book on your own, but I will say that the evidence Stewart presents is compelling. Many might call it circumstantial, but if he isn’t the Zodiac Killer, there is a hell of a lot of coincidences that need to be accounted for.

If you plan on reading this book, I suggest you do so on a weekend because, frankly, you’re not going to be doing much else. It hooks you in from the very beginning and won’t let you go until the end. I read the whole thing in about two days time and I imagine more ambitious readers would be able to knock it out in one.

It’s honestly difficult to say anything bad about it.

Perhaps the dialogue was a bit too stilted.

The repeating of information we already knew towards the end was a bit tiresome, nevertheless, I have few gripes with this book. I recommend it to anyone, even if you aren’t a fan of most traditional true-crime stories.

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Thoughts on “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO HAVE ANY FOREKNOWLEDGE OF THE CONTENTS OF THIS NOVEL, READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED. 

Summary: January 1937. 28-year-old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. After they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year, Gruhuken, Jack feels a creeping unease.

I love books about the arctic.

It’s a bastion of cruelty set against a backdrop of incomprehensible beauty. It’s so hostile and isolated yet life miraculously persists in spite of it all.

I think that is what makes it the perfect landscape for a horror novel.

Not only are characters forced to contend with whatever supernatural entity is on their tail, the very land itself threatens their survival on a daily basis.

So how was it?

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I can’t pin-point precisely where the story lost me.

It started off strong, setting the scene and describing the hopelessness that would motivate someone like Jack to forgo all he knows to venture to no-mans-land.

Then it got dull real frigging quick.

I’m all for a slow-burning horror, but this book was a drudge to get through, which is quite an achievement when you consider it’s a meager 252 pages.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this novel’s greatest failing is its characters. Our supposed hero Jack in particular makes for a tedious protagonist.

Jack is supposed to be the underdog, the only lower-class citizen in a team of upper and middle-class scholars who do this sort of thing on a lark, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for him.

Jack is moody, whiny, and, frankly, he acts like a petulant child even though he’s nearly in his 30s.

“I’ve moved to my bunk because Algie is using his collapsible safari bath, and I’d rather not watch. All that wobbly, freckled flesh. His feet are the worst. They’re flat pink slabs, and the second, and third toes protrude way beyond the big toe, which I find repulsive. Gus saw me staring at them, and flushed. No doubt he’s embarrassed for his ‘best pal.’- 78 pg

70% of his narration in the first act is either devoted to giving tongue baths to Gus or berating Algie for even the slight infraction. Granted Algie is kind of a dick, but the way Jack carries on about him reminds me  too much of my high school days when girls started petty feuds with one another for no reason.

In fact, Jack’s whole demeanor is effeminate to the point of irritation. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s gay, or if the female writer struggles writing from a male perspectives.

Speaking of being gay, I thought things were going to get interesting after it became obvious that Jack was developing feelings for Gus. After all, this novel takes place prior to World War II when feelings like this were not only socially unacceptable but illegal as well. Would Gus reciprocate? Would he be disgusted? Considering they would have to live with one another for a year in confinement, this had the potential to brew some real drama. With no societal conventions to keep them apart in this world so detached from the rest of civilization, how would two Englishmen who truly love each other interact? Would their affections survive the harsh climate and high tensions of living in such an inhospitable part of the world?

Don’t worry.

These question are never answered.

Instead of developing the milquetoast character of Gus, the author gives him appendicitis so he and Algie are forced to leave the island.

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Yeah.

Really.

Bet you thought this would be one of those character-driven novels where people start off as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts but develop as the story progresses, didn’t you?

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No, instead we are held hostage by Jack for the remainder of the tale.

I admit he does become more sympathetic as the story progresses. At first he hated the canine companions they purchased for the trip, but he eventually grew to love them and appreciate them for the good-boys that they were. It’s hard to dislike someone who appreciates dogs for the amazing beings they are.

Nevertheless, I would hesitate to say Jack ever truly becomes “interesting.”  The writer had a chance with leaving him alone to delve deeper into his subconscious to see what makes him tick. Instead it’s mostly surface-level information and him making O-face over Gus.

I never felt a sense of urgency on Jack’s behalf either. In The Terror, the crew were constantly in peril, not only from the monster, but also food shortages and rampant illness. Other than been spooked, Jack is fine. Even though he is isolated, he has ample food and supplies to last him over a year. Hell, now that the rest of his expedition team is gone he actually has more. Why am I supposed to be scared again?

….Oh, yeah, there’s a ghost, I guess.

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Personally, I think the spirit’s story was over-explained. Nobody knew his name or his true origins but the fact that we have his motives explained to us kind of takes away from the dread. If they just left him as some vague, malevolent force that communicated through dreams and visions, he would have been more terrifying.

It could have been like a ghost story/mystery where Jack had to piece together what the ghost wanted and why it was there. Or better yet, it could be called into question whether or not what Jack was seeing was actually real or not. They addressed men go crazy in these parts of the world, so why not play with that?

Instead we’re spoon-fed the whole story by ye old trapper guy. It’s not even that unique of a story.

In the end, the ghost really didn’t do much anyway.

By the time he actually started raising cain, I lost interested and was reading purely for completion’s sake.

In the end, Gus dies like we knew he would due to an accident the ghost caused….somehow. I don’t know, it wasn’t explained very well.

Jack and Algie become friends after this tragic event because the story said they did, and the protagonist and his good-boy husky live some semblance of happily ever after.

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Part of me feels guilty for giving this book a poor review. After all this is Paver’s first novel for an adult audience, which might account for its lack of depth. Nevertheless, this book didn’t do anything for me. The plot had a lot of potential, it just didn’t reach it.

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

My Thoughts on the Long Wait for “The Winds of Winter”

After the colossal wash-rag that was season 8, people are growing steadily less patient with George R.R. Martin and his slow output. 

The newest installment of  the series, The Winds of Winter, has been in the works for nearly a decade now and people are chomping at the bit for a return to normalcy. They want to go back to a time when characters’ motivations actually made sense, dialogue was well written, and events were building up to a well-deserved climax.

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Fans after season 8

It’s obvious a book series as intricate as Game of Thrones would take a significant amount of time to create. After all, it’s hard enough as a readers to keep track of all the plot threads Martin has woven over the years, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to be the one weaving the tapestry.

Many have pointed this out in defenses of Martin, claiming fans are just being entitled brats, crying for their toys. Some have even gone so far as to write songs about it, notably John Anealio’s George R. R. Martin is Not Your Bitch. 

I, myself,  have experienced multiple creative dry-spells that have prevented me from writing. I currently have an unfinished fanfiction that has been languishing in limbo since 2018. In spite of my efforts to update, as many positive reviews have been requesting me to do, I have found it difficult to write something that will satisfy the modest readership I have accumulated over the years.

Martin experiences this same sort of pressure on an infinitely higher scale. Game of Thrones is a global phenomenon now. Not only is his creation loved by millions, he himself has become a household name. He’s become so well-known people dress as him for Halloween!

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Most writers salivate over the idea of achieving such a level of notoriety, but it comes at a cost.

Can you even conceive how monumental a task it must be to complete a series that has such far-reaching acclaim?

Having said all this, you might think I’m a Martin apologist who believes he should take however long he wants to create the best book he can possibly make. Considering how disastrous the final season was, the last thing readers want is a rushed product.

………..

But 8 years is too damn long, my guy.

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I sympathize with his situation.

But come on.

8 years?

8 years?!?!

It took Tolstoy 6 years to write War and Peace, a book over 1,200 pages long, and he had 10 children.

I can see a book this crucial to the series taking 3, or 4, or even 5 years to finish.

But not over 8. 

Martin isn’t writing Thrones in between 12-hour shifts at the sheet metal factory. Writing is his full-time job. He has been in this profession since forever.

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Look, in all seriousness, the root of the issue is he knows Game of Thrones is his magnum opus.

If he cannot deliver on the pay-off he has been building up to since 1996, he will never create anything this monolithic or culturally relevant ever again.

That is a terrifying prospect for anyone to comprehend.

But Martin knows the score. He’s been in the writing bizz longer than some of us have been alive.

The defenders are right, George R. R. Martin is not our bitch.

He is a full-grown man with complete autonomy and we shouldn’t expect him to perform for our amusement like a puppet on a string.

Nevertheless, he owes us the books he promised.

We are not greedy for holding him to his end of the bargain. 

Writing is a scary profession, especially when people start noticing you. While there are more people to listen and be inspired by your work, there are also more people to please. Fandoms, while often times accepting, can also be merciless in their critiques. Trying to placate such a large crowd is daunting.

But you have to write anyway.

Some people won’t be pleased with the way Martin wraps up the series. Unfortunately, that’s art. Some will like it, others won’t.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to be finished.

Let’s face it, David Benioff and D.B Weiss set the bar pretty damn low.

Just about anything Martin writes has a 9/10 chance of being leaps and bounds better than that shlock of an ending the show cooked up.

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Why the Aladdin Remake Is Frustrating

I was coerced into seeing the 2019 Aladdin remake by a group of friends who promised it was good. Even though I tend to be against remakes on principle, I tried to keep an open mind and allow the experience to shape me in whatever way it chose.

To be fair, Will Smith did a phenomenal job. He achieved what no one thought he could and was a powerful successor to Robin William’s Genie. Rather than attempting to replicate Genie’s character from the original, he provided his own entertaining interpretation that wowed me.

The musical numbers were all visually captivating and well choreographed, enhanced by the Middle Eastern aesthetic. I loved watching the bollywood-style dancing and listening to the gorgeous music.

This was a very attractive film….

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But it wasn’t good.

Why?

Because it exemplified all the things that make reboots and remakes so frustrating.

Reboots are notoriously guilty of scrapping plot-points that are perfectly fine and keeping ones that are arbitrary. Or, as in some cases, they will change things for the better, but won’t alter the story to accommodate the alterations they made.

The most obvious example of this in the Aladdin remake is Jasmine.

Jasmine’s character went through a major make-over with this movie. Gone was the idealistic and naive teenager, replaced by a much more worldly and tenacious young woman determined to succeed her father as sultan.

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Personally, I didn’t dislike this change. I don’t think there was anything wrong with Jasmine’s original character, but the alteration wasn’t unwelcome.

The issue was they did not adjust the story to suit this new personality makeover.

Because they made her into someone far less naive than her older counterpart, pivotal scenes no longer make sense.

In both versions of Aladdin and Jasmine’s first meeting, Jasmine steals an apple to give to a group of starving children she sees in the marketplace only to be apprehended by the proprietor. The cartoon Jasmine is so sheltered it doesn’t occur to her people have to pay for food, making her actions believable. The live-action Jasmine is way too smart to do something so mentally bankrupt and we never see her do anything this absent-mindedly dumb ever again.

Then, they change the scene where Jasmine thinks Aladdin is dead and replace it with Jasmine getting shot down by Jafar, prompting her to sing her live-action film original song Speechless. 

No joke, they spend so long on this scene.

I get that they are trying to make Jasmine her own person and everything to placate the modern feminists, but guys, the movie is called Aladdin.

It’s supposed to be about Aladdin.

No one cares about this stupid country.

The irony is they could have developed Jasmine and kept the central focus on the titular character at the same time. Speechless would have been much more emotionally impactful if they had kept the scene where Jafar lies to her about Aladdin’s demise. Because she stayed “speechless” an innocent and wonderful dude was murdered. Isn’t that way more emotionally investing than hearing about some random country we literally never see or learn anything about?

To make matters worse, Jasmine and Aladdin have zero chemistry in the remake and it’s  obvious why.

In the 1992 animated film, we could see why Jasmine would fall for Aladdin. He was a smexy street-wise guy with a heart of gold that filled her dull, pampered life with action and adventure.

Now that she’s a m-fing woman that actually wants the throne (unlike in the original where she outright states she has no interest in being royalty) and is perfectly capable of navigating the streets of Agrabah all on her own, why does she need Aladdin?

What does he contribute to this relationship?

That isn’t to say Jasmine is the only issue, however.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the live-action Jafar was less intimidating than Yzma after she’d been turned into a cat.

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Yes, Jafar was a one-note villain in the original, but he was a fun one-note villain. Jonathon Freeman obviously had a blast in this role, going from underhanded and cunning to full-blown bombastic evil mastermind.

But this guy?

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I don’t know what his other credentials were but he just looked bored the whole time. His line delivery was more underwhelming than a prepubescent boy at a school play.

It’s frustrating that at one point they actually tried to make him more interesting by revealing he used to be a thief like Aladdin. If nursed enough, this could have made up for his lack of intimidation and made him a memorable villain. Instead, it’s unceremoniously dropped and we never learn anything else about his past again.

What a wasted opportunity.

Oh, remember that awesome scene where Aladdin fights Jafar as a cobra?

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Well, in this movie Aladdin and Jasmine fly away from Iago as Jafar morphs him into a large…parrot.

Yeah, instead of a giant cobra, it’s a parrot that chases them around CGI Agrabah.

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Isn’t….isn’t that so much better?

Aren’t you  impressed?!?

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I could go on in further depth if I wanted to.

I could talk about how the guy they cast as Aladdin is only a passable singer and actor.

I could talk about how unnecessary Jasmine’s handmaiden was, or why it makes no sense that Jasmine is apparently the sultan now even though her father is still alive.

But those things aren’t what bothers me most of all.

What vexes me so much about this movie is the same thing I find so offensive about every other remake:

It doesn’t need to exist. 

Tell me, apart from making money, what was ever the point of re-making Aladdin? It’s one of the most beloved animated films of all time, receiving critical and box-office success and is forever slated as one of the best films ever made.

There’s this bs comment floating around that “kids these days” don’t want to watch “old cartoons” and we have to preserve these stories for the next generation.

So…..you are telling me kids will watch cartoons that look like this-

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And this-

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And this-

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But they won’t watch something that looks like this-

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Or this-

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Or this?

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Well, let me tell you-

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There is a reason films like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and all the rest are considered classics.

People still watch them. 

I didn’t view most of these films when they first came out because I was either too little to comprehend the plot, or I wasn’t born yet.

My childhood favorite, Snow White, was made a whopping 49 years before I was born. I didn’t care that it was old. I liked it because I thought it was good.

It doesn’t matter that kids have iPads, or that streaming exists, or that Twitter and Instagram are a staple of modern society. These stories are strong enough to withstand the test of time.

That is what made them good in the first place.

I will no longer endorse the “fixing” of things that aren’t broken.

There are so many other stories out there that deserve funding, why should continue paying people to make crappy Xerox copies of films that have already been made and made better?

You’re welcome to keep shelling out your hard-earned dollars for stuff like this, but I prefer to sit them out from now on.

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Game of Thrones: Book 1 v. Season 1

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 OF GAME OF THRONES AND MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE BOOKS. 

Good news! I can consider myself a good nerd now that I have finally completed the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

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That being said, I have many thoughts that I am wanting to share on the subject of both the first beloved now maligned TV series and the first book in the timeless saga written by George R. R. Martin.

In this post I won’t be going into the specifics on how the book and show differ necessarily (if you’re more interested in that, then watch this video series by The Dom). Instead, I will be discussing what I think worked best between the two in terms of story-telling.

Points to the show: 

Faces to the names 

George R. R. Martin has unquestionably made one of the most intricate fantasy worlds in existence, rivalling even the likes of J.R.R Tolkien in its density. Its packed to the hilt with lore and customs and people….

….and therein lies one of the issues in Game Of Thrones.

There are too many goddamn people. 

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I tried to read the first book before I started watching the series, but dammit if I couldn’t make it. There were just too many name to remember, too many notes that had to be taken.

It didn’t help that some of the characters had similar physical attributes, making it even more difficult keeping track of who was who.

Wait…is Jorah Mormont this old, white, bald dude, or is he that other old, white, bald dude?”

Converting the written word into a visual format allowed me to put a face to the name and has made my reading experience less confusing as a result.

Cersei

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While in some ways I appreciate the characters in the book more than in the TV show, I think Cersei proves to be an exception to this rule.

Cersei is not a POV character in the first book and so we are only able to see how she interacts with other POV characters a.ka. Sansa, Tyrion, and Ned Stark. While we do get a taste of how nasty and demented she is in the novel, we don’t see her in her more vulnerable moments like we did in the show.

There’s a scene in the first season in particular where Cersei asks Robert if there was ever a chance they could have been happy, to which Robert responds with a heartbreaking “no.”I thought this scene added more emotional depth to Cersei’s character, enabling the audience to see her as something more than just a cackling villainess.

Ned Stark 

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I love Ned Stark in both the novel and in the show. However, Sean Bean’s performance brings much more warmth to the character than existed in the book. For the life of me, I can’t recall a time where Ned laughed or cracked a smile outside of the show. I’m sure it happened, but for the most part he was ever the stoic Northerner, waiting for the next conflict to arise. In the show, there are more moments of levity and he actually lets out a chuckle or two. It makes him look more approachable and gives him sort of a Mufasa-isque quality to him.

Robb and Catelyn’s Grief

In the books, we don’t see how Robb and Catelyn react to Ned’s death immediately after they receive word of it. Instead the story flashes forward to when they arrive at Riverrun, heartbroken but not quite despondent.

In the show, however, there’s a truly  tear-jerking moment where they show Robb futilely hacking away at a tree with his sword and Catelyn going over to console him, promising they will have their revenge on the Lannisters.

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It’s a really sad scene and it shows how deeply Ned’s loss has effected them.

The Music 

This one might be considered unfair because a book can’t have audible music, but it is definitely a point in the show’s favor. The composer, Ramin Djawadi, does a fantastic job of creating atmosphere with his music. I have yet to hear a soundtrack that packs such an emotional wallop. Death scenes, action scenes, emotional scenes. He can do them all.

Those cellos have me swooning every time.

Here’s a free video on Youtube that contains some of the songs from the show. I recommend you check them out here or on Spotify.

Points to the book: 

More Lore 

One of the most obvious draw-backs of visual media is time. With each episode needing to be about 45 minutes or shorter, there isn’t nearly as much freedom to explore the world. I think the show did a pretty decent job cluing in the audience as to how Westerosi society operates, nevertheless, it was always going to be at a disadvantage compared to the book.

Point of View

There are very talented actors attached to Game of Thrones, but there is no substitute for being able to crawl into a characters mind and read their thoughts. The experience of reading is just far more intimate.

In the book, we see so much more about the world and we get small but satisfying tidbits about character’s pasts that make them all the more real. I think some of my favorite inclusions are Catelyn Stark’s ruminations on growing up in Riverrun. They were touching and added more dimension to her character, really driving home how out of control everything has gotten since her youth.

She is an outsider taken to a land much colder and harder than her childhood home. Their climate is different, their customs are different, even their gods are different. Nevertheless, she finds herself having to fight for this alien culture that she has never truly understood.

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More Fantasy

The book is pretty gritty in comparison to the traditional fantasy novel, but there is more of a nihilistic atmosphere to the show than in the book. I think this makes it more palatable for the casual viewer as fantasy tends to be an acquired taste, but I personally like the more fantastical environment the book creates.

Dany’s and Bran’s dreams in particular add a level of sinisterness and foreboding that don’t land quite as successfully in the show. We are shown the dream of Dany walking to the now destroyed remnants of King’s Landing, but there are other seriously messed up things she sees in the book. As for Bran, he has a dream towards the middle of the novel wherein  he has to learn to fly while an endless pile of bones looms below him.

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I can also appreciate the characters aren’t constantly saying “fuck” in the book. It’s not that I have a problem with the word, it just takes me out of the moment. I’m pretty sure “fuck” wasn’t a word in medieval times so when it’s used with reckless abandon in the show, it’s a bit distracting.

Aging down of characters

This might be considered a weird point in the book’s favor, but hear me out. The fact that all the kids are so much younger in the book makes the events that follow all the more tragic.

Can you imagine not even being in your teens and having all your family members murdered? Or, like in Robb’s case, having to take over for you Lord Father after he is held hostage and having thousands of people depending on you to be their leader?

To me, the aging down of the characters drives home the underlying premise of the novel: When we seek to destroy each other, we are also destroying our future a.k.a our children.

Conclusion:

So which do I think is better: the book or the TV show?

I think I’m going to give a cop-out answer and say I don’t know.

There are things I believe the TV show did better and things I believe the book did more effectively. Most of the shortcomings of either are due to their respective mediums and not necessarily a result of incompetence on either side…..

That won’t come until much later.

Normally, I can’t read the book after seeing a film or watching a TV show based on it, however, I don’t believe my having seen the show beforehand hampered my ability to enjoy the book series. In fact, the opposite is true.

So if you haven’t read the books but have seen the TV series, I recommend giving the books a read anyway. There are very well written and will hold your interest regardless if you know what will happen later on.