Movie tie-in novel covers need to go away forever

There are a lot of sad things in this world. Homeless kittens. Cleveland Browns fans. Income inequality. The color taupe. Political corruption. Musicians whose audiences can’t reliably clap on two and four.

But one of the saddest things in this world, just gosh-darn tragedies, is when book publishers feel the need to slap a logo on a book which is going to become/is becoming/has become a featured film or–even worse!–when book publishers create a new version of the book with promotional pictures from the film.

I have an omnibus of the Chronicles of Narnia. It is a beautifully-designed book, just a paperback, but it’s very nice. It looks like this:

chronicles of narnia, aslan, fire

This is a fabulous cover. Aslan (who is the lion, if you’ve lived under a rock for six decades) is more or less the centerpiece of the entire series. This cover portrays him with the requisite gravitas. I mean, his mane is literally fire here. Lit.

Well, I lied a little. It looks like that, but has one tiny edition that threatens to ruin all of it:

major motion picture, narnia, lion the witch and the wardrobe

This little thing is a travesty. It’s 2018. NOBODY CARES THAT THERE WAS A THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE MOVIE. These things just rapidly become quaint anachronisms very quickly. Like the little patches that appeared on Lord of the Rings books before Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Aw, honey; the first movie is almost old enough to vote. Everyone already knows that they’re movies, dear. All that patch is doing is ruining your nice book cover.

Not all patches ruin the cover, thankfully. I bought Ready Player One to read before watching the movie, I’m pretty sure that it has some sort of “Spielberg is making this into a movie” patch, and the fact that I don’t remember is a strong testament to how thoughtful they were with the design. Furthermore, some of these patches are actually stickers, which can be removed and tossed into the fire and brimstone from whens they came. Unfortunately, most are not, and are printed into the book like some sort of demonic branding.

What’s worse is when publishers change a perfectly good cover, swapping out marketing images from the movie it inspired. At best, it’s tacky. At worst, it’s a bait-and-switch that torpedoes great cover art for images that could possibly be totally unrelated to the book.

As an example, take a look at this. It’s the cover for Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I bought it alongside Ready Player One. Its cover is gorgeous. And its inside cover is almost better:

 

Ohhhhh yeah. Fantastic.

The film Annihilation is fantastic, too, but it is its own thing. It isn’t strictly an adaption, although it technically is one. Rather, it is a story inspired by the book. Its core story is only tangentially related to Annihilation’s core story, and it features practically none of the plot beats in the book. Again, that’s fine; the film is smart enough to do its own thing, and it’s a great movie.

But inflicting this horror on the book is just one step too far:

horror, not safe for life, the biggest problem in the world

My feelings for this cover can’t be put into exact words, but let’s just say this is legitimately one of the worst book covers I have ever witnessed when you take into account the cover it takes the place of.

Not only does it feature three characters on the cover who aren’t even in the book you’re about to read, and not only does it also feature an inane review quote at the top, but it also slaps the “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” badge in the corner for good measure, as if you didn’t already surmise that from NATALIE FREAKING PORTMAN being front and center.

This is depressing me too much, so I’ll just leave one more example that’s probably equally as egregious and then go eat some chocolate.

 

Ugh. Hold me.

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Some stories don’t need sequels

About a year ago, I read the novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. It is the winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it is completely deserving of that honor. The book brilliantly subverts multiple sci-fi tropes and mechanics, and its core as a mystery-infused personal drama makes the thing a page turner.

The novel is a full story, tying its loose ends and ending properly for the world and the main characters. I did not think there was a sequel. There did not need to be. And, in fact, there really couldn’t be, at least not in the traditional sense.

But I loved it so much that when I learned that there were indeed sequels two months ago, I immediately put them on my Christmas list. When I got them for Christmas, I consumed both novels within a span of about five days.

Wilson had more stories to tell in the world he concocted, and it was his right as an author to tell them. They are good novels, though the events of Spin prevent many similarities to that story. Still, both sequels–Axis and Vortex–work well, and the ending of Vortex does answer questions that were never completely answered in Spin.

However, I think that Wilson skirted danger here. Some stories don’t need sequels. That was the case with Spin–it did not need any. And while some sequels may work for these stories, sometimes sequels don’t do any good for the original story, and some even harm or retroactively modify the efficacy of the original story.

Consider Star Wars: The Last Jedi, for instance. I’m not going to go into detail here for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but those of you who have seen in know that seemingly immutable truths and qualities in the original trilogy are brushed aside in order to forge a new path. The new trilogy did not need to exist, necessarily; Return of the Jedi included a fitting end for the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. But exist it does, and its existence fundamentally changes the context in which the original trilogy operates. Some people like The Last Jedi because it goes its own way. Some people hate it for that reason.

darth-vader-pyre

In a more extreme case, take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is nothing but sequels. That makes it extraordinarily difficult to tell a self-contained story. The second Avengers movie was a wreck because it couldn’t focus on its own story and character development enough–instead, it had to serve a bunch of administrative tasks in tying the varying characters together and laying the groundwork for future movies. And beyond one example, it is almost impossible to create real tension in a cinematic universe where creative risks are stifled for the benefit of the whole.

Finally, the most innocuous of results for sequels is that they are so totally unnecessary that they can’t help but be depressingly boring. Maybe you remember the 2003 young adult novel The City of Ember (it was also adapted to film in 2008). I sure do; I was 12 at the time, and the book, which was a huge success, was written directly for my age group. It’s a great novel, but its plot is self-contained: once the inhabitants solve the city’s riddle and leave, the core elements of why the book was successful vanished.

Since it was such a success, of course there were sequels. But when a story is so tied to a specific time and place, with specific characters, can a sequel succeed? Usually not. That’s why, if you read The City of Ember, I bet you have no memory of its sequels.

We all know why sequels exist. Making creative media is expensive, and it is always more cost-effective to create something that already has word of mouth and an install base. But they don’t always need to exist. In fact, in a perfect world, most probably shouldn’t.

 

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: A book review

Films have been including ‘how it’s made’ featurettes in DVD releases for years. Books, poem, and comics are self-explanatory, and significantly less interesting to watch being made. And recording sessions are embedded enough in the public consciousness that they, too, are inherently comprehensible, even if you don’t know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys.’

Video games, however, are a different breed. Many gamers–even passionate ones–simply don’t know how games are made, what processes are involved, the time frame needed, or the required building blocks to make a good game. This is true in part because games are a new medium, but also significantly due to the complexity and difficulty of making modern games.

Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a fantastic insight into the niche, secretive, complicated world of how games are crafted. It is the perfect book for those who are interested in how games are made, and because of Schreier’s focus on narrative and excellent ability to distill more obtuse concepts into easy-to-understand chunks of information, it’s perfect for game veterans or n00bs alike.

Though the book isn’t an argument, it has a core thesis that intertwines the composite parts of the book together, and that thesis is this: modern video games are incredibly difficult to make.

I had drinks with a developer who’d just shipped a new game. He looked exhausted…Some of them slept in the office so they wouldn’t have to waste time commuting, because every hour spent in the car was an hour not spent fixing bugs. Up until the day they had to submit a final build, many of them doubted they’d be able to release the game at all.

“Sounds like a miracle that this game was even made,” I said.

“Oh, Jason,” he said. “It’s a miracle that any game is made.”

Rather than sctructure the book around how a game in general is made, Schreier focuses on something more specific (and more accessible): the story of how individual games were made. Each chapter features a different game. The choice of games covers everything from small indie titles like Stardew Valley to some of the largest RPGs ever made (so far) like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. The book features 10 chapters in all.

Again, Schreier’s dedication to a strong narrative is impeccable. Each chapter is an individual story, and Schreier does a great job of outlining who is developing the game, why they are making the game they are making, what problems they encounter along the way, and how they decided to tackle those challenges.

Ciri from the Witcher 3 wild hunt

The book is extremely engaging, and I finished it very quickly. I had played four of the ten games included, and while I was naturally more interested in the stories of games I had completed (and, in my case, really loved), the stories of games I had not played were equally vivid and engrossing.

Schreier highlights a few issues repeatedly throughout the book, as they are natural to a game’s development. First is the dichotomy between funding and freedom. While a game like Pillars of Eternity has no publisher to answer to, self-funding represents its own set of challenges on the creative process. On the other hand, as it the case with Destiny, virtually unlimited funding can be constrained by the demands of the publisher.

The second thing that is highlighted is the prevalence of crunch time. In the gaming industry, crunch time is a period of extended hours that occurs before specific milestones, or in order to complete or add something special to the game. Its status is contested within the industry, as some see it as a necessary evil in order to produce great games, while others see it as a result of poor producing and management. Regardless, each of these games go through some manner of crunch time, and how it is utilized is a part of each chapter.

Third, Schreier highlights the oft-hidden world of conflict between developers about where a game should go or even what game is important to make. Video games are made by real people, and creative differences can arise even under the best, least stressful circumstances, let alone the pressure cooker that is game development. These creative and professional arguments can make or break a game, and their coverage in the case of Uncharted 4, Destiny, and Halo Wars is a core part of their story.

iron bull dragon age inquisition western approach

There are more than these three issues that recur, and it is this pattern that represents the book’s biggest flaw, though it is certainly not a fatal one. In the case of seven of the 10 chapters, the chapters follow the basic beat of A) here’s why and what game developer is making B) here’s the conflicts and problems the developer overcame C) here’s what the game did well and the story of how it succeeded.

That’s because those seven games–Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, and The Witcher 3–were critical and commercial successes. There are obviously different specifics, but the same beat happens because of the types of games they are: successes. Sure, those games exist, and their stories are important.

But the most interesting stories are why games don’t succeed, and the book’s three strongest chapters–on Diablo III, Destiny, and Star Wars 1313–focus on the varying failures that manifested themselves in the game (or in the case of Star Wars 1313, how the game ceased to exist). How Destiny shipped as a shell of what it was intended to be despite being given years and millions of dollars to percolate is fascinating; how Diablo III managed to turn a complete 180 degrees from angering its install base is fascinating; how Star Wars 1313 flopped so hard it didn’t come out is fascinating. These are the types of stories that I wish Schreier could have covered more in the book, and I was glad to see his coverage of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a troubled game where everyone just wondered ‘how did this happen’, on Kotaku.

concept art star wars 1313 scifi city

Concept art for Star Wars 1313

Still, I recognize that this particular criticism might be personal taste speaking, and I realize that it’s probably easier to get developers to talk about successes than failures. The book’s quality is still evident.

If you’re a gamer, a person who finds games fascinating, or just someone in search of a good new nonfiction book to read, I highly recommend Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Not the least of which because the title includes an Oxford comma. Good on you, Jason; fight the good fight. Well, both of them: the Oxford comma one and the video game coverage one.

Revisiting Inheritance

Stories, more often than not, are not about the endings.

This is especially true for epics and fantasies, as the ending can be predicted as soon as the main conflict is constructed. Frodo destroys the One Ring and defeats Sauron. Luke Skywalker rallies the Rebel Alliance and vanquishes the evil Empire. Katniss Everdeen survives the Hunger Games and is the point of the spear that overthrows the Capitol. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, defeated the evil Lord Voldemort at great cost.

None of those endings are surprising, and while the fate of the good guys were dire in many situations, nobody thought those endings wouldn’t eventually come to be.

And that’s because stories, specifically epics and fantasies, are about the journey to the ending. What decisions do the characters make? How does the conflict affect the world or the characters? What are the consequences of the decisions? How do the relationships between characters progress? How do the main characters defeat the bad guy?

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

Harry Potter making the ultimate sacrifice

All of those questions are more important than what happens at the end. We don’t love specific stories because the good guys defeat the bad guys; we love specific stories because we become attached to the characters and become engrossed in their struggle.

So when I tell you that Eragon and Saphira topple King Galbatorix and bring peace to the land of Alagaesia, you should be as surprised as if I told you that water is wet. When I say that they left Alagaesia at the end of the series, that is not a stunner either. Those are not spoilers, and they are not surprising; they are telegraphed way ahead of time by Paolini’s choices and the genre itself.

In order to evaluate the book or series, therefore, you must look at the how, the why. Eragon’s journey is more important than the ending. To put it into one succinct thought: did the characters earn the ending?

Unfortunately for Inheritance, the answer is no.

Eragon leaves Alagaesia, ostensibly to never return, but there’s no justification that he would never return; it just is. When Frodo leaves Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, he is recognizing that his life can never be as it was, the burden of carrying the Ring too great. His journey justified the ending. Eragon primarily makes the decision to leave Alagaesia because of logistical reasons. His journey did not justify the ending, and so Paolini is left scrambling to legitimize Eragon’s decision.

And Eragon’s triumph over Galbatorix isn’t earned, either. Eragon is simply unable to defeat him at all without the help of Murtagh, who pulls a deus ex machina to give Eragon a chance at defeating Galbatorix. This is extremely important, as it neuters chapters and chapters and chapters of Eragon’s personal growth because it never mattered in the end. Yes, Eragon did eventually overcome Galbatorix in his own way a little later–which was extraordinarily clever on Paolini’s part–though he was only given the chance to do so by others.

But the biggest issue with Inheritance is that it does not earn the payoff with Eragon and Arya. For two books, Eragon pines for Arya with no reciprocity, actively damaging their friendship through pigheaded romanticism. In the third book, they start to finally settle into a friendship, the dynamic ending of the novel forging a deeper bond.

And yet the age-old romance mantra–will they or won’t they–is never a factor. Arya never shows no romantic intentions for Eragon, and Paolini’s greatest sin is that he never puts the characters in a position to make decisions about their relationship. It’s on a Calvinist path, a predetermined set of lines that never intersect. Arya becomes Queen as well as the newest Rider, insulating her from even the possibility of having a deeper relationship with Eragon.

Christopher Paolini author of Eragon

Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

I want to make myself clear here: the problem is not any of the choices Paolini decided in the ending of the series. Arya becoming Queen and Rider is just fine, Eragon defeating Galbatorix is necessary, and Eragon leaving Alagaesia is just fine too.

The problem with Inheritance is more subtle. None of the characters make decisions that are reflected in their endings, or given the opportunity to make decisions given their ending. The problem is not that Arya and Eragon never ended up as a couple, but how they never ended up a couple.

Imagine this: Arya and Eragon admitted their feelings with one another before the final battle. They spent some intimate time together in their nervous state of mind. After the battle, everything happens just as it did in the book, including Arya’s return as Queen and Rider. Then, Eragon and Arya gingerly rekindle their relationship for a time, but they both know it can’t last. Just as in the book, Eragon decides to leave Alagaesia, and Arya decides to stay.

That’s a relatively minor change, but do you see how different everything is? Arya decides to accept becoming Queen knowing it would endanger a blossoming relationship with Eragon, and Eragon makes his decision knowing he’s giving up a realistic future with the woman he loves. It deepens both characters immensely, gives weight to their decisions, and makes the ending mean something.

Inheritance is not a bad book. Some people will encounter endings that don’t jive with them and figuratively burn the story to the ground in response, but I think that’s just silly overreaction. The Inheritance Cycle is still worth reading, and it’s still a fantastic achievement by Christopher Paolini.

But whether it was due to the framework of the story being written by a teenager, the unforeseen split of the third book into two books, simple pigheadedness, or something else, Inheritance‘s ending doesn’t connect like it should. It doesn’t ruin the series–but it could be so, so much better.

Revisiting Brisingr

The Inheritance Cycle was only supposed to be a trilogy.

After Eragon and Eldest were released, author Christopher Paolini went to work on the third, unnamed book. The dominant thought on message boards devoted to the series was that the third book would follow the six-letter, starts-with-‘e’ format of the first two and be titled Empire. It was a fitting cap to a trilogy, as Eragon was presumably going to take down the Empire.

But about a year before the book was to be released, Knopf Publishing and Paolini issued an announcement–there would now be two more books.

Here is Paolini’s comment in the press release (emphasis mine):

I plotted out the Inheritance series as a trilogy nine years ago, when I was fifteen. At that time, I never imagined I’d write all three books, much less that they would be published. When I finally delved into Book Three, it soon became obvious that the remainder of the story was far too big to fit in one volume. Having spent so long thinking about the series as a trilogy, it was difficult for me to realize that, in order to be true to my characters and to address all of the plot points and unanswered questions Eragon and Eldest raised, I needed to split the end of the series into two books.

Splitting the series is not something that Paolini wanted, nor was it something that came naturally. He begrudgingly did it because it needed to happen in order to serve the story.

It comes through in the book. Eragon and Eldest had clear plot arcs: Eragon was the story of a young man who started his hero’s journey, grew along the way, and finally triumphed in a battle with the forces of evil; Eldest was the story of the hero’s continuing knowledge and deepening of character while simultaneously detailing the gripping escape of a group of relatable everymen.

I’ve read Brisingr three times and I can’t tell you the overall plot of the thing. It wanders here and there, lingering in odd places and moving along at a glacial pace. Ultimately, it seems as if it doesn’t have much of a purpose.

And there’s good reason for that! Remember, Brisingr, which is a terrible title for a book by the way, was made partway through its writing from the concluding book into a middle book. There wasn’t supposed to be a third book that didn’t end the story.

I think that it was a smart move to extend the trilogy into a cycle. Knowing the events of the fourth book, I think that having another book of development gives weight to the ending.

But unfortunately, the book doesn’t really do its job that well. And its a shame. Of particular note is the lack of development in the relationship between Eragon and Arya. There’s enough history and room for a good romance–even one that doesn’t end well–but Paolini doesn’t go there. There’s also not any movement with the Eragon and Saphira vs. Murtagh and Thorn rivalry, for a series of stalemates does not progress anything.

Brisingr does end with a bang–its climax is a brilliantly-written escalation of stress and action–and that does propel the momentum to the next book. But it’s too little, too late for the book.

It all hinges on Inheritance.

 

 

Revisiting Eragon

Before the national Knopf release of “Eragon” in 2003, Christopher Paolini’s family self-published the book in 2002. Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle, was 19 then, and began writing the novel and plotting the story’s overall arc when he was 15.

As I pointed out in a previous post, the Inheritance Cycle has been fantastically successful. “Eragon” sold one million copies within six months, a stunning achievement for a young adult novel written by a no-name author. Of course, that no-name author was a young adult himself, making it even more impressive.

I don’t know what you were doing at 15 years of age, but the only thing I remember from that time is being infatuated with my first serious crush. I say infatuated because I didn’t do anything about it. What I should have done, once I turned 16 and could drive, was ask her if she would like to go out to eat with me, because I liked her and that would be an easy and safe first date. I did not do that. I did not even think to do that, for some reason. Teenagers are idiots.

At this same age, Paolini was writing his first epic. Maybe Paolini struggled with interacting with girls like me, but he at least produced a New York Times Bestselling novel and began to embark on his dream career in one swoop of a dragon’s wing.

And it’s that dichotomy that explains “Eragon” so well. Paolini is a supremely talented creator, and his brilliance is easy to see. The book still holds up, its primary achievement creating a captivating narrative whilst also invisibly hoisting an excellent framework for the rest of the series.

But it’s pretty clear this is not written by a veteran author. For one, the book is basically Star Wars.

Don’t believe me?

A young orphan man yearning for adventure unintentionally gains possession of an item that is of extreme importance. After servants from the evil empire kill his family, the young man sets off on a quest with a wise old man who was not what he appeared to be. As the old man trained the young, they were captured by the enemy. The mentor died, leaving the trainee alone. The trainee and an odd friend met along the way, a roguish outlaw, brought the important item to the resistance. While there, the enemy attacked the resistance’s headquarters. When everything was almost lost, a distraction let the young adventurer destroy the cornerstone of the opposition, and the resistance rejoiced.

That’s the backbone of Star Wars. It’s also the backbone of “Eragon.” The plot could not possibly be more derivative.

There’s the dialogue, too. Paolini’s dialogue often reads like someone wrote it for the characters to say, with compound sentences and a constant lack of subtlety. Take a portion of what Brom said shortly before his death:

I am old, Eragon…so old. Though my dragon was killed, my life has been longer than most. You don’t know what it is to reach my age, look back, and realize that you don’t remember much of it; then to look forward and know that many years still lie ahead of you…After all this time I still grieve for my Saphira…and hate Galbatorix from what he tore from me.

(Those ellipses are written into the text; that was a full excerpt directly from the book.)

It’s not terrible by any means! But it doesn’t really read like what someone would say on their deathbed, and the driving point of this whole speech–that he still loved his dragon and hates Galbatorix–is just plopped right there.

Consider a similar (though obviously separate) scene from Harry Potter. Severus Snape is dying, instead of going on a speech of why he felt the way that he did or did what he did, he showed Harry with a memory.

“But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” “For him?” shouted Snape. “Expecto Patronum!” From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears. “After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape.”

The doe was Lily Potter’s patronus. Snape never stopped loving her. It’s not only an extraordinarily powerful statement, but it’s presented perfectly, with an exactness that Paolini often lacks.

But, still, after reading “Eragon,” I was reminded why I loved it. Eragon and Saphira’s relationship is real and genuine. The world is well-constructed. The pace is quick and the book flows smoothly. Sure, it was written by a teenager with no prior writing experience, and it shows. However, creativity knows no age, and “Eragon” is as genuine as it comes.