Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
The publishing industry and the movie industry are lemmings, following popular trends rather than thinking outside the box to come up with something exciting and different. When a new book or film does break out – The Hunger Games (first book, then film) – everyone rushes to replicate that success. So we have had a whole series of dystopian novels and films ad nauseam, none as great as the one which started the trend.
We can say the same about Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller which was a bestseller and went on to become a film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins also became a film, this one with Emily Blunt. So we can imagine all those intrepid editors at publishing houses going through slush piles trying to find the next thriller featuring a slightly crazed female protagonist and coming up with A Simple Favor by first time novelist Darcey Bell.
Like its predecessors, A Simple Favor follows a similar pattern. The woman at the center of the plot is narcissistic and unbalanced, but, like so many people with these characteristics, she can skillfully manipulate others to play along with anything she cooks up. The problem with this set up is that the protagonist and everyone around her become unsympathetic and unlikeable. (That was certainly the case with Gone Girl. Did anyone like Affleck’s character, even though he was the victim?) And without someone to latch onto, root for, the characters become annoying and the plot frustrating.
In A Simple Favor, Emily is in the driver’s seat. She seems to have it all – good looks, an attractive husband, Sean, who is British and works in finance, an adorable son, Nicky, a gorgeous home in suburban Connecticut, and a high-profile job working for a famous fashion designer, Dennis Nylon. She also seems nice, befriending odd duck Stephanie, a widow with a son, Miles, who spends her time writing a mommy blog. Stephanie is so needy that when Emily throws her a lifeline she grabs it with a vengeance. Soon the two are inseparable, spending afternoons stretched out on Emily’s huge sofa, drinking white wine, while their two sons enjoy a playdate. When Emily asks that her friend pick up Nicky after school, Stephanie is only too happy to help. But then Emily disappears and Stephanie is frantic that something has happened to her friend.
Stephanie tells part of her story in her blog, part in straight narrative. While Bell nails the tone and substance of a mommy blog, these passages are irritating. The condescending, cheerful content begins to grate, although this might be intentional on Bell’s part. After Emily’s disappearance, Stephanie uses the blog to enlist support to help find her friend (since she says her readers come from all part of the country, this seems a stretch). When it appears Emily is dead, she continues to keep everyone updated on Sean and Nicky.
There are many revelations and Bell skillfully doles them out. Truth be told, Bell has produced a page turner, even though the characters – Emily, Stephanie, and Sean – continue to act in ways that are off-putting and exasperating. By the end of the book, not one of the trio is anyone a normal person would want to spend time with. But we will be spending more time with them. A Simple Favor will soon be a feature film from Fox.
As the recent blockbuster success of The Hunger Games proved the only thing people may like more than envisioning the perfect society is envisioning an imperfect one. In fact hellish landscapes and cityscapes have been a staple of speculative fiction for over a century. Consider the following classic works.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895) One of the earliest entries in the genre by one of the founding fathers of sci-fi. Wells anonymous protagonist known only as the Time Traveler is a scientist and a gentleman inventor who travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Once there he finds that humanity has evolved into two separate species according to class divisions. The leisure classes have become the attractive but child like and helpless Eloi, while the working classes have become an underground ape like race known as the Morlocks. The Time Machine has spawned three film adaptions, two television versions, comic book adaptions and has been one of the most influential novels in its genre, inspiring countless other works.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935) This semi-satirical novel was published during the rise of fascism in Europe, and Lewis speculated how similar movements could gain power in America. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president on a campaign espousing patriotism and traditional values with the endorsement of a major religious leader. Once in office he consolidates power and establishes totalitarian rule along the same lines as Hitler and the SS. The novel’s protagonist Doremus Jessup tries to warn people every step of the way, only to constantly have his fears dismissed with the statement, “It Can’t Happen Here!” The novel inspired a hit play and is currently enjoying a massive resurgence in popularity.
1984by George Orwell (1948) Set in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain) in the super state of Oceania a society racked by never ending war, constant surveillance and public manipulation. The main protagonist Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth actually the government’s propaganda unit only to begin an illicit affair with Julia who introduces him to the Underground Resistance. Considered THE novel on totalitarianism and living in a police state, being the one that coined the classic phrases “Big Brother,” “Thought Police” and “We Have Always Been at War With Eurasia.”
A Canticle for Leibowitz By Walter M. Miller (1960) Set in a Catholic monastery located in what once part of the American Southwest and now a nuclear wasteland, the novels spans thousands of years. The monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz have the sacred trust of preserving the few remaining shreds of mankind’s scientific knowledge until man is ready once more to receive it. But will mankind ever truly be ready? It won the Hugo award in 1961 for Best Science Fiction Novel, and has never been out of print with over 25 reprints and new editions having been published. It is thought to be the best novel ever written about nuclear apocalypse and is considered not only a masterpiece of science fiction but of literature period alongside the works of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.
The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood (1985) Set in the Republic of Gilead (formerly known as New England) where a massive drop in the white fertility rate has led to the rise of a totalitarian theocracy and the thorough subjugation of women. The narrator Offred alternates between her current life as a ‘handmaid’ used to reproduce children for a Commander and his infertile wife Serena Joy, and her past which included a husband and daughter. Along the way we learn of several classes of women under the new regime-none of whom have a very good deal. This one’s become a staple of women’s studies classes and a new highly anticipated tv series will be airing on Hulu in April starring Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella, and Yvonne Strahovski.
Jojo Moyes’ bestselling novel comes to the big screen starring the adorable Emilia Clarke (sans her dragons) and the very appealing Sam Claflin (from The Hunger Games). Moyes also wrote the screenplay, so the film sticks closely to the book, something that will undoubtedly please her fans.
Moyes’ story is a twist on the familiar theme of star-crossed lovers. When Louisa Clark (Clarke) loses her waitress job, she finds employment as a caregiver and companion to Will Traynor (Claflin) a quadriplegic whose wealthy family lives in a castle that for centuries has dominated the landscape in a picturesque British town. Will, despondent about his physical condition, wants to end his life at Dignitas, an assisted suicide organization based in Switzerland. While Will’s father (Charles Dance) understands his son’s decision, Will’s mother, Camilla (Janet McTeer) hopes to change his mind. A skilled nurse, Nathan (Stephen Peacocke), takes care of Will’s bodily needs, but Camilla hires Lou hoping the quirky young woman can lift Will’s spirits and convince him to keep living.
Charles Dance and Janet McTeer
Lou and Will are polar opposites. Lou’s father, Bernard (Brendan Coyle, Bates from Downton Abbey), has lost his job and Lou, putting her own future on hold, is supporting the family. She’s never been outside her small town, never attended a concert, and never watched a foreign film with subtitles. Her boyfriend, Patrick (Matthew Lewis) is a self-absorbed exercise fanatic. (For Lou’s birthday, he gives her a necklace that says “Patrick.”) Before his accident, Will was a star at his firm and dazzled his friends with his athletic ability. “I loved my life,” he tells Lou. The morning of his accident, he gave in to his girlfriend’s urging not to ride his motorcycle in the rain and, as fate would have it, was struck by another motorcycle.
Lou and Will get off to a bad start. He resents her presence, his behavior condescending, even hostile. Lou, however, is willing to put up with a lot to keep the well-paying job. She’s also a Pollyanna, able to see something positive in even Will’s situation. Her appearance alone serves to pick up Will’s spirits. Lou favors fuzzy pastel sweaters, brightly patterned skirts, and whimsical shoes. Predictably, Will’s icy attitude begins to thaw. He introduces Lou to foreign films and agrees to attend a Mozart concert. When he’s invited to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, he asks Lou to go with him. In Lou’s presence, he seems less self-conscious about his disability, even taking a turn on the dance floor in his wheelchair with Lou on his lap.
Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin
While Will seems happier, he hasn’t changed his mind about ending his life and the 60 days he promised his parents to wait is nearly at an end. Lou, however, refuses to give up, pressing Will to go on a dream vacation. Accompanied by Nathan, the three fly on a private jet to a tropical island. While the word “love” is never spoken, it’s obvious the two have indeed fallen for each other. On a moonlit beach, they share a kiss. But that intimate moment proves frustrating for Will, bringing home that he would never be able to have the type of relationship with Lou that he truly wants and she deserves. (Get those tissues ready.)
Clarke and Claflin have wonderful chemistry. Director Thea Sharrock allows the pair’s relationship to unfold slowly so we are able to watch these two talented actors test each other and then finally come together. Clarke’s face is particularly expressive and she’s wonderful to watch. Fans of Game of Thrones will enjoy seeing her in an entirely different role. Claflin has a tough job, conveying an array of emotions while remaining immobile. The scenes where Will’s condition takes a turn for the worse are particularly tense, underlining how even with the best of care a quadriplegic’s health is sometimes precarious.
Sam Claflin and Stephen Peacocke
Moyes’ book received uniformly positive reviews when it was first published in 2012 and went on to become an international bestseller. Yet even before the film’s opening, disability advocates have protested what they feel are problematic messages. Will’s charge to Lou to “live fully”, seems to imply, the groups say, that only able-bodied people can do so and that euthanasia becomes a likely choice. (Other films besides Me After You – Million Dollar Baby and Whose Life Is It Anyway? – have shown individuals with paralyzing injuries fighting for the right to die.) Moyes and the film’s stars have emphasized that Me Before You is simply one story (and a fictional one at that) about one man’s decision. And there has been praise for the book, specifically from The Christopher Reeve Foundation. (See Robin Weaver’s interview with Jojo Moyes.)
With robust sales for the book, the film is expected to do well at the box office. In a summer filled with super heroes and sequels, Me Before You provides an alternative for moviegoers. If this movie also sparks a discussion about how the disabled are portrayed in all forms of media, that would be a very positive outcome.