On big fat good things.

So I lost four pounds so far on Noom. I gained one of those pounds back when I weighed myself Monday morning, but when I weighed myself on Tuesday, most of that mystery pound had vanished. Using the app has definitely helped me be successful, but I need to get moving again. I haven’t been walking like I usually do, and I’ve been blaming it on the lack of sleep, which is probably accurate. But I should also mention I’ve abandoned my evening bedtime routine. I’ve fallen back into the rut I was trying to escape in a desperate scramble because it’s easier than making real change.

But I will not give up. I will persevere. And I owe this determination to the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” It came on just as I was starting to make dinner and as I’d already seen it, I left it on in the background for white noise. At one point, Toula says something like dreams don’t do any good because nothing ever changes.

Naturally, she says this just before the love of her life, perfectly played by John Corbett, strolls into her life.

Currently, there are no Greek coffee shops open for me to be employed at to charm a vegetarian school teacher. My mouth would be covered with a mask even if there were, so conversation would be difficult. Logistics aside, it’s still a nice dream to dream that there’s someone for everyone, even frumpy thirty-somethings with big, loud, obnoxious families.

The other aspect of the film that makes it so damn good, other than being adorable and wholesome and all the good stuff that films should be made of, is the story behind it. Nia Vardalos, who plays the lead Toula, wrote it and starred in it as a one-woman play. It gained traction – Rita Wilson saw it and made her husband Tom Hanks see it – and earned attention from big studios. But those studios wanted to abandon Vardalos’s vision and change the ethnicity of the family to Hispanic, cast a known actress like Maria Tomei in the lead instead of Vardalos, and changing the plot. Vardalos refused the changes. Rather than give in for a substantial payday, she maintained the integrity of her art, her creation – the story is based on her real life, after all – and went with a smaller studio.

And the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. So what can be learned here? That love exists for everyone and that a woman writer can tell her story the way she wants to and still be wildly successful. And those are all good things.

Those are all big fat good things.

Keep dreaming ❤

On short stories for spooky season!

Halloween is Saturday, which means spooky season is in full swing! I L O V E Halloween – I look forward to handing out candy to ghouls and goblins of all ages, I love getting dressed up, I love gorging myself on candy, and I love scary movie marathons! Fall is my favorite season and by the time All Hallows Eve rolls around, I am one happy haunt!

In honor of Halloween, I am sharing with you my top ten scariest short stories. To be fair, some of them aren’t all that short and not all of them are technically scary – some are D I S G U S T I N G and some are u n s e t t l i n g. Either way, I recommend reading with the lights on.

10. The Ice Palace by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I will readily admit including this short story by one of my all-time favorite writers is a stretch. It’s more of a modernist short story than a thriller, but I will also readily argue that there are elements of horror within this spectacular short story. The protagonist, a bright, young woman named Sally Carroll, is trying to figure out who she is and after a near death experience in – you guessed it! – an ice palace, her whole attitude towards life shifts in a way that leaves the reader unsettled.

9. Guts by Chuck Palahniuk
This is the most disgusting short story I have ever read (totally beats Survivor Type by Stephen King). Chuck Palahniuk is ridiculously, stupidly, almost unjustly talented. Everything he writes is gold in my opinion, but this short story is … well, it’s something else. I made a point to read it after Palahniuk wrote about it in his writing memoir Consider This. He talked about how the story had people passing out and vomiting when he read it and I thought to myself, “Yeah, right.” BUT MAN – this one stuck with me. I told people about it and even though they didn’t read it, my re-telling stuck with them for days.

8. Feminine Endings by Neil Gaiman
If you can, listen to the audio of Gaiman reading this gem for the audience during “An Evening with Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer.” I think it’s always best to hear the author read his work, but the audience reaction and Gaiman’s delivery are awesome. I play this for my Creative Writing students, and it’s so much fun to see them slowly realize the creepier elements of the narrative. However, this story is also kind of charming.

7. A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
I vividly remember reading this my sophomore year of high school. I can still feel the cold and uncomfortable desk, and I can still hear the buzzing of the lights, and I can still see the textbook open flat on my desk when the full weight of the ending hit me. And it reminds me of a My Chemical Romance song, and I’m a total sucker for moments when my pop culture worlds collide.

6. The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
What would a scary short story list be without the one, the only, the incomparable Edgar Allan Poe? There are many, many Poe works to choose from, and they’re all good, but I’m going with The Masque of the Red Death because it’s timely as hell. Trying to avoid a disease by locking yourself away and partying and ignoring the devastation occurring outside only leads to more death, according to Poe. Death is inevitable, unavoidable, and this short story is a stark reminder.

5. That Bus is Another World by Stephen King
Confession: This short story knocked me on my ass. It’s extremely unsettling in its voyeurism and premise, and forces the reader to think long and hard about their ow moral compass. When we witness something horrible happening to someone else, what do we do? What will we do? The images are powerful and grotesque, but it’s the introspection those images inspire that makes this story truly terrifying and haunting.

4. The Cape by Joe Hill
I was W I L D L Y unprepared for the ending of this story. The pacing is masterful and it’s heartbreaking work on multiple levels. I love Hill’s exploration of unrequited love in all its forms; not only romantic, but familial and parental. What does it really mean to be alone? And what does desperation due to the lonely? OMG, so good.

3. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
C L A S S I C. The cathartic energy that – again! – comes from masterful pacing is wonderful! The terror that slowly dawns on us as we realize what’s happening is mirrored perfectly in the narrative shift that occurs when the nightmare begins. I read this with my students and it NEVER EVER fails to leave them uncomfortable.

2. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates
The same can be said for this ABSOLUTE GEM by Joyce Carol Oates. One of my students told me this story made his stomach hurt. It’s all kinds of wrong and awful but gorgeously written. It’s universally accessible because it hits us where we live; in our need for attention and affection, and how that need can sometimes put us directly in the path of danger. WOW.

And – drum roll, please – number one is … Best New Horror by Joe Hill.
I will NEVER EVER forget where I was when I read this short story. I was in Barnes & Noble (naturally), and I was just browsing the stacks. I’d loved, loved, LOVED Hill’s novel Heart-Shaped Box and was interested to see what else he had up his sleeve. I picked his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, off the shelf. I read the whole thing standing in the aisle. I stood there for close to 20 minutes and when I finished, I wanted to scream and cry and throw up and tell everyone I knew about it. There’s a story within the story and both narratives are awfully enthralling.

Plan on reading any of these to celebrate Halloween? Do you agree or disagree with the list? Let me know in the comments xoxo

On getting back in the swing of things.

I know, I know, I know. I’m a day late – AGAIN. I missed Writer Wednesday – AGAIN. But at least this week I have a valid excuse, or at least what I believe to be a valid excuse.

School started up again and full disclosure: it’s kicking my ass.

My building shut down for students on Friday, March 13, 2020; it was the last normal school day. Staff came in for a half day the following Monday. That means it’s been nearly six months since I was in a classroom with students. And while things are definitely not normal, they are definitely improving. I was absolutely E L A T E D to see about half of my students today! Even former students managed to stop by and say hello and it just felt so good. I had a smile – underneath my mask – that just never went away. And though I’m more exhausted than I thought I would be, I am also happier and more satisfied than I thought I would be. Adding to this simple joy is the fact that I was blessed to have relatively few technological issues, and the few I did have were user error (but I think I fixed my issue and tomorrow should be better). I just had a wonderful day because I was with people, connecting with people, and feeling like life really can and will continue. As bone-tired as I am (and I’m sure this very dreary weather isn’t helping), I’m also rejuvenated because I have hope, and I even feel like I have a purpose. This contentment just validates that I truly b e l o n g in a classroom.

And Bruce Springsteen – the Boss man himself! – announced another album with the E Street Band is due out next month! Could life get any better?

It’s weird how the universe works (or maybe not; maybe that’s the point) because I’ve been thinking about Bruce Springsteen a lot lately, particularly about his song “Human Touch.”

I have to interrupt myself: right now, a woman is walking down my street in the rain and she couldn’t be happier. She spread her arms wide and lifted her face to the sky and she smiled. The woman inside the house she just left opened the door and called to her, offering a ride. But the Walking Woman just shrugged and smiled wider, hopping joyfully onto the sidewalk and giving a final wave from over her shoulder. That’s awesome. That’s my tribe, man.

Anyway, back to Bruce Springsteen and his song, “Human Touch.” While it’s undoubtedly sultry and romantic in nature, I feel it still applies during this pandemic and resulting quarantine, and I will explain why via annotation (man; am I an English teacher or what?!)

You and me we were the pretenders
We let it all slip away
In the end what you don’t surrender
Well the world just strips away


Girl ain’t no kindness in the face of strangers
Ain’t gonna find no miracles here
Well you can wait on your blessings darlin’
But I got a deal for you right here

I ain’t lookin’ for prayers or pity
I ain’t comin’ ’round searchin’ for a crutch
I just want someone to talk to

And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch

Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town
Ain’t no bread from heavenly skies
Ain’t nobody drawin’ wine from this blood
It’s just you and me tonight

Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much ?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch

Oh girl that feeling of safety you prize
Well it comes with a hard hard price
You can’t shut off the risk and pain
Without losin’ the love that remains
We’re all riders on this train

So you been broken and you been hurt
Show me somebody who ain’t

Yeah I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain
But hell a little touchup
And a little paint…

You might need somethin’ to hold on to
When all the answers they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you can just talk to

And a little of that human touch

Baby in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much?
I just want to feel you in my arms
And share a little of that human touch…

Ok … so the lines I made purple are the most important lines as they pertain to this post and the point I’m making. “In the end what you don’t surrender / Well the world just strips away” – the world is a touch place, and that is not a new nor revelatory idea. But it seems harder and colder in the midst of the current state of affairs, where we’re not allowed to gather and when we do, it seems to be for protests against social injustice more than reasons to celebrate. The sociopolitical climate is extremely divisive and the social and emotional distance between people is ever-widening. I know some of us are smiling and keeping our mouths shut just to get through the day. And I know some of us feel disillusioned and disheartened. And I know a lot of us are angry. Those extreme passions and emotions can strip important parts of our humanity away, like rationality and civility and humility and compassion and forgiveness. This world, even before the pandemic, could leave us wanting to be alone. Be careful what you wish for and all that, I guess.

“I ain’t lookin’ for prayers or pity / I ain’t comin’ ’round searchin’ for a crutch / I just want someone to talk to” For me, these lines eloquently express my new outlook on the challenges that lay ahead in my professional life, but I suppose it could apply just as easily to my personal life, too. I don’t want to complain and be pitied or pacified. I don’t want anyone to fix anything for me. I just want to communicate – to laugh and cry and wax philosophical about all sorts of topics, particularly ones that rock my soul. There’s that awesome saying that’s been circulating for a while now, about how people don’t listen to authentically respond, but just for their turn to speak. And I feel like this is especially true during this pandemic and quarantine because there’s so many filters and screens and barriers, and so much “communication” is done through social media, where the emphasis is more on media that authentic social congregation, where everyone is flouting their own propaganda. It’s harder to be dismissive and indifferent and inauthentic when it’s a real conversation, when it’s face-to-face.

“Oh girl that feeling of safety you prize / Well it comes with a hard hard price / You can’t shut off the risk and pain / Without losin’ the love that remains / We’re all riders on this train” Despite all the naysayers out there, there is a common human experience, which is why “we’re all riders on this train.” To isolate ourselves is to deny ourselves community and the chance at being loved and included. It seems easier to just give up on people and subscribe wholeheartedly to “do you,” but it’s an awful way to live, in my opinion. It’s all about balance; all relationships require us to balance our needs with the needs of our loved ones. Just as giving selflessly can lead to burn out, so can never giving at all.

“So you been broken and you been hurt / Show me somebody who ain’t” The best worst thing about heartbreak is that it is part of the universal human experience; we’ve all been there. And currently, we’re all dealing with different personal and professional issues brought on by these unprecedented times. That’s all the more reason to reach out and find “that human touch” where you can.

“You might need somethin’ to hold on to / When all the answers they don’t amount to much/ Somebody that you can just talk to” We’re fed conflicting information on a daily basis from a variety of different sources, and sometimes that information is not beneficial or pleasing or even useful. So yeah, sometimes the answers “don’t amount to much” and you need “someone to talk to.” I loved teaching today, every single second. I had a mask on and kept my distance from my students and didn’t see as many colleagues as I normally would, but I got to talk to people about their interests and their challenges and we got to connect.

I found a little of that human touch, I guess.



On the importance of being able to dance.

This pandemic and its resulting quarantine and lockdown measures have stolen a lot of precious moments from people of all walks of life. Yesterday, I was watching a news report about a woman whose father died in a nursing home from COVID-19, and they’ve been waiting three months to have a funeral. This makes sense to me when I recall a friend relating her experience of attending a funeral during these unprecedented times, and they weren’t allowed to hug or hold each other in a time of deep despair. There was no real comforting allowed, just people sitting six feet apart and crying. Granted, this happened early in the quarantine, but the awful way human beings have been isolated and separated continues. In April, the CDC confirmed suicide rates increased by 35% (from this article) and that opioid overdoses were on the rise after declining (from this article). In short, people are not okay.

So any semblance of returning to normalcy is a wonderful thing. On Monday night, I attended my first drive-in concert, seeing Andrew McMahon at Monmouth Park. I went with three other friends as only four people were allowed to a car, but we had friends – and friends of friends – in two other cars. I definitely agreed with my self-proclaimed introverted friend that not dealing with long lines and suffocating masses of people was a plus, as was being able to sit and have access to a cooler. It was like the concert came to us in the parking lot, like we never had to stop tailgating. I remember standing for about eight hours when I saw Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium. My friend and I had general admission tickets, so we had to stand and wait in line to make sure we got as close to the stage as possible, and we had to stand and wait for the concert to start once inside the stadium. There were more lines for drinks and food and merchandise, and it was a struggle to squirm and plead to get back to where you were standing. I agree that this drive-in setup has perks.

But it’s still not the same. There were eight of us gathered around the trunk, getting what we wanted for the cooler, and the security guards made us separate. We understood and complied with little to no grumbling. But for the majority of the night, they were insistent we be in our car. Monday was a hot one, and when the concert started, it was an absolutely gorgeous evening with a remarkable sunset. We didn’t want to sit in the car. They seemed satisfied as long as we were touching the car, but naturally those with convertibles and flat-bed trucks had an advantage.

It was better than nothing to be sure, and the return of live music is one I celebrate and embrace. But I’d be lying if I said I still didn’t miss traditional concerts. Some of my favorite memories are with people I met at concerts. People in line for Bruce Springsteen are hands down the nicest people I’ve ever met in any kind of line. One time, my sister and her friend befriended an older couple who danced with us and brought us food and beer and for a couple of hours, we were a little family or the oldest of friends. And I mean we danced – limbs flying every which way, totally uninhibited and completely joyful. In one of my new favorite films, Jojo Rabbit, the mother of the title character (played perfectly by Scarlett Johansson) explains that “We have to dance to show God we are grateful to be alive” and that “Dancing is for people who are free.” Not being able to dance was disappointing.

And even singing along seemed pointless when the only people who could hear me (and suffer, as I am a terrible singer) were the three people I came with. There’s something transcendent about singing as loud as you can with a crowd of thousands to your favorite song. My friend once filmed me singing along with Bruce Springsteen and captioned the video, “Mandi worshiping at the altar of Bruce,” which is exactly what I was doing. I remember being filled with a passionate angst when I saw My Chemical Romance, raising my first to the air and proclaiming that I was not afraid to keep on living. Instead, we sang under our breath and honked our horns to show we were having a good time.

Walt Whitman once wrote, “O to have my life henceforth a poem of new joys!/ To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on….” That is what we need to get back to; to be joyful to be alive and to be grateful and to celebrate. I look forward to being able to attend concerts and weddings, and to congregate with friends. I am ready to smile and laugh, to hug and hold, and to just be together. I could complain about the drive-in (and I have), but it’s important I end with hope. It’s all we have. And as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Let everything happen to you/ Beauty and terror/ Just keep going/ No feeling is final.”

On balancing books and movies.

Stephen King once said, “Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.” Stephen King also insists in On Writing that no one – absolutely no one – can be a writer without reading A LOT. Writers should read and write every day; there’s no way around it.

I agree with King’s sentiments. After all, I just wrote an entire post about reading more books. Reading is essential, invaluable, and irreplaceable. However, life is all about balance, right? As we move into the final dog days of summer, I want nothing more than to load up on snacks, stretch out, and enjoy a movie in the cool darkness of my living room. How can I make this leisurely activity support my writing goals?

According to Shaunta Grimes, writing for Medium.com, the best way is to watch a movie like a writer. She explains the process in depth and provides helpful links here, but what it boils down to is structure. Screenplays generally follow a 3-act structure: Act One is the Setup, Act Two is the Confrontation, and Act Three is the Resolution. This is covered extensively in a number of different ways in any number of places, but for our purposes, I’m going to explain it the same way I do when I’m teaching the concept in my creative writing class.

  • Act One must introduce major characters, the setting and the conflict. It must have an inciting incident and end with a major plot point that changes the course of the story.
  • Act Two is the longest third of a screenplay. It often includes subplots and showcases character arcs. It includes a major plot point as well, but now the stakes are higher. It usually ends with a moment of crisis.
  • Act Three is typically the shortest third of a screenplay because it’s the showdown between the opposing forces of the conflict, and the resulting consequences of that confrontation. All loose ends are tried up, or least addressed.
  • Put even more simply: Act One, put a guy up a tree. Act Two, throw rocks at him. Act Three, get him down.

So as a writer, watching movies specifically for their structures and character arcs can help generate plot point, character development, and themes, and thereby help cure writer’s block! What kind of movies are best? That depends on what you’re writing, but the internet has come to a consensus that there are about 20 movies every writer should see.

I scrutinized nearly 20 of these lists myself. They came from a literary magazine at a respected university, writers’ blogs, marketing specialists, well-known magazines and databases (IndieWire, Writer’s Digest, IMDB, Medium), lesser-known magazines (Paste, High on Films) and Ranker and Google. There was also a random list I found with no real author or attribution, but I liked the titles, so I kept it. From the master list, I narrowed it down by the number of mentions on every list I searched. Without further ado, according to the internet, here are 20 movies every writer should watch:

  1. Adaptation (9 mentions and usually near the top of every list)
  2. Misery (9 mentions and usually near the top of every list)
  3. Midnight in Paris (8 mentions)
  4. Barton Fink (8 mentions)
  5. Ruby Sparks (6 mentions)
  6. Almost Famous (6 mentions)
  7. Stranger Than Fiction (6 mentions)
  8. Wonder Boys (6 mentions)
  9. The End of the Tour (5 mentions)
  10. Naked Lunch (5 mentions)
  11. Spotlight (4 mentions)
  12. The Words (4 mentions)
  13. The Shining (4 mentions)
  14. Sunset Boulevard (4 mentions)
  15. Finding Forrester (4 mentions)
  16. Dead Poets Society (4 mentions)
  17. Bright Star (3 mentions)
  18. Capote (3 mentions)
  19. An Angel at My Table (3 mentions)
  20. Factotum (3 mentions)
  21. Shakespeare in Love (3 mentions)
  22. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (3 mentions)

I bolded the ones I have seen and as you can see, I need to get working on this list! There is no particular order, other than the number of times the title was mentioned on the lists I studied, and there were quite a few honorable mentions, which I’m limiting to ones I have seen and loved:

  • You’ve Got Mail
    • This movie is more about reading than writing, but it’s all connected anyway. And who doesn’t love an enjoyable romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Dave Chapelle’s in it too, so there is literally something for everyone. Nora Ehpron at her most enchanting.
  • Genius
    • This movie stars Jude Law and Colin Firth. Need I say more? It chronicles the fascinating relationship between editor extraordinaire Max Perkins (think Fitzgerald and Hemingway!) and Thomas Wolfe.
  • The Rewrite
    • Hugh Grant plays opposite Marisa Tomei in an adorable and heartwarming romantic comedy about a screenwriter who used to be really good a long, long time ago and how he reclaims his former glory. Maybe fame and fortune aren’t everything.
  • Secret Window
    • Johnny Depp is FANTASTIC as writer dealing with his wife’s infidelity and a mysterious stranger who accuses him of plagiarism. A Stephen King special, the intensity climbs right up to the surprise ending!
  • So I Married an Axe Murderer
    • Mike Meyers at his funniest. He’s a writer who – you guessed it! – may have married an axe murderer.
  • Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
    • Confession: I haven’t seen this movie, but I’m a H U G E fan of Sam Rockwell, so I’m going to see it ASAP.
  • In Bruges
    • Not entirely sure what this film has to do with writing, but as far as films go, it’s damn near perfect. Colin Farrell gives a performance of a lifetime, and it’s from the unbelievably talented Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
  • Funny Farm
    • Chevy Chase has aspirations of becoming a serious novelist, so he relocates to the country, thinking he’ll find inspiration in a seemingly quaint country town. Hilarity ensues.
  • Music and Lyrics
    • Another Hugh Grant film (leave me alone), but this time he’s paired with Drew Barrymore and this is actually all about the writing process, particularly as it pertains to songwriting. It’s also adorable.
  • Adult World
    • One of my favorite movies of all time. Emma Roberts stars as a young woman who wants to be the protege to a famous, reclusive, brilliant poet (played perfectly by John Cusack). Evan Peters is in it, too. The heart in this film is surprising and wonderful.
  • Stand By Me
    • More Stephen King (are you really all that surprised?), but this is more about friendship and growing up and the choices we make inside of ourselves. Perfect, nostalgic, bittersweet coming-of-age tale.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    • Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson. Wonderfully weird. Need I say more? This cult-classic is definitely worth the watch.
  • Sideways
    • Road trip movie about two men in wine country, one of whom is a depressed teacher and unsuccessful writer. This movie speaks to me on so many levels.

Has this list inspired you? Do you feel strongly about any of the titles? Am I missing some great movies about writing? Let me know in the comments!

On living in a BRAVE NEW WORLD.

On Monday, an article appeared in the New York Times called, “‘Brave New World’ Arrives in the Future It Predicted” by Alexis Soloski. The title completely intrigued me as I whole-heartedly believe that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the most important books of the 20th century. In my opinion, it should be required reading upon entering society and as the dumpster fire that has been 2020 rages on, the philosophical questions raised on the novel’s pages seem more pertinent and worthy of discussion than they ever have before. So the second part of the article title, that an adaptation has landed “in the Future It Predicted,” enticed me to read on.

But as I read on, I grew more and more disappointed by the article’s overall glib tone. Soloski has a Ph.D. in English and Comp Lit, so her knowledge and credibility are not in question. All reviews are matters of opinion anyway, and completely subjective, so what outraged me may not make the slightest bit of difference to someone else. That being said, I was infuriated by the tone of the article because it essentially ignored Huxley’s dire warnings about replacing complex introspection and meaningful, layered human connection with superficial, temporary pleasures, like drugs and meaningless sex and constant entertainment and stimulation. Soloski writes, “But ‘Brave New World,’ which most viewers will remember – vaguely if at all – from some high school or college syllabus, presents a more ambivalent prospect and particular challenges.” First of all, Soloski seems to insinuate the novel, which she laters calls “…a literary crystal ball so dead-on that many of its predictions have already come true,” is forgotten. Or maybe she’s implying that audience members are too dumb to remember or too numbe to care? Either way, to handle this classic and intelligent novel with anything but the utmost respect leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Now I understand that Soloski is writing about the latest adaptation, but she seems perfectly okay with – again – the glib and hyper stylized and superficial approach taken in adapting Huxley’s novel for today’s audience. She doesn’t comment much on how “A collaboration between Universal Content PRoductions, which acquired the rights to the novel, and Amblin Entertainment, brought on for their world-building chops, ‘Brave New World’ began at Syfy, then moved to USA, before landing at Peacock, shedding story and concept and the occasional writer along the way.” SHEDDING STORY AND CONCEPT? I understand that adaptations of novels usually are scaled back and disappointing, so my outrage comes from coldy exhibiting that the creation of this particular adaptation has had too many cooks in the kitchen (and likely still does) and shakes off elements as integral to the narrative as story and concept. Is Aldous Huxley, creator and author, completely forgotten in all of this?

Simply answered: yes, he is. This adaptation seems to be dumbing down all the turmoil and hard-hitting questions that made the initial novel so wonderful. “The showrunner David Wiener (“Homecoming,” “Fear the Walking Dead”) apparently had the solution, situating the social theory within a love triangle.” It seems that the adaptation will not focus on the darker elements of social control but instead on a tawdry love triangle, which really isn’t a triangle at all if you’ve read the novel. And restricting it all to something so formulaic and overdone as a love triangle reduces the characters. For example, Soloski writes that the character Bernard Marx is just “an administrator with a thing for turtlenecks.” There is no mention of the accident that occurred during genetic engineering that keeps Bernard from meeting his “full potential” within the society. The importance of his surname is entirely glossed over. There’s not even a subtle hint at the extreme inner conflict that leads Bernard down a dark and twisted path.

The plot itself is changed to be more action-packed, it seems. “When the holiday goes wrong – the Savage Lands had a sedition issue – Bernard and Lenina escape with the help of a sweaty, stubbly John (Alden Ehrenreich) and his raspy, bottle-blond mom (Demi Moore). John returns with them to New London and he, Lenina and Bernard, each of them grasping for greater human connection, form the basic geometry.” In the novel, John does not help anyone escape. He’s brought back as an oddity, a point of interest. The fact that his mother travels with him is so much more important than Soloski lets on. John is considered a Savage because he believes in natural procreation and has a family and doesn’t take mood stabilizers; he is a Romantic. He doesn’t really fit in with the Savages either for reasons I won’t reveal because of spoilers, but all that is gone or minimized so that he becomes an action hero, some sweaty and muscular archetype to play against an intellectual in a love triangle which is so uninspired that it is unworthy of Huxley’s excellent novel.

As a matter of fact, the focus of the article and the adaptation itself seems to be on style and appearance more than substance. The article discusses at length the set design and filming locations and the use (or lack thereof) of CGI. This seems to be done intentionally. “The novel’s utopian vision, with its ugly flares of racism and misogyny, also required renovation. ‘The book’s hugely problematic,’ Wiener said. So the show pivoted toward equality, race-bending and gender-flipping several of the supporting characters.” BUT THAT’S THE POINT! The utopia presented in Huxley’s novel isn’t a utopia at all. It is, in fact, a dystopia where freedom of choice has been so eradicated that there is absolutely no individuality and people are genetically engineered to fit a specific social class. People are designed to be inferior in different ways so others can remain superior. No, that doesn’t preach equality, but it does reveal a darker truth about humanity that no one seems to want to grapple with because it’s messy and uncomfortable, but to paraphrase John the Savage’s great speech towards the end of the novel, it’s my right to be uncomfortable and messy and unhappy if I want to be, so give it all to me! Let me be exposed to elements of misogyny and racism in the story, and then decide for myself how to react. Removing the more difficult aspects of the prose limits the reader’s reaction and involvement and erodes the author’s purpose.

But no; this adaptation is limited to fluffy entertainment and does so to the point where the characters are reduced and less complex and less riveting. “The main characters have undergone some changes, too. Lenina, a cheerful sex bunny in the book, has been granted interiority. Pompous Bernard has softened. In the novel, John is prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” Lenina was not just “a cheerful sex bunny;” she was grappling with being monogamous when promiscuity was the norm and struggling with her feelings for John. She had interiority; it didn’t need to be added! And how could Bernard possibly be softened when he is the villain? But the worst crime of all is how Soloski calls John “prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” SERIOUSLY? John wanted nobility and dignity and was searching for a real sense of self. He wanted to feel it all and experience it all. The actor who plays John, Alden Ehrenreich, understands this (which makes me like him even more than I already do). Soloski writes, “So Ehrenreich’s John has loosened up and muscled up, though he remains extremely emo. Ehrenreich, best known as the titular swashbuckler in ‘Solo,’ prefers to describe John as romantic.” Soloski’s tone is disturbingly dismissive when discussing the hero of the novel. To label him as “emo” discredits him and his beliefs.

Huxley, through John the Savage and his interaction with the “new society,” critiques the superficial society that is so often praised and preferred. People choose to numb themselves and self-medicate to avoid the more difficult and disconcerting aspects of being a member of the human race.  People choose fleeting sexual pleasure because it “feels good” instead of working to build lasting relationships, which disintegrates family units, and the social control in the novel is fine with this because “united we stand, divided we fall.” Keeping citizens dumb and numb and disconnected keeps them easier to control and manipulate. John becomes a hero because he rejects that notion. He tells the powers that be in the “futuristic” society of the novel just that when he says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

It seems that the new adaptation and, in part, Soloski’s article about it both miss the point of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. They’re dumbing down one of the most important stories of the 20th century so people will have something to binge, to mindlessly consume, “while the world burns” around them. The Universal Content president told Soloski multiple times that “the show shouldn’t feel like homework.” They don’t want people to think and come to their own conclusions and judgments. The creators of the adaptation are creating an entertainment trap to keep people caged in superficiality and consumer culture, which is supremely ironic because those are some of the very kinds of traps exposed by Huxley. We are living in “Brave New World,” but this adaptation doesn’t really want viewers to realize that, so they’ve made changes to soften and remove “problematic” elements. In doing so, they’ve removed the author and his purpose, compromised artistic integrity, and likely ruined an important, classic novel for a new generation. It’s a shame.

To be fair, I haven’t streamed an episode yet. But I will when they become available today (and you can check out the trailer here), and I will swallow my pride and admit it if I’m wrong. But the tone of Soloski’s write-up in the New York Times has me worried. I feel like John the Savage, throwing away the Soma so people will finally wake up and realize what is actually going on.

On “Castle Rock.”

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I have never ever been shy about my love for Stephen King. Today, on Hulu, the finale of the second season of the Stephen King-inspired show “Castle Rock” aired. I had two thoughts as the credits rolled:

  1. Damn, that was better than season one.
  2. I want to re-read Misery.

I really enjoyed the performances by Lizzy Caplan and Tim Robbins as two well-known Stephen King characters: Annie Wilkes and Pop Merrill, respectively. I listed Caplan first because she honestly steals the show. She’s riveting as Annie Wilkes and masterfully pays tribute to Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning portrayal in the nearly perfect film while somehow making the character her own. It is truly a masterful performance. As a viewer, I hated Annie, pitied Annie, feared Annie, laughed at Annie, and just went along for the ride. From her awkward gait to her unsettling gaze, Caplan created an Annie Wilkes that is as heartbreaking as she is horrifying. One of the standout episodes in the season, although Caplan and Robbins do not feature, is the fifth episode, titled “The Laughing Place.” The episode is beautifully shot and delves fearlessly into the troubled past of Annie Wilkes. While some aspects of Annie’s character were expected, like her sociopathic and psychotic tendencies, others were new and interesting. I was particularly fascinated by Annie’s struggle with dyslexia and was enthralled with the depth it added not only to character but to the complexity and intensity of the events as they unfold in “Misery” (I’m specifically referring to the film as it has been quite some time since I read the novel, which was a knockout by the way. I might not remember specific plot points, but I remember loving the book). Annie’s “Castle Rock” arc ends where we first met her, worshipping Paul Sheldon and I have a strong desire to revisit the book.

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Tim Robbins played Pop Merrill who was a complicated character to say the least. Robbins played it beautifully, expertly navigating the fine lines that kept Pop from being an all-out villain or an all-out redeemable, tragic hero. Robbins absolutely radiates in the second-to-last episode titled “Caveat Emptor” as Pop tries desperately to right the many wrongs he’s guilty of at staggering prices. Robbins is the perfect cranky, old bastard that deserves whatever he gets but that you hope gets better. I won’t spoil anything for anyone interested in watching, but will say that Pop Merrill’s storyline is one familiar to King’s Constant Readers and it does not disappoint.

Tim Robbins in season 2 of 'Castle Rock'

The first season of “Castle Rock” was close to being great, but for me, the finale kept it short of the mark. It was all so ambiguous which would be fine if there was at least a little something for the viewer to stand on or hold onto. I understood the nod to “Thinnys” and immediately thought of The Dark Tower series, but something was missing. I was dissatisfied and ambivalent about even watching the second season.

But man, am I glad I did.