Sunday, 31 March 2013

Room 237 and what it tells us about author intention

Last November, I think it was, we went to see the excellent documentary by Rodney Ascher, Room 237, at the ICA. I've been waiting since then for a DVD of the film to arrive because I immediately wanted to see it again.

It's a documentary that has quite rightly garnered a lot of praise - its subject is the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick's film version of Stephen King's The Shining - but the way it goes about discussing the film is unusual.

It features the voices (only) of five different commentators on what they think The Shining, or Kubrick's take on it, is actually about. No, it's not really about a writer getting cabin fever in a deserted hotel and trying to turn his wife and son into sushi with a fire axe.

According to the theories propounded in the movie, it's about various other things too: the Holocaust, the genocide of the Native American Indian, how NASA got Kubrick to fake the moon landings and then forced him into secrecy over the subject (!) and so on.
Instead of seeing the various commentators on screen, Room 237 uses a nice trick of using footage from various Kubrick films to play with, or against, the narrators of each theory, some of which turn out to be remarkably convincing, some, well, let's just say, some less so.

If you're interested in how these symbolisms play out, get hold of Room 237 and have a look, it's well worth it. What's most interesting about all this however is what it shows us about author intention.

A question I get frequently when visiting schools goes like this:
Student: 'You know when you write a book?'
Me: 'Uh-huh?'
Student (with one eye on their English teacher): 'Do you actually mean all those things our teacher says you mean?'
Me (smiling): 'Some of them.'

The (post) modern view holds that it doesn't actually matter whether the author meant that thing about the curtains:
This cartoon is harsh on teachers: the intersection in the Venn diagram is much larger in general, I think.

What matters is what the reader took away from the text, whether or not the author meant to put that meaning there.

From my point of view, sometimes I've meant things to be in a text, and people have 'got it', sometimes they haven't. Sometimes, I haven't intended a particular meaning to be in a text, but people have found that meaning anyway. At which point, if it's cool, I immediately claim I meant it all along, and if it's fatuous, I deny all knowledge ;-)

Room 237 is wonderful because we see this process happening twice over. Stephen King wrote his book, and Kubrick made his film of it. So there's one instance of change in the 'text' already, and in this case, there are some significant changes between the book and the film; most of them improvements in my opinion: the book has giant topiary rabbits etc coming to 'life' in Jack's mind; the film has that frozen maze. The book ends with the over-signposted explosion of the hotel's boiler; the film ends in the maze in much more sinister fashion. King has Jack going ape with a Roquet mallet (huh?), Kubrick gets right to the point with a damn big axe. And so on. King famously hated what Kubrick did to his book, which  Kubrick was well aware of. One of the narrators in Room 237 makes a nice point about how Jack's specifically red VW Beetle in the book becomes a yellow one in the movie, and then as if to put two fingers up to King, places a red Beetle under the wheels of a truck in the traffic accident scene; 'take that, author.'

And at this point, the wild theories about what Kubrick was actually trying to say with the film kick in -  and fascinating it is to try to unpick where valid interpretation becomes ludicrous conspiracy theory, and perhaps the modern view is right, that if you find 'it', 'it's' real. But if that's so, just don't expect the author to put his hands up and admit to it too. He may well have meant nothing of the sort. Especially if you're the guy who believes Kubrick intended us to watch the movie backwards...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Doctor Who and the Spear of Destiny

Here's a small clue to what I've been up to lately...


Yoinks! BBC TV Centre is more dangerous than I remembered!

I'm absolutely delighted to announce that I've written the third in Puffin's year long celebration of Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary. Each month from January to November each of the eleven Doctors is being brought to life once more by a different writer.

The news about each writer is being strictly embargoed which means that up until today, all anyone's been able to see about my book is this:


Ooh, who can it be? 

Eoin Colfer kicked off with the First Doctor back in January, and last month Michael Scott's Patrick Troughton-inspired Time Lord lived again.

Now I've been given the chance to write a new story featuring my all-time favourite Doctor, Jon Pertwee. If you're not too familiar with classic Doctor Who (well, it is quite a long time ago now), then you might want to nip over here to find out a bit more about the Third Doctor.

Jon Pertwee

I've never had to work so hard to keep my mouth shut.

Now that I can finally talk about it, I can share a little my excitement at getting this chance. Doctor Who is iconic. There is no other word for it. It's now been a part of British culture for 50 years. 50! That's a lot. So I admit that when I finally sat down to write the opening words of my story, I had a sudden freeze. Hands poised over the keyboard, I thought "Holy -insert-your-own-expletive-here-, this is Doctor Who! Doctor Who!"

Then I gave myself a quick slap and got on with it, deciding to have as much fun as possible with the Third Doctor and Jo Grant in a jaunt into the Viking-age world. The picture above of me moments before annihilation by a Dalek is slightly misleading - for various reasons I decided to put the Doctor up against his old nemesis, the Master.

The story links together a few nice pieces of mythology and legend - the Spear of Destiny was the spear which pierced Christ's side as he hung on the cross. Legend has it that the armies of whoever holds the spear would be invincible. It was of the various supernatural things that Hitler was obsessed with. But as it happens, someone else who hung on a piece of wood was Odin. He hung on the 'world tree' for nine days and nights, and was pierced by his own spear, a magical weapon called Gungnir. Here's a picture of Odin in happier times, resting on his throne with his faithful ravens, Huginn and Muninn, alongside.


Odin with Gungnir

There are more of these nice serendipitous connections in the story, but I don't want to give away too much more about the plot for now.

Instead, I'll just say that I hope people like it. Doctor Who is, after all, one of those things that has a very large and very faithful fanbase, of whom I was very aware when writing. I tried my best to bring the wonderful Jon Pertwee back to life for a short time, and if a few of those fans agree, I'll be more than happy.

For now the story is only available as an ebook, and you know what that means: go here to see it.