Sunday, March 12, 2017

Guest Post: Jeanne on "A Question of Character"

Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library as she considers the perception of character.

A Question of Character

Lately I’ve been thinking about how people view characters; specifically how they react when someone else takes over writing or acting a character.  For example, some reviews of Robert Goldsborough’s Nero Wolfe series maintain that a reader will think the book was written by Rex Stout.  I’ve never thought that.  I enjoy Goldsborough’s books but I am never under any illusion that I’m reading something by Stout.  The characters are just a bit off to me.  I experience the same thing with Anne Hillerman’s continuation of the Chee and Leaphorn stories; those two characters don’t seem to have the same feel.  I think Ms. Hillerman was wise to make Bernadette the main character in her books in order to minimize comparisons.

Readers often have as many opinions as there are--well, readers. Is Lord Peter the bon vivant of the earlier books or the serious, damaged man of the latter? True, there were earlier mentions of his being shell-shocked but for the most part he behaves rather glibly—until Harriet comes on the scene.  Sayers allowed the character to evolve.  For me, this is best illustrated by the different approaches by Ian Carmichael and Edward Petherbridge, who played the two aspects of Wimsey quite well.

Miss Marple is another character with changeable characteristics.  Is she really the irritating busybody, the “old cat” as one character described her, or is she the harmless, fluffy little old lady with rosy cheeks? Thanks to the many screen portrayals, there are at least ten versions from which to choose, although some of the versions are undermined by scripts that alter situations and solutions and do not, shall we say, improve on the original.  (Perhaps “make a pig’s breakfast” is actually closer to the mark.) I was partial to Geraldine McEwan’s and Helen Hayes’ versions, but there are others I found worthy.

Other characters have had even more interpretations.  Sherlock Holmes has been everything from “a high functioning sociopath” in the Cumberbatch TV version to an older, romantic lead in Laurie King’s Mary Russell series; he’s been a boor, an enlightened champion, a dilettante, and an unstable addict.  All these portrayals have their roots in the original; it’s what the reader takes away from it personally that forms the impression.

But the real chasm for me is found in a science fiction character:  Mr. Spock. I was eight when Star Trek started and each week found me glued to the TV.  Spock was an alien, someone who didn’t fit in, and who was regarded with suspicion and/or disdain by many.  He was an outsider, and that appealed to a number of people in the 1960s:  people who felt different, who felt isolated, who felt marginalized.  Here was someone intelligent, lonely, and struggling to fit in to a society he didn’t quite understand without compromising his beliefs or change who he was.  Many years later I read that Roddenberry wanted a post-racial world for Earth, but still wanted to deal with prejudices so Spock became the stand in for “the other.” In the first season particularly there were several instances in which people were hostile to Spock because he was half-Vulcan; as the series continued, that was downplayed.  Spock the character also grew and changed over the years until he was comfortable with his own dual nature, though I would argue that didn’t happen until the second movie, The Wrath of Khan. In the first movie, he was still so conflicted that he wanted to purge all his emotions in an effort to become fully Vulcan. 

And therein, I think, lies the difference in character perception in this instance.  As I watched the character of Spock develop, I was well aware of the conflicts and gradual changes which occurred over the course of three years.  As a shy, chubby, studious kid, I identified with his struggles. We were both on the outside looking in, so to speak. When the franchise rebooted, we had a Spock who was fully integrated into a social group—respected, honored, admired, and with an attractive and accomplished girlfriend. This was hardly the outsider figure I had grown up knowing. His confusion over human custom and emotion seemed more like willful misunderstanding and refusing to adapt. To me, this character was more Sheldon Cooper than Spock.

So I was baffled when reviewers kept praising the character as being true to original, especially after he “loosened up” in Star Trek Beyond. My only conclusion was that to that segment of the audience who had watched original episodes out of order (if at all) or just seen the movies, the mature Spock, the one able to comprehend emotional responses and even to joke, was the real (and only) Spock. I don’t know that this new version appeals to me at all; he evokes annoyance, not empathy. I do not relate to him.

And I think that’s probably true of all the characters we encounter. The parts we relate to most are the aspects we exaggerate in our minds.  My Miss Marple has a sweetness about her that’s likely due to my grandmother who was known to listen in on party-line conversations.  While other people might have seen her as the nosey old biddy, I saw her as a beloved figure. I read Dorothy L. Sayers as a teen, about the same time I was reading Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie, so my strongest impressions of Lord Peter are as the gentleman detective not the passionate suitor. Had I been a bit older, I’m sure I would have appreciated the romantic aspect much more.

It must be as Edmund Wilson once said:  “No two persons ever read the same book.” 

Apparently the same goes for characters as well.  Or as Rudolph Valentino put it, “Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen.  I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams.”

Rudolph Valentino  1895-1926

1 comment:

Susan Bernhardt said...

Excellent article, Jeanne. My husband is a major fan of Rex Stout and Tony Hillerman. He has read every book at least once and he's also read all of Robert Goldsborough’s and Anne Hillerman’s novels. He loved the original authors but he also loves Robert's and Anne's novels. He doesn't equate the authors to be the same, just enjoys the new books because he was so much into their stories. The same with Sherlock Holmes and Laurie King’s and Mary Russell series. He has read them all.

I'm sorry I'm not speaking more personally about the mysteries I enjoy, but you've named so many of my husband's favorite authors, I went with that.

Very happy to have seen this. Thank you, Jeanne and Kevin. :) I'll definitely show this article to my husband.