Tag Archives: children

What Did You Expect?

Something currently burning up the internet is the tremendous, and quite passionate, response of viewers of the Game of Thrones series to the events of the most recent episode.  This had taken on the name “Red Wedding,” and I’ll leave it to you to look it up.  Or not.  The point is that the episode features a wedding which turns into a brutal bloodbath in which numerous characters are mercilessly murdered.  This has, for some reason, outraged viewers.

I can only scratch my head.  Let me make clear that I am not a fan, and have no interest whatsoever in Game of Thrones, having not read a single page or watched a single frame.  But I know what it’s about, and it’s best summed up as “horrible people doing horrible things to each other.”  There isn’t a single upright character in the thing.  The closest the series had was a main character who was executed early on in the saga.  Perhaps that was making the point clear: no good guys wanted.

The series positively celebrates brutal carnage.  Characters are assassinated, executed, tortured with abandon, in graphic ways.  Many of the victims, and perpetrators, are children, including a nine-year-old girl who is a remorseless assassin.  That’s the case in the books; in the series she’s been aged up to around thirteen, although this was not actually done because a preteen assassin was unacceptable.  They aged up all the characters because the producers knew people would freak out at a sexually active thirteen-year-old, so they made her seventeen.  Mind you, the sexually active thirteen-year-olds in our society outnumber the thirteen-year-old assassins – at least, I hope they do – but that doesn’t keep people from freaking out about sex.  But that’s for another day.

On the other hand, the violence, even involving children, is just fine.  Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the whole point.  It’s why people watch.  They want to see it.  People are entertained by watching other people die.  Sure, they might say (as some of you are thinking right now) that the real appeal is the nuanced characters, the amazingly complex storylines and, in the case of the books, the clear, evocative prose.  Uh huh.  Tell me, you who are saying this, if you took away the violence, didn’t have a single murder, would you still watch?  Didn’t think so. 

So this recent fan reaction facinates me.  That I would find the very idea of a wedding massacre scene repulsive, nauseating and soul-crushing is of no significance.  That fans would is another matter.  The question is, why are they reacting so negatively to something that surely cannot have come as a surprise?  Were they expecting a fairy tale happy ending?  As the Player says in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, “You call that an ending?  With everyone still on their feet?  Over your dead body!”

Not that this sequence is without precedent.  The Godfather famously ends with a montage of brutal murders intercut with a baptism.  But this was very clearly to indicate the main character’s final slide into total darkness.  And it didn’t outrage people because we ultimately knew that this character was going to go that way, even if we hoped maybe he could be redeemed.  In the end, it became Greek tragedy.  The “Red Wedding,” on the other hand, was simply Grand Guignol.  And which would be more likely to draw an audience?

So the question remains, why did viewers, who watch the show specifically to see the carnage, react with such anger to actually seeing it?  The answer is intriguing.  As one person (a reader who knew about this sequence from when he read the book thirteen years ago) told me, “George R. R. Martin is really good at creating characters you care about, and then brutally slaughtering them.”  And that’s the key.  It’s characters the viewers cared about.  Well, that just changes everything, doesn’t it?  Death and violence are fine when I don’t actually care about the victims.  Bring it on!  But not when it’s someone I connect to.  How dare you depict such awful violence, you terrible author!  Shame on you! 

Um, I’ve been saying that all along.  I didn’t need to relate to the victim to understand that violence is sickening, not entertaining.  I guess the series’ fans did.  And they’re angry because they’ve actually come face to face with the reality of the depraved spectacle they love so much.

Is that why Martin writes such violent fare, to make a statement about our taste for death?  I doubt it.  He wrote it because it sells, and, I’m guessing, he wrote it because it appeals to him.  That’s true for all writers; we write what we like.  While it’s tempting to believe he’s trying to make a statement about pervasive violence in society, there’s no reason to believe that, any more than we should believe other authors when they say they are making a statement about how bad violence is by giving us copious amounts of it.  And, indeed, even if that’s the message, people aren’t going to get it anyway.  Otherwise they would have complained long before the recent episode.  If people actually bought the message that, “violence is bad,” then they would turn off the TV at the first violent scene.  They would walk out of the theater (as I have actually done).  No, the fact is, authors like Martin are making their message very clear: watching people die is awesome.  And readers and viewers whole-heartedly agree.

There’s another possibility, of course.  Perhaps the writers of such dark, nihilistic stories are just that cynical, that discouraged with humanity, that convinced that we are all monsters and there’s no hope for us.  Really, how misanthropic does someone have to be to make a movie as pessimistic as The Purge?  But that’s the norm now.  And that makes me sad.  This despite the fact that it doesn’t surprise me.  I’m a reluctant cynic.  I have often said that, given the opportunity, human beings will be horrible to each other.  Alas, it’s human nature.  So how can I fault things like Game of Thrones for reflecting that?  Because I don’t want to be a cynic.  I’m very sad that I have been made one by what I see.  I really want to believe in something better.  I want to believe that mankind is something loftier, that there is greatness in us, and that we should be striving for that within ourselves and each other.

This is reflected in my writing.  My characters are good people, trying to be the best they can.  That doesn’t mean they are perfect pollyannas.  They make mistakes and do the wrong thing.  And it has terrible consequences when they do.  But they keep trying to be better.  They don’t accept their dark sides, because neither do I.  Maybe I’m living in a fantasy world.  If so, it’s ironic, because most fantasy is like Game of Thrones, dark, violent, cynical, depressing, saying the worst about mankind.  You have to look far for something better.

I, for one, find myself looking some fifty years back to a little TV show called Star Trek.  To this day, it stands out for its positive attitude. Series creator Gene Roddenberry believed in the greatness of humanity, and made his show reflect that.  It’s a stark contrast to most science fiction.  True, the later series became much darker, but there was still that essential optimism.  I believe in that.

I confess I’ve put a few Star Trek references in my book, ones most of my target audience won’t get at all.  I also reference throughout the book a song by a mid-seventies progressive rock band that is also tremendously hopeful and positive.  Do I have these outdated references because I’m out-of-touch and clueless?  Probably.  But still they speak to something very important, something hard to find today.  A young friend recommended at one point a different, much more current song that expressed the same message.  But, while I liked the song (my musical tastes are extremely diverse), I found it musically too dark, too heavy.  Not what I want to reflect.

I believe we can be better, that we can aspire, that we are basically good, and that, given the opportunity, we’ll be good to each other.  I want to believe that, even though it’s hard.  So that’s what I’m writing.  There will be moments in the trilogy that will greatly sadden readers, maybe even anger them.  There will be times when, out of desperation and despair, my characters will do horrible things.  But they will feel the weight of their actions.  And they will find redemption.  Because if we don’t have that, then what’s the point of anything?  We may as well all be mass-murder victims at a wedding.


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The Violent Death of My Writing Career

I’m coming to face the reality that the novel I am in the final stages of completing is utterly unpublishable in the current Young Adult market.  I am simply unable – and unwilling – to include the level of brutal, bloody violence that the readership demands.

Well-meaning people have told me many times that I don’t have to write it that way, that they aren’t all like that.  Actual published YA authors tell a different story.  They make clear that it’s about the violence, both in their own commentaries (and if there’s one thing writers love to talk about, it’s their own writing), and, more to the point, in the books that they publish.  Stories about a teenage cat burglar who is being hunted by her latest victim.  Stories about teens dealing with the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.  Stories about a teenager killing a convict with his bare hands.  I swear I am not making any of this up, and I am merely scratching the surface.  And this is considered suitable fare for our children.

I am not alone in my objections, of course, except most people who object to the increasingly dark and violent tone do so because they say it’s damaging to the readers, which is not the case.  It’s the symptom, not the cause.  Defenders of garbage like The Hunger Games insist that it’s appropriate for today’s teens because they live in a violent world full of hopelessness and despair, and they want to see those issues played out in the books they read.  To put it simply, that’s bullshit.

Today’s teens are the most sheltered, privileged, entitled generation the world has ever seen.  True, we are living at the first point in history where the children cannot reasonably expect to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents, but that may simply be because their current living standard is already so high it’s almost incomprehensible.

These are children who have never known want or care.  They have big screen TVs, movies on demand, smart phones, instantaneous information, and the expectation that they will be entertained and stimulated twenty-four hours a day.  For them, trauma comes from having a slow internet connection. 

Even worse, they are overscheduled.  Helicopter parents whose lives revolve around their children make sure that every moment of those children’s lives is filled with sports and art and tutoring and as many activities as can be crammed in, fearful that, left to their own devices, the children might become – gasp! – bored.  Or worse, that they’ll get up to mischief.  But they have been deprived of the opportunity to explore, to experiment, to take risks.  So they ride their skateboards off of the roof in the hope that someone will see it on Youtube.  And they seek out those videos so that they can laugh when someone else is critically injured.  They play carnage-filled computer games like Halo.  They go to see movies where the solution to every problem is to kill anyone who gets in your way. And they read books about teens (whom they presumably imagine to be just like themselves) killing with abandon.

They aren’t reading violent books because they live violent lives; quite the opposite.  They read – and, more to the point, watch – violence because of the absence of it in their lives.  The children in Syria or Sudan aren’t reading books about killing.  They’re too busy seeing it in the streets.  Why would they want more?  It’s us here in the wealthy, protected Western world who want it.  We are barbaric, bestial, violent creatures, who crave death and killing.  We take pleasure in it.  For most of human history, it was a real fact of life.  Today we still want it, but have to find it in our fiction. 

Maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe violent fiction is an outlet for our violent urges that keeps us from enacting violence in real life.  Maybe we should actually be encouraging young people to read violent books so that they learn how to deal with those feelings.  Maybe.  But try making the same argument for sexual content and just see how quickly people change their tune.  I have decided that there will in fact be implied sexuality in my book; there won’t be actual sex, not in this book, but there very likely will be in the next book, if it ever gets written.  And I intend to present it at all times as a positive thing: it’s okay as long as there’s honesty and respect (which is a better message than “kill or be killed”).  Teens have sexual urges even more than they have violent urges.  Will reading my book allow them to explore and learn to deal with those feelings?  I hope so.  But will they even get a chance to do so?  We’ll have to wait and see.

People tell me to hang in there, that what I have written is good, whether it’s violent or not, and that these things always go in cycles.  True, trends do change, and so I guess I will soldier on (to use a violent metaphor).  Maybe my novel will be that rare trend-buster that actually gets some traction.  But in my half-century on this planet, one thing has been made clear to me: the level of violence in entertainment has always increased, never decreased.  There’s no reason to expect that trend will reverse itself.  And it’s just going to get worse and worse.  Your children are reading books about teens hunting each other for entertainment.  What will your grandchildren be reading?


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An Animated Discussion

I’m a big fan of animation.  Let me clarify that in several ways.  First, let me get it out of the way that I do not much care for anime.  I confess I do not see the appeal, nor why so many praise it for artistic quality.  To my eyes, it’s poor.  It tends to be flat, all the characters have basically the same faces, and the animation itself is very often what’s called “limited,” a term best applied to the Hannah-Barbera works of the 50s and 60s.  I’m just not impressed.

I assume that much of the appeal for fans of anime has less to do with the quality of the animation and more to do with the story-telling.  The stories are often highly sophisticated and can also be highly adult in content, something extremely rare in American animation.  That’s the problem.  In the US, animation is considered something for children.  We can blame Disney for that, but at the same time we must credit them for inventing feature animation in the first place (nobody thought Snow White could be done).  But because of Disney, animation is associated with fairy tales and children’s stories.

And then there’s Saturday morning.  The other use of animation in the US has traditionally been in Saturday cartoons, usually cheap and limited. The epitome of “kidfare.”  There have been rare exceptions: the animated version of Star Trek, while suffering some definite problems, was nevertheless, not surprisingly, one of the most intelligent and sophisticated “children’s cartoons” ever created.  This was because the producers insisted on keeping true to the source and refused to add kid-friendly elements like child protagonists or cute animal companions.  But this is an exception.  Mostly animation is defined by such kid-oriented elements, and that’s a tragedy.

Animation, at its best, is a remarkable art form.  When I say I’m an animation fan, I particularly mean the traditional, 2D cel animation that has become increasingly rare.  To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a hand painted cel with a detailed background and fully animated characters.  It’s glory to the eyes.

Not to say that CG animation is bad.  Computers have revolutionized animation, often in good ways.  But, because of the extraordinary success of Pixar, it’s become convention that everything should be CG.  Pixar’s films were great while traditional animation was dying, so the conventional wisdom is that people want to see CG.  That misses the point.  Pixar’s films were great because they were well-written and creative.  It was story above all.  Toy Story worked because the characters were so engaging.  Brad Bird originally intended to do The Incredibles in cel form, and it would have been just as good.  Finding Nemo would have been great as a series of sketches on cocktail napkins.  Being CG doesn’t make a movie great, as many films from competing studios have proven.  Indeed, Cars 2 proved this to even be true of Pixar.

CG has had the unfortunate effect of giving all animated films a sameness that they did not used to have.  Sleeping Beauty looked radically different from 101 Dalmatians, and intentionally so.  But CG always looks like CG.  Where CG has the greatest potential is in combination with cel animation.  Its earliest uses were exactly that, and the results were extraordinary.  CG can greatly enhance cel animation with programs like Massive and Deep Canvas.  I confess what I would have liked to see, and what was all-too-briefly hinted at in the early 2000’s, was what I call “hybrid” animation, combining both.  We saw the potential in films like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, Titan AE and The Iron Giant.  But it was short lived.  And most of those films suffered because they were hampered by, again, the assumption that they were for children, when they clearly were not.  Or at least they shouldn’t have been.

The issue, ultimately, is content.  It’s still the rare animated film that receives a PG rating.  And we’re just talking PG.  PG-13 seems unlikely.  And R-rated animation?  Unthinkable, even today.  For such an attempt we can turn only to the maverick projects of Ralph Bakshi, who gave us the initially-X-rated Fritz the Cat (it’s actually a pretty tame R by today’s standards), as well as Wizards and his ill-fated Lord of the Rings adaptation.

Bakshi was daring and ambitious but suffered from budget limitations at every turn.  He was a frequent user of rotoscoping, a painstaking technique where a live-action image is traced onto a cel, sort of a pre-computer version of motion-capture.  It’s a much-reviled method, although I’ll take it over motion capture, which, in my experience, has disturbingly artificial results.

But Bakshi used rotoscoping to great effect as a way of salvaging Wizards, where the use of heavily stylized stock footage added to the tone of a film that was already surreal due to Bakshi’s decision to combine many different animation styles in a single film.  It was less effective when he attempted to do the entire Lord of the Rings via rotoscoped live action, but the failure there had more to do with budget and studio meddling than the format itself.  He made it work later with Fire and Ice, but that film suffered from script problems.

In truth, if my project were made into an animated film, I would prefer it done by someone with Bakshi’s mindset: anything goes, combine styles and techniques, and don’t worry about making it for kids.  I’m writing Young Adult fiction, that’s true, but my target audience is at the older end of that range, and it may well be that animation is the only format in which my ideas would be permitted to breathe the way I want.

This is not hyperbole.  Animation has always led the way in breaking barriers in terms of content.  There may be no better example of this reality than the simple fact that the first married couple to be shown in the same bad on primetime TV (rather than separate twin beds) was Fred and Wilma Flintstone.  Yabba-dabba-do!


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