Friday, March 21, 2014

Network notes on Daniel Deronda?

{Editorial note: today's post is a contribution from my longtime friend Maggie Bandur, TV writer and book reader. As I explained earlier in the week, we're reading Daniel Deronda together and trading off posts. Enjoy!}

I was very excited and intimidated when Levi asked me to work on this project. I have always been a big reader, but not in a very organized or academically supervised way. I have taken it upon myself to read several Very Important Books of the Canon every year and lately have despaired of the opportunity to use any of this knowledge. Although I work with well-educated people, many of whom are devouring whatever this year’s equivalent of Gone Girl is, I am surprised how many times I get teased for my reading of musty, old books. But I live by my pen! And as a television writer, I am one of the few who still can. Perhaps sitcoms don’t require a deep knowledge of art and literature--but if one is going to spend a lot of time repurposing well-trodden stories, shouldn’t one steal from the best?

Delighted to finally dive into pure intellectual discourse, I was a little disappointed to find myself comparing Daniel Deronda to television and movies--something I don’t normally do. And this before I had read Levi’s introduction. Comparing current television to novels is blecchy. Yes, a television series--one which succeeds--does have the opportunity to show its characters evolve in rich, beautiful, literary ways. But for a show to succeed these days, it seems they must be shocking, at least when first out of the gate. There has been an escalation in violence and sadism and sexy medieval incest, in order to hook people long enough to one day, maybe, explore subtler character moments. This is not, of course, new. The sublimely talky The West Wing pulled a bait and switch by starting the series with Rob Lowe in bed with a call girl, and do you remember that the pilot for The X-Files had Agent Scully in a bra. Can you imagine?! But that deeply humanistic eye for behavior and personality and the mundane which make novels special --well, it must be slipped in between meth deals gone wrong and zombie attacks. George Eliot’s “profusion of aphoristic insights” would not be likely to survive in this golden age of television. Save that for Twitter.

But perhaps I was put in mind of television because I found the opening chapter not at all surprising. It was, in fact, a format with which I was very well acquainted. A famously common and cliched network note is “Start the story sooner.” One easy way to answer this demand is the common trick of opening a show with an extreme situation--dramatic or comic--and then flashing back to how did we get here. Why is Bryan Cranston in his underwear in the desert? Why are foreigners torturing Jennifer Garner? Eliot is telling us who the main players will be, and we learn a bit of Deronda’s character before he disappears for quite some time.

This choice of opening did make me wonder if Eliot had had to deal with editors who complained, “You can’t have a book called Daniel Deronda and not introduce him for 200 pages!” Was this her method of starting the story sooner? Perhaps the chapter’s epigraph is a subtle criticism:
Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. . . . His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought sets off in medias res.
But Levi raises a good point. Do other books begin this way? Although I can’t immediately find an example, I have a sense I have read thrillers or YA books that begin similarly--stories that are perhaps more influenced by (or hope to one day be) movies. But are there any contemporary examples? Did Eliot hit on this method herself? In which case, has television perhaps been, all along, stealing from the best?

While reading, I was also put in mind of another entertainment cliche. The screenwriting book du jour, Save the Cat, claims that to sympathize with a character, particularly an anti-hero, we have to know that they are, at heart, a redeemable person, and nothing shows goodness like being kind to an animal. The opening chapter manages to show us that Gwendolen is a rare and remarkable creature, proud and perhaps not wholly good. By so quickly ruining her, isn’t Eliot ensuring her our sympathy, even as she is about to expose Gwendolen in some detail as “The Spoiled Child?” And not to skip too far ahead, but Eliot seems to have discovered the link between likability and animals, as I suspect we are to know an upcoming suitor is not to be trusted because he cruelly teases a loyal dog who wants his affection.

I believe I am supposed to pose questions. If I might broach another potentially blechhy subject, I will probably want to look at Eliot’s portrayal of women. Perhaps in comparison to Dickens and Trollope?

(On a side note, I believe Levi and I read Middlemarch at the same time for a freshman Intro to Fiction class taught by Iris Murdoch scholar Elizabeth Dipple. After not liking the book at first (perhaps because I didn’t know where it was going?), I fell in love about 200 pages in. Although I rarely set a book aside, one of the lasting legacies of Middlemarch is that I have given many books a much longer, fuller shot than they may have deserved. (Including, controversially, Don Quixote.) That class had an unexpectedly large impact for me: It was the first time I realized Dickens was funny after previously having Great Expectations beaten to death in high school English; I was introduced to Murdoch with A Fairly Honourable Defeat and had its deeper themes explicated in a way I might not have caught on my own, suggesting that college existed for a reason; and I had Jane Eyre somewhat ruined by Professor Dipple pointing out that Mr. Rochester’s teasing, coming from a man in such a superior position, was cruel. (Having recently re-read Jane Eyre, however, she was wrong: Jane is a badass; she can take care of herself.) )

(Oh, and P.S., all happy families are alike.)

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