Reflections on Readers, Texts, and Personal Arrogance

I will admit that over the course of this semester I may have occasionally dominated the conversation. Through no fault of my own, I will concede that I tend to come across as something of a know-it-all. My thoughts, especially where critical discussion of literature is concerned, can often race at a mile a minute, and oftentimes I’ll say my piece, remember something I meant to say, and then raise my hand again to share my invaluable information with the class. Continue reading “Reflections on Readers, Texts, and Personal Arrogance”

Twelve Hundred Ghosts and the Universality of “A Christmas Carol”

Whenever I read anything for a class, I like to poke around on the internet for any interesting tidbits relating to the text. Call me a nerd if you feel like it, but I find it incredibly interesting to hear other people’s takes on the things I’m reading because I feel like it enriches my own understanding of the material. Such was the avenue upon which I discovered what might be the be one of the strangest and most interesting YouTube videos I’ve ever seen.

It’s called “Twelve Hundred Ghosts”, and it was put together by a man called Heath Waterman. It’s about an hour long, but you certainly don’t have to watch the whole thing (although I’d recommend it!) to get what he was going for. Waterman has edited together video clips, sound bites, music, and illustrations from over 400 adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to create a semi-cohesive version of the story.

Yes, you read that right. Four hundred different versions of A Christmas Carol.

Movies, TV episodes, cartoons, comic books, musicals, and even advertisements. From Mickey Mouse to the Muppets, it seems everyone and their mother has taken a shot at adapting the story, and in watching this it’s pretty obvious that some are much better than others. But still, Waterman passes no judgement. This is not a video of criticism, nor of making fun of these derivative works. It’s in total a celebration of the enduring spirit of the classic story.

Think about it. This is a book that was published centuries ago, and we’re still finding new ways to adapt it. Throughout this video we see many traditional Victorian Scrooges… but we also see modern Scrooges, female Scrooges, black Scrooges, gay Scrooges, and even animal Scrooges. I think that really says something about the universality of Dickens’ narrative. The type of story he told doesn’t only apply to the time he lived in, nor to the gender, race, or sexuality of its leads. The story of redemption, of a callous soul learning the error of their ways and striving to become a better person, is ultimately a human story. And although the video does often stray towards the comedic, I think the motivation behind it has real heart.

I’ve always thought the core of Dickens’ story was the idea that no human being is beyond redemption. In creating the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens crafts a hard-hearted man who cares for no one, and as a consequence the audience is all the more satisfied to watch the character slowly realize the effect his cruelty has had on the other people in his life. The moment where Scrooge realizes that his stinginess when it comes to paying Bob Cratchit may very well lead to the death of Cratchit’s ill son is, to me, one of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments in the entire literary canon.

In creating “Twelve Hundred Ghosts”, Heath Waterman imparts to us the sentiment of redemption being a possibility for all better than any single adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever could. Seeing all these different versions of Scrooge, all of whom exist in different time periods, and who have vastly different lives, realize that their philosophy of uncaring will only hurt those around them, embodies the universality of Dickens’ story. In this way, with this video, we can all see ourselves in at least one version of Scrooge, and understand that no matter when you live, what you look like, or who you love, you always have within you the ability to change.

You can watch “Twelve Hundred Ghosts” below. I would highly recommend checking it out — if you have an hour to spare between studying for finals, that is!

Who is Mary Ann?

Tommy Kovac’s graphic novel, Wonderland, depicts the world of Lewis Carroll’s stories of which we are familiar by now. But the main character of the tale isn’t Alice – It’s Mary Ann, the White Rabbit’s housemaid whom Alice is mistaken for by the Rabbit. Although Mary Ann never makes a physical appearance in the story, Alice assumes that she is the White Rabbit’s maid. She is only mentioned in one section of the story, when Alice first comes upon the White Rabbit’s house, and in his rushed state, the following exchange occurs:

“Very soon the Rabbit noticed Alice, as she went hunting about, and called out to her in an angry tone, ‘Why, Mary Ann, what are you doing out here? Run home this moment, and fetch me a pair of gloves and a fan! Quick, now!’ And Alice was so much frightened that she ran off at once in the direction it pointed to, without trying to explain the mistake it had made.

‘He took me for his housemaid,’ she said to herself as she ran. ‘How surprised he’ll be when he finds out who I am! But I’d better take him his fan and gloves—that is, if I can find them.’ As she said this, she came upon a neat little house, on the door of which was a bright brass plate with the name ‘W. RABBIT’ engraved upon it. She went in without knocking, and hurried upstairs, in great fear lest she should meet the real Mary Ann, and be turned out of the house before she had found the fan and gloves.”

The question of who Mary Ann is, although Tommy Kovac attempted to answer it, is one of those eternal literary mysteries. She is never mentioned again, during either of the other times that Alice comes face to face with the White Rabbit – In fact, she’s only mentioned that one time. All we know about her is that she apparently works for the Rabbit, and he seems to consider it her duty to fetch his gloves for him, so she’s probably his maid or some other housekeeper type.

Does Mary Ann count as a character if she’s never seen, and the scant things we do know about her are repeated secondhand by other characters, one of whom has never even met her? Alice is mistaken for her… does that mean that Mary Ann is a girl around Alice’s age? Or is the Rabbit so rushed that he would have mistaken anyone standing outside his home for his housemaid? Why is she working for the White Rabbit? None of those questions are ever answered. Identity in the Alice stories is especially fluid, and the identity of Mary Ann remains a mystery. Although Alice briefly says that she fears meeting the real Mary Ann, one wonders what that interaction might have looked like.

Because the audience doesn’t know who Mary Ann is, the confusion around who she is adds to the frenetic nature of the scene, with the White Rabbit running about, harried and confused. If Mary Ann had a concrete identity, one suspects the scene would not have come across so chaotic or confusing, which was probably not what Lewis Carroll wanted out of it. So Mary Ann remains the eternal mystery of the Alice books. Perhaps she may have made more sense to our heroine than the other characters did.

The Visuals of Alice, from Disney and Tenniel

I think it would be fair to say that for many of us, our first exposure to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books was through the 1951 animated Disney film. Although it received middling critical reception at the time of release, the movie has since been vindicated as a classic, and is one of the most popular adaptations of Carroll’s text. In fact, the movie has for many people superseded the original text, at least in terms of the recognizable images that the public associates with the phrase ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

For most people, especially Americans, it is hard to disassociate the character of Alice from English actress Kathryn Beaumont’s stuffy and perpetually annoyed upper-class performance, or to separate the Mad Hatter from the cartoon’s bucktoothed little man who speaks with Ed Wynn’s distinctive vocal patterns. The phenomenon of an adaptation displacing the original in the public consciousness is extremely interesting to me. This is often brought up about Disney, and to be fair, their movies do often replace their source material in the minds of the public… after all, when was the last time you saw a version of Cinderella in which she received a dress from a tree enchanted by her mother’s spirit rather than a fairy godmother? But this happens extremely often with any adaptation of a popular book. In adaptation, things are added or removed, and many times people have seen the adaptation but not the original text.

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My theory as to why elements from visual adaptations tend to stick in the public consciousness more than the books they’re based on do is that people remember visual images more than the images they conjure up when reading. In a way, movie adaptations do part of the work for you — Especially for a world as fantastic and otherworldly as Wonderland, it might be hard for a reader to conceptualize the images that Carroll describes. But in a visual medium, part of the work is already done for you. It might be a more passive form of consuming entertainment, but if the adaptation is done well, the images do line up well with what is described in the book.

Most colorized versions of John Tenniel’s illustrations of the Alice books depict Alice as being a blonde and wearing a light blue dress. The real-life Alice Liddell was a brunette, and some versions of the illustrations show Alice in a yellow dress, but for the most part, the blonde-with-blue-dress image is codified as Alice’s standard look. The Disney version used this version of Alice as their starting point, but other adaptations, such as the 1985 miniseries, have Alice in a yellow dress. Although he was not the only artist to take a crack at depicting the famous scenes in the books, Tenniel’s illustrations have become associated with the Alice books, and because of a derth of description in the text itself, most of our perception of what things looked like in the stories was informed by these illustrations along with the Disney film. In fact, Tenniel’s version of Alice has become so famous that in England, black headbands are often colloquially referred to as ‘Alice bands’.

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Abstraction on Loneliness

In paragraph 5 of Solitude, Thoreau discussed one of the most frequent comments he received when speaking about his time living alone at Walden Pond. He explains that often what people tell him is that they could never do what they did because they would miss being around people so much. This prompts Thoreau to move up a level of abstraction, not just speaking in this section about what he did, or about the comments he received from others for doing so, but theorizing about the nature of loneliness itself. Continue reading “Abstraction on Loneliness”

Lindsay Ellis’ Transformers Theory

Once known under the internet pseudonym ‘The Nostalgia Chick’, Lindsay Ellis was hired by the website Channel Awesome in 2009 as a distaff counterpart to their most popular series, ‘The Nostalgia Critic’. Much as her predecessor did, Ellis originally focused on media from the 1980s and 1990s (in her case, media targeted at girls). But after breaking from Channel Awesome in 2013, Ellis began to produce independent content on YouTube that was more focused on academic analysis of media rather than the punchy, entertaining reviews she did under the ‘Chick’ persona. These include Loose Canon, (a series of video essays on different iterations of stock characters throughout media), An Unexpected Autopsy (a three-part series in which she examines the troubled production history and flaws of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films), and… The Whole Plate.

The Whole Plate is an ongoing series that attempts to use the Transformers series to introduce academic theory concepts. It’s one of those things that sounds crazy on paper, but in practice works surprisingly well in making lofty concepts of theory easy to understand for the average viewer. And it turns out, you can use Transformers to examine pretty much anything!

Feminist theory (where are all the lady robots?), queer theory (homoerotic friendships are apparently a huge thing in Michael Bay movies — who knew?), the idea of authorial intent, and Death of the Author (we don’t know very much about Michael Bay’s opinions, so can we use his movies to intuit them?), and even Marxist theory (can the Transformers franchise be considered art if the reason it exists was originally to sell toys?)!

I recommend this series to anybody who has trouble grasping theory concepts or applying them to texts. Ellis focuses on film theory, as that’s what her specialty is, but her points could apply to any text that is examined in this class. She uses language that’s easy to understand and accessible, and uses humor in order to get her points across. More to the point, her style is refreshing in that the whole point of the series is to make lofty theory concepts accessable to the average viewer, but doesn’t talk down to her audience at any point.

Here’s a link to the first video in the series!

If you have time after watching The Whole Plate, I would definitely recommend her other videos! She has interesting perspectives, and her sense of humor is infectious.