Book to screen: could you? Should you?

Haven’t we all said “that book should TOTALLY be made into a movie” at one point or another?

Black and white ca. 1940-1950 image of a young black woman threading film into an old-fashioned projector.
Susan Baptist, a projectionist, shows training films for the troops as well as more popular motion pictures. From the Library of Congress.

Yep, me too. What’s strange is that I seldom say it about a historical fiction novel. Stranger still(?), I don’t actually watch that much historical fiction.

Of these three historical fiction novels that need to be adapted for TV I’ve not read a one of them. A damn pity because they sound great: Sparta vs. Rome, WWII crime, Tudor conspiracy. When I do watch histfic it’s usually either written for the screen (The VVitch, Bomb Girls, The Americans) or adapted from a book I’ve not read (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the White Princess, Outlander [well, I read part of this but never finished]).

And I’m admittedly terrible about keeping up with TV series. I start many but seldom finish due to time and attention constraints.

That, and I have a kind of reservation about converting books to movies. Two different mediums require two very different approaches to the same story, which is where the desire to be accurate to the original collides with the need to make a textual story visually compelling. Sometimes it’s just best to leave it alone. So when pressed to come up with books that I think would make great viewing I have to strain.

Successful page to screen adaptations exist. I own all of the Sarah Waters tv miniseries: Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, Affinity.  Does the The Handmaiden [trailer, YouTube] count? It’s an adaptation of Fingersmith set in 1930s Korea.

Wolf Hall, because I enjoyed the court intrigue and Cromwell’s subtle machinations. And the costumes were pretty accurate too!

I wouldn’t mind seeing Waters’ The Little Stranger (post-WWII gothic horror) put on screen. Possibly Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network (women spies in both world wars).

Don’t even ask me who I’d cast for any of these. I can barely envision my own characters!

What historical fiction would you LOVE to see on screen?

the inevitable post

Because you can’t write about John Dee for very long without addressing the Voynich Manuscript, the “book nobody can read”.

page of medieval manuscript showing red and blue flowers and strange script
A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In an early draft of the novel I had Edward Kelley stumble across this strange tome in Mortlake’s library, but I ended up cutting that scene because Dee likely never owned it. Bursting further myths, he didn’t create it either – it’s carbon dated to the early 15th century, well over a hundred years before Dee’s time. Nonetheless as a mathematician and steganographer he certainly would have found it interesting. Hell, I find it interesting and I’m just an ordinary schlub.

The manuscript got its popular name from Wilfred Voynich, the bookseller who purchased it in 1912. Before that it passed through many hands and it’s origin is unclear. It currently resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and is available for viewing by appointment only (though they did loan it for an exhibit in DC, see below).

It has a bit of everything, from apparent star charts to plants to segmented pipes or containers to swimming naked ladies. And of course, lots of indecipherable text (available as a TrueType font, if you’re so inclined).

As such, speculation on what the text might be and by extension what the book is about runs rampant. CipherMysteries.com provides a rundown of the most popular theories, which include everything from blatant hoaxing to alien tech. Certainly it seems to have elements of astrology, herbals, and possibly alchemical recipe books (all those pipes), but doesn’t resemble any of these exclusively.

Decryption obsesses many – even the NSA (PDF) took a crack at it. In 2014 Stephan Bax at the University of Bedfordshire in England deciphered ten words for plants and an astrological sign. Just last week Gordon Rugg of the University of Keele declared it a hoax; other parties disagree.

I was fortunate enough to see the real deal when it was on display in the Folger Library’s Decoding the Renaissance exhibit. Somehow I thought the fuel for so much speculation would be bigger – it’s about the size of a modern hardcover novel. The vellum shows few erasures, so someone understood the strange text well enough to write it with few mistakes. The colors are still vivid even after ~600 years, but the illustrations seem hasty and awkward, particularly the human figures.

My own take is… I don’t know what to think. I’m no cryptographer so I’m not competent to judge the plausibility of the various theories (though I’m pretty sure aliens didn’t write it). If it’s a hoax it’s a good one to fascinate so many for so long. If it’s a code I have to wonder what the author(s) were hiding. In any case, someone went to a lot of time and trouble to create it. Again, the real story is about people and their motives and perceptions.

Current research and the upcoming publication of 898 “clone” manuscripts going for $8000 each (and a Yale University Press edition priced for us ordinary mortals) should keep the Voynich Manuscript in the news (well, the news I read) and send researchers down the rabbit hole for years to come. Me, I’ll just peruse Yale’s scans and consider the fiction fodder.

biweekly links 6-29-2016

Short one this week as I was out-of-town (wasn’t doing book research, but inadvertently found some anyway!) Enjoy:

The Fool card from the Rider Waite tarot deck
The Fool from the Rider-Waite tarot, courtesy Wikipedia.

historic fiction through a side door

I’m getting critiques back about the first 50 pages of my second draft. Responses are mostly positive: definitely still needs work but it’s evidently it’s a compelling read.

Most of my critique partners aren’t historical fiction enthusiasts so I find their input valuable re: possible cross-genre appeal. One even said that though she’s not a history buff she’d read my book for the alchemy and magic alone.

I never thought I read historical fiction as a child, at least in the “pure” Dorothy Dunnett/Philippa Gregory/Margaret George mold. I preferred “real history” (I cringe at my childhood snobbiness). But after this discussion it occurred to me: I was reading histfic all along. I just found it in other genres.

Take Anne Rice. I was a teenage goth so of course I read and reread her Vampire Chronicles and Mayfair Witches series. Rice typically falls on the horror/fantasy but Lestat and co. survive through pre-revolutionary France and antebellum New Orleans; the Mayfair family moves from England through to the Caribbean and thence to the New World over five centuries.

Anne Rice shelfie
My carefully preserved Anne Rice novels from yonks ago. Many hours spent in line to get them signed.

Octavia Butler’s Kindred also stuck with me. Time travel puts this sobering read squarely in the sci-fi box but Butler’s nuanced depiction of slavery in the American south suggests painstaking research of the type associated with the best historical fiction.

Kage Baker’s Company series goes everywhen: Tudor England (Baker taught Elizabethan English as a second language and it shows) to 17th century Spanish California to the 19th century old west and elsewhere…with time-traveling, historical-artifact-saving cyborgs.

More histfic with scifi/paranormal elements:

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series goes without saying.

Sarah Waters’ 19th century spiritualists in Affinity  and post-WWII haunted house in The Little Stranger

M. J. Rose’s Seduction is a fictional account of Victor Hugo’s seances in search of his daughter’s ghost. Witch of Painted Sorrows involves fin de siècle Parisian occultism and possession.

Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy has it all: witches, vampires, werewolves, and time travel

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold: John LeCarre-style Cold War spies…with witches

The Voynich Manuscript motivates the antagonist in Linda Lafferty’s The Bloodletter’s Daughter (and oh hey – someone over at CipherMysteries made up a huge list of novels revolving around Voynich)

Chelsea Quinn Harbor’s Saint Germain series – the vampire St. Germain through multiple time periods

Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series – mixes Victorian vampires and Jack the Ripper

The quality and success of all of these genre mash-ups reassure me that there’s a place for my hybrid WIP someday.

Please share your own favorites in the comments!

 

 

biweekly links 4-20-2016

scan of front page
Scan of Meric Casaubon’s “true and faithful account…of the Platonick philosophy” from Cornell’s Digital Witchcraft Collection

a few of my favorite things

Haven’t got much news this week. Rewrites continue with the odd bit of research, and I spent much of the past weekend on the fencing strip.

So I thought I’d share a few of the books I’ve been reading (and wanting to read):

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold – I find the episodic format of SerialBox’s offerings positively addictive, and this series has two things I love: Cold War spycraft and magic.

A Day of Fire and A Year of Ravens are both collaborative novels by the Historical Fiction Author’s Co-op and both take historical events where we know the outcome (Pompeii is destroyed, Boudicca is defeated) and still create so much tension that you can’t put them down. They do this with characters so skillfully drawn that you care passionately about their fates.

David Bowie Is – I’ve never been a diehard fan but I was always impressed by Bowie’s ability to re-invent himself over and over and over again. This catalog accompanied a V&A touring exhibit of his infinitely varied career. My main interest is, of course, the costumes.

Doreen Valiente: Witch, Pan’s Daughter: The Magical World of Rosaleen Norton, and Wormwood Star: The Magical Life of Marjorie Cameron – it seems most histories of 19th-early 20th century magick revolve around men: Crowley, Regardie, Parsons. Only in the past month have learned that women were also prominent in this tradition. I gather these names are familiar to modern pagans but they’re news to me and I look forward to reading these…later. Smells like a potential research rabbit hole I can ill afford right now!

What are your current/future/favorite reads?

biweekly links 3-23-2016

black and white photo of candles, talismans, ritual knives, a crystal ball, and a book with a pentagram inscribed in the cover
An altar with some of Doreen Valiente’s ritual objects. Courtesy the Doreen Valiente Foundation/Culture24

Early modern English Muslims, 20th century occult collections, and fin-de-siècle French Satanists for you: