Book vs. TV: THE RETURNED Conundrum

17182421What if your dead loved ones returned to your life? Such is the premise of Jason Mott’s The Returned, inspired by a dream he had of his mother. Throughout the world, people—or whatever they are—reappear, causing global strife. Where they return and which dead ones return appears random, and leaves even more questions for the newly created International Bureau of the Returned.

The story opens itself up to all aspects of supernatural/sci-fi storytelling. Undead people, mysterious circumstances—Stephen King could knock out a 1,000-page book about it, easily. But Mott’s novel does not concern itself so much with uncovering the facts of these bizarre aspects and, instead, focuses on how it affects the small town of Arcadia and the quiet lives of the people therein.

The novel’s main perspective jumps between the aging Hargraves. Harold and Lucille lost their son Jacob about 50 years ago, and when he appears on their doorstep—thanks to Bureau Agent Bellamy—neither of them knows what to make of it. As the Returned’s presence sparks strife throughout the world, the Hargraves try to reconcile what Jacob’s return means to them. But circumstances grow increasingly dangerous as Arcadia reacts to being invaded by both the Returned and the government.

If this story sounds familiar, then you may have been one of the few viewers of ABC’s recent drama Resurrection. That show was adapted from Mott’s novel, expanding his world of characters to better suit a TV series. And, in fact, the series improves upon Mott’s novel (perhaps thanks to his consultation on the show?), with characters actively seeking answers to the riddles of the Returned.

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While the show (at least for now) lacks some of the global expansiveness of the novel, it is far easier to get drawn into its world. Mott’s writing has a slow, contemplative pace that is punctuated far too frequently with Southern colloquialisms. You practically hear a Southern drawl as you read his words. The series matches the contemplative, slow boil storytelling but foregoes most of that treacly Southern charm which grates the reader in the novel.

The Returned and Resurrection address thoughtful issues of religion and human rights and do so in a tactful, grounded way. But Mott’s novel never seems to quite get to where it needs to be, distractingly lacking a certain verve (my mind strayed far too often when reading it). But Resurrection excels at improving upon its source material and creating an urgency in its storytelling. Blessedly, it’s been renewed for a second season, which gives you about a year to breeze through the series’ first eight episodes.

 

Sidebar: How Enraptured Are We with the Rapture?

TheReturned_CompleteIf the title The Returned sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve been too busy watching the French series The Returned (aka Les Revenants), which also deals with dead people returning to their homes. The series’ existence necessitated the title change for the TV series adapted from Mott’s novel, even though the title The Returned was perfect for it. And, in case that isn’t enough, A&E is adapting the French Returned (which has aired in the US on the Sundance channel) into an American series, also titled The Returned—in a frightening trend of adapting perfectly delightful international series into American ones (even if all that’s changed is the name of the city and everyone’s accents—I’m looking at you Broadchurch/Gracepoint).

left-behind-bookBut all this Returned business is punctuated by the increase in the opposite premise occurring as well. The Leftovers, one of HBO’s summer shows (based on Tom Perrotta’s novel), focuses on the lives of those left behind after a significant (and random) chunk of the population up and disappears. While that lacks the religiosity of the Rapture, Nicolas Cage is starring in a mainstream reboot of the highly Christian (and highly addictive) Left Behind novels.

Someone seems to think audiences are currently captivated by the Afterlife—in one way or another—but how much of this can we really handle before it becomes passé? (And whom do you despise more: Nicolas Cage or Kirk Cameron, who originated the role that Cage is taking on?)

Short Stories: The Best (And Least) of THE BEST AMERICAN NONREQUIRED READING 2011.

517cPqAMibLEvery year The Best American Series publishes a group of books anthologizing short fiction in every form of genre. While delving into the year’s best short fiction or short mysteries is always a treat, The Best American Nonrequired Reading always provides the most interesting gems of writing from the year. Below I chronicle some the best of the best (and the least of the best) of 2011’s nonrequired reading.
• The “Best American Profile of an International Pop Star” was Gary Shteyngart’s GQ profile of M.I.A. The 7,000-word article gives intriguing insight into her personal life while also giving the reader context for her music. While you may not have thought about her much recently (except for that weekend when “Paper Planes” was playing everywhere), this piece will have you trying to get your hands on any of her albums.
• That isn’t the only profile that paints a fascinating portrait of a real person. Chris Jones’ Esquire piece “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” tells the melancholy story of Ebert’s last years alive. His impact on film criticism is undeniable, and Jones gives us a glimpse of how Ebert approached it while also depicting his heartbreaking battle with cancer.
• Clare Beams’ “We Show What We Have Learned” (from Hayden’s Ferry Review) takes a simple story about an elementary teacher and her students and turns it on its head. To say more would ruin the surprise, but it’s a story that uses its language in a playful way.
• A story that is equally playful but far more insufferable is Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” (taken from Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine). The story is taken from a “Confidential Police File” and only contains the written responses of the subject’s response to the investigator’s questionnaire (leaving you to guess what the question was in the first place). It’s a story steeped in magic realism, and will undoubtedly please any fan of Gaiman. However, this story (my third time reading something written by him) officially made me give up on ever liking him as a writer.
• “Solitude and Leadership” is taken from The American Scholar and is a speech originally delivered by William Deresiewicz to a plebe class at West Point. It’s a speech that will connect with anyone going through a job transition or feeling frustrated with promotions at work, among other situations, as Deresiewicz lays out what kind of people become leaders.
• Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Hole in the Head” (from The Kenyon Review) is a meandering thriller about cosmetic surgery. It’s notable not only for its author but also because it’s a captivating story. Yet, when it was over, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. There were so many directions the story could have gone that I felt cheated when it didn’t address them. But then again, maybe that’s what really good short fiction is all about?
• Another story that could have gone in many fascinating directions but didn’t is “Pleiades” by Anjali Sachdeva (from Gulf Coast). It briefly chronicles the life of a girl who was born as a septuplet as an experiment by geneticist parents. There could instantly be a TV show born out of that idea (and might resemble Orphan Black) but Sachdeva merely hones in on just a few moments while telling this bittersweet tale.

There are, of course, far more short pieces of fiction and nonfiction alike dispersed throughout this book (as well as a list of notable pieces that didn’t quite make the cut, leading to infinitely more reading). I encourage you to pick up the book and explore it for yourself. You never know what story might inspire you.

PIPPIN Continues to Deliver Magic to All

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They’ve got magic to do, just for you. In the newest revival of Pippin, all the world’s a circus stage, populated by the limber and attractive acrobatic Players. The Lead Player (Patina Miller) addresses the audience, readying us for the story of Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), the son of Charlemagne (Terrence Mann), and his quest to find his purpose. It’s a magical coming of age journey set to 1970s music with a 9th century backdrop.
Pippin’s quest for purpose and fulfillment takes him from joining Charlemagne’s army to a sexual orgy to a simple life in the country. Each episode proves to be unsatisfying, but his journey, narrated and coached by the Lead Player, is building towards one final, ultimate act. But the Lead Player’s role in Pippin’s life proves to be just as nefarious as the power hungry family he’s surrounded by.
photo-07Interwoven in the story are dance numbers and magic illusions performed by the Players (reminiscent of the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret and the musical numbers in the film version of Chicago). With an ensemble cast of trained circus performers and skilled acrobats, their impressive choreography and tricks appear effortless on stage. This only adds to the magic of the world of Pippin, making the show a truly unforgettable theatre-going experience.
It’s a solid and successful musical with lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked). He presents a life lesson in the story of Pippin about how the quest for an extraordinary life may be ultimately unfulfilling. And, in this 2013 revival—directed by Diane Paulus—the final act of Pippin does feel unfulfilling.
The number one reason for this is the insertion of an intermission into the middle of the musical. Pippin is written as a one-act musical, and interrupting the story with an intermission kills a lot of the story’s momentum. But, as the Lead Player tells us in the revival of the show, the intermission is included because audience attention spans have shortened over time (a factor that Martin Scorsese didn’t factor into his 3-hour Quaalude opus Wolf of Wall Street). So, essentially, we only have ourselves to blame for the interruption in the story’s flow.
But even I could get past that, if it weren’t for the lackluster material provided in the second act. The magic of act one vanishes as a desolate Pippin wallows in an ordinary life. The lesson here works well for the story’s arc, but it feels that too much time is spent developing the inevitable character changes that occur (and one can only handle Pippin almost walking off-stage so many times).
photo-04Yet, what makes this act really flounder is Catherine. Played by Rachel Bay Jones with a squeaky voice, her chemistry with Pippin and her role in his life feel false and uninspired. (What’s the deal with all these squeaky love interests in musicals right now? Wasn’t Annaleigh Ashford’s nasally Lauren enough of a novelty in Kinky Boots?) It’s hard enough to buy them as a couple, much less believe her motivations when she clashes with the Lead Player’s directions. With this core story point falling flat, the rest of the musical flails in its attempts to teach a life lesson through Pippin—even with the altered ending from the original.
These quibbles aside, Pippin is still an extraordinary experience. It marvels everyone from frequent theatregoers to those newly initiated in the world of musical theatre. Many of Schwartz’s songs can stand alone, but all of the music blends well into the story (even if the 70s style feels hokey today). The inherent sexuality of the show, expressed both subtly and starkly, gives a modern edge to the show (along with some updated moments that resonate with today’s audiences). This is a show that I would love to go back and see over and over again (especially if I could get a behind the scenes look at the intricate backstage workings of the show).

Check out the casts’ performance at the Tonys for a true taste of the magic Pippin has to offer:

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