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Srpski Film: A Vision of Hell

Gary McMahon

I thought about watching A Serbian Film for at least six weeks before actually deciding that I would do so. I knew what to expect – I’d read the blog posts and the reviews – and I wanted to make sure I was watching it for the right reasons. I also wanted to make sure that I really did want to see the film. There’s an old saying that goes something like this: You can’t unring a bell.

Nor can you unsee what you have seen.

Finally I decided that I did want to see the film. My reasons are simple and complex, deep and shallow – much like the film itself. Curiosity, of course, plays its part, and there’s also the urge to experience something that is supposed to be so extreme it gets very close to the edge: the edge of taste, the edge of reason, or just the edge of some kind of cinematic abyss. There’s also something about me – maybe a character flaw – that draws me to such extreme material.

Perhaps I was over-thinking this whole thing. In fact, I know I was. In the end, I just decided to take the plunge and view the thing.

A lot has been said about the content of the film, so I won’t bother with a detailed synopsis (there’s a blow-by-blow account of the plot on Wikipedia anyway, for anyone interested enough to look). No, instead I’ll talk about my personal reaction to the film.

The basic premise is that Milos, a retired porn star who is now a family man, is approached by an old colleague to get back into the business. One film – avant-garde porn – shot over four days, and a huge payday to ease his worries. His family needs the money, his lifestyle could do with the boost, and if he’s honest he’s missing the action. So he signs up for a film whose script he isn’t even allowed to see, a project overseen by a creepy criminal figure called Vukmir, who has a sketchy past.

As filming begins, things become stranger and stranger in a porn-fuelled through-the-rabbit-hole kind of way, and in the final act the film turns into a full-on apocalypse like nothing else I have ever witnessed on the screen.

In all honesty, the first hour of A Serbian Film is brilliant. It is tense, carefully paced, and the mounting sense of dread becomes palpable. I found myself sitting hunched before the screen, terrified of what I might or might not see when the extreme footage finally began. The production values are high, the acting is strong, and the lighting and sound are excellent. This looks like a film with a decent budget, something that someone on the darker fringes of Hollywood might make.

Then, exactly one hour into the film, the whole thing tips over the edge.

I won’t underplay this, nor will I stoop to hyperbole. But the final thirty minutes of this film are so extreme that during a couple of scenes it actually descends into absurdity. A lot has been made of certain moments (I think we all know which ones I mean), and, yes, they are as bad as you’re expecting. Possibly even worse. I wasn’t affected by what I saw quite as much as I’d expected, but I cannot possibly say these scenes aren’t degraded (and ultimately degrading) to watch. It would be a lie, and lying isn’t what I’m about – it’s not what this film is about either, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.

Many critics have scoffed at the claims of the filmmakers that part of their intention was that the film is a primal scream against the way past Serbian governments have treated their people, a cry of horror at some of the things that happened there during periods of violent conflict, civil unrest, corruption and ethnic tension. Personally, I believe them. For one thing, the title says it all; there are many allusions to Serbian culture and history in the dialogue; and the themes of the film are quite clearly rooted in that bloody history. A lot of this thematic stuff is lost on a foreign viewer, but enough of it is present that you can’t fail to notice the political subtext – even if you don’t fully understand it.

That first hour, with its slow accumulation of dread and a genuine sense of mounting horror, suggests to me that the people behind this film were trying to do more than simply shock us. It’s a shame, however, that all their hard work is then undermined by the carnage that follows. The film’s final act doesn’t exactly negate their claims, but it does become an exercise in crude exploitation. If they’d actually toned down the graphic nature of the visuals, even just a fraction, this could have been a truly great film rather than just a film with elements of greatness hidden deep within its excesses.

There’s a lot of stuff involving kids, including one scene I won’t even tell you about. This fact, coupled with the exploitative content of the explosive final act, makes me understand why so many people hate this film. But here’s the rub: the ideas presented are far more subversive and disturbing than the actual graphic depiction of them. What lingers, what resonates in my own mind long after I’ve watched the film, are those specific themes and ideas rather than the vulgar images depicting their realisation.

There’s a key scene early on, where Milos is sitting outside a coffee shop watching a family – a man, a woman, a child – as they enjoy a drink and a laugh together. There’s a sense that he’s already seen beneath the surface of this world– glimpsed underneath the sham of human relationships, and the surface brightness of a catalogue-styled life – and what he’s seen there is utter pointlessness, pure nihilism. Nothing matters; none of this happy family bullshit means a thing. All that counts is how much you can strip away from a person, and what they will become when the surface is torn away. How entertaining they will be as a victim.

It all ends on a note of total nihilism. In fact, A Serbian Film is the single most nihilistic movie I have ever seen. There’s no sense of hope or redemption anywhere, and every character is utterly, utterly damaged right from the start. Pure nihilism is hard to take, and, again, makes for a truly unsettling experience.

I can’t defend A Serbian Film, but I feel that I can’t condemn it either. It’s an uncomfortable mix of the brilliant and the profane; simultaneously clever and silly, serious and exploitative, artful and clumsy. I like and dislike the film at the same time. But it’s a film I admire. I’m glad I watched it, and it deserves to exist, but I would actively encourage others not to see it. You can’t unring a bell. You can’t unsee what you have seen. And you cannot get certain ideas out of your head once someone has so forcefully rammed them in there, as if with a bloodied erect penis.

(With thanks to Josh Pettey)

©Gary McMahon 2010

When Andy invited me to hi-jack (sorry, guest on) his blog by writing about filming my novel Winter Song (Angry Robot Books) I thought well, why ever not? I’d never thought about the actual filming of it since my expertise -and my passion- is words printed on extracts of dead trees. But we all of us have that visual strain running through our head when we read or write books. And besides, I’ve been doing a bit of scriptwriting in the last year, so maybe I ought to think more about aspects like location, casting, process, etc, etcetera.

Winter Song is unashamedly hard-core SF, with a big spaceship on the cover and aliens and plasma bolts to go alongside the sword-wielding, horse-riding sociopathic villain. At the start of Winter Song, Karl Allman is headed for home to his pregnant wife when he’s ambushed in a remote star-system. Karl crash-lands on an icy planet settled by Icelandic colonists who wanted to get back in touch with their Viking roots, including laws that forbade men from travelling without permission and the right to kill in self-defence. Karl defies the local chieftain and sets out in search of a legendary crashed spaceship…and on the way finds the answer to a secret that he didn’t even know existed, one that will change everything.

Let’s assume that I get the call one day from The Big Studio: they’ve got the budget, they can hire whoever they want, do whatever they want. Who would be my choice to make it? Where? And how?

How is easy enough; live action in the great outdoors, with CGI aliens and deep space battles and comet-riding.

The location’s equally easy to decide upon, since the country inspired the book; as we were driving round the country three years ago, a remote planet-sized version of Iceland took shape in my mind.

So we’ll just scoot over there for the external scenes, to where in Die Another Day, Bond drove the car across a glacier. That’s Eastern Iceland, and the rest of the country is as stunning in different ways, with fjords, black beaches whipped by winds from the South Pole, and wooded hills overlooking long lakes.

Given how important setting is to the story, it’s essential that the producer hires a director who feels the same way, and Ridley Scott is the arch-proponent of the use of light and setting to enhance theme. Most of the action takes place on the planet, but with Alien Scott showed that he could use SF-nal settings as well, so I’d have no concerns about the deep space scenes.

Casting is a little trickier; I didn’t really have an actor in mind when writing the novel, and those old enough to bring some weight to the part of Karl -the hero- probably aren’t muscular enough – so I might have to bring down Karl’s age, and go for either Clive Owen or Daniel Craig. Carolyn Dando, who played a relatively small part in The Lovely Bones would be well cast as Bera — like her role in The Lovely Bones, Bera is more of an ensemble piece rather than a grandstanding part, and it calls for someone both young and ballsy enough to carry it off.

The last but potentially the trickiest part is Ragnar, who could easily descend into a pop-eyed madman if played by someone like Brian Blessed. So instead, I think that the excellent Krister Henriksson, who plays the title role in the Swedish series Wallander, could do a brilliant job of playing the villainous local chief, intent on squeezing every advantage that he can from the situation and then when he is crossed, setting out for revenge.

But I’m sure that everyone who reads the book will have their own cast in mind. Feel free to drop by and share yours.

***

Colin Harvey

Books:

Winter Song – “A fascinating universe of want and plenitude” The Guardian

Displacement – “Properly SFnal. Huzzah!” Best SF Reviews
Future Bristol — “The future of British speculative fiction is secure.” The Fix

Short stories: ‘The Killing Streets,’ Interzone 225

http://www.colin-harvey.com

And with very great pleasure, I welcome Neal Asher to my site 🙂

‘If Gridlinked was turned into a film, who would you want to play Cormac?’ is a question I’m often asked, and slightly baffled by. Being a writer and therefore a font of all wisdom, I’m slightly averse to letting on that firstly I never thought about it till you asked, and secondly, I haven’t got a clue. Though I enjoy films I’m not sufficiently interested in them to know the names of anyone but some of the big stars, directors and producers. I certainly don’t know the names of the new young things who are on the rise and who are mentioned when the questioner gets to what he really wants: telling me who he thinks would be good in the part. Now, when asked that question and not having a long list to call on, I reply, ‘Maybe Keiffer Sutherland,’ because over the last three or four years I’ve overdosed on 24, and he seems a safe bet as a super-agent.

I don’t see the Cormac books turned into a hollywood type film because, let’s face it, how many modern SF books do you know of that have been turned into such a film? With what we see coming out of Hollywood an SF writer has to fulfill certain criteria, first and foremost of which is that he has to be dead. As Terry Pratchett has noted, and which is why his books are now being made into films for TV, if someone in Hollywood buys the option on one of your books that almost guarantees that you won’t see it up there on the screen. I’ve had a few nibbles, from a production company called Blue Train Entertainment, and from Fox, but they came to nothing. And I’m realistic enough to know that if any of my books had been bought then the sensible move is to take the money, say thank you very much, and thereafter forget about it all.

I have to add that I’m not being entirely honest here, since it’s not all doom and gloom on the film front for me. I have provided a load of material for the next Heavy Metal movie being hawked about by Tim Miller of Blur Studios and Kevin Eastman of Ninja Turtles fame. This also has heavyweights on board like Joe Haldeman, James Cameron, David Fincher, but still, I’ve heard nothing for a year now…

But y’know, I’d much prefer the Cormac books turned into some stonking big TV series for the SciFi channel. Something like Babylon Five with each of the five books using up say twelve episodes. After that succeeds, as of course it surely would, then maybe they would take the Spatterjay books and turn them into an even more lavish series, with excellent CGI sails (living creatures in those books) and Sniper’s drone shell going on display at SF conventions around the world. Thereafter, because of the huge success of it all, all the major Hollywood directors/producers will get in a bidding war to obtain the rights to the rest of my books. Speilberg will turn Cowl into a massive epic packed with CGI dinosaurs and a superb depiction of New London poised over the face of the sun. Cameron will receive awards for the space battles in Hilldiggers and Ridley Scott will employ H. R. Giger to design the hooders and gabbleducks in The Technician.

Then I woke up and it was time to write another book.

Would I want those guys getting their hands on my stuff? Yeah, the money would be rather nice, but really I’d want to know that whoever is in charge has some sort of idea about what they’re dealing with. Remember all those years ago the first book of The Lord of the Rings being turned into an animated film? Then the financial decision not to do the next two films? I thought I would never see a decent production of those books, then along came Peter Jackson. There he was, a complete anorak and fanboy, an enthusiast, someone who had read and enjoyed those books and wanted to do them justice. And he did. I’d want someone like him in charge, someone who gets it, an SF reader, a fanboy, an unashamed drooler over exploding spaceships and flesh-eating aliens.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep plugging away at a keyboard. Somewhere out there, I reckon, my very own Peter Jackson is worming his way up through the film world, whilst avidly reading my books. I hope he gets to the top some time before I hear that big skeletal bugger sharpening his scythe.

Everything I write is driven by music. If I ever picture one of my books made into a movie then I always think in terms of the soundtrack first. Some authors claim it’s essential to write in absolute silence. I say I’d rather floss with navel fluff from the belly of Beelzebub. Much of my work focuses on action adventure – the clash of clockwork, steam-spurting road titans, martial arts, death races, the pulsing groin-sweat of the rock club…Take away music and my characters may as well don twin set and pearls, cross their ankles and have tea with the vicar.

Music is the tequila shot that wide-eyes me in the morning. It comes with a chaser of adrenaline that puts me in that type-fast-think-faster zone. I defy anyone to listen to Metallica’s ‘Fuel’ and keep their brain still – it’s a writhing, oil-slicked ball lightning of cars, fists, flames, and speed demonry. There’s no room for writer’s block when the music urges you on with every chugging riff and smack of the drum skin. The only option is to turn on, tune in, drop out.

The music link is explicit in my novel, Tourniquet, the plot focusing on a revered rock band and the notion of the alternative scene taking over a future Nottingham. It is subtler but no less essential to Autodrome, my young adult action adventure novel. With its population of motor sport enthusiasts, promoters, grease monkeys and drivers, life in the steam and gas powered metropolis of Autodrome is all about the race. It also features a series of notorious outer boroughs called the Eras. So while Tourniquet is crafted in the image of Marilyn Manson, HIM, Rob Zombie, Rammstein and their ilk, Autodrome has a vintage edge – Elvis and Billie Holiday mixed with contemporary rockabilly from Vince Ray and The Razorbacks and Imelda May, and some big old daubs of dirty seventies rock for good measure.

Music. For me, it’s the red stuff that feeds the veins of a novel. It’s sticky, alive, and coats and coagulates the words into something representative of the mess of images inside my head. Everything I’ve ever written has its own soundtrack. In fact, if I ever realise that quintessential writer’s dream of seeing a book of mine made into a movie, I suspect the background music will be as important to me as any visual rendering of my outpourings.

The sound of silence? Not for this Voodoo Child.

http://www.kimlakin-smith.com
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Don’t go the cinema! 

They’re destroying your favourite books there!  Constantine, From Hell, and Gods, what have they done to the poor League of Extraordinary Gentlemen!?  And that’s just the graphic novels.  Mr. Moore, the crimes committed against your literature pale in comparison to the crimes committed again Philip K. Dick: for every Blade Runner a Total Recall, for every Through A Scanner Darkly a Paycheck (John Woo, why hast thou forsaken us?)  The cinema is destroying genre fiction.  It’s probably best to burn them all.

Except.  I suspect I could find someone who liked Total Recall, though I hope I would have to look harder to find someone who liked Paycheck (or at least liked Paycheck and didn’t have some kind of vendetta again old Horselover Fat) and if I’m honest the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film seemed like average Hollywood fare to me.  The script was dreadful but the set pieces were alright, though symptomatic of Hollywood’s increasingly cavalier attitude to physics.  I actually quite liked the design though, like most Steampunk, too clean for my tastes (but that’s a rant for another day).  See the thing is I’ve not read the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so I’ve got less invested in it.  I will however get round to reading it and my righteous indignation at the dreadful adaptation of it will be felt the length and breadth of Britain wherever geeks, like myself, gather to whinge about how Hollywood have screwed up another good book or comic.

But what are we actually complaining about?  When we say “they’ve” done it badly, what we mean is: it’s not how we would have done it.  But what we actually mean is that what we are seeing on the screen is not how we imagined it to be in the cinemas in our head.  The director had a different vision to us and a studio has probably interfered with it to make it more “commercial”.  The dastards!  In many ways the most heartbreaking thing is it’s no longer just for us.  It can’t be just for us, there are not enough of us.  Now it’s for everyone and that means change.

So don’t go to the cinema.

I have a friend.  This friend was named for a character in Lord of the Rings.  We will call this friend Bombadil.  As you can imagine school was hard for Bombadil (okay I admit it, my friend’s name isn’t really Bombadil, nobody hates their children that much) but they are named for one of the characters in the book, my friend had hippy parents).  As you can imagine Lord of the Rings is an important book to my friend.  My friend has never seen the films.  The book is so important to their life and, to a degree, their identity, that they didn’t want it messed with by anyone else’s interpretation other than their own.  Extreme?  Perhaps, but do you see Harrison Ford when you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Do you see Daniel Radcliffe when you read Harry Potter or Liv Tyler when you read Lord of the Rings?    There’s no doubt about it – a film adaptation plays with your perception of the original book.

So don’t go to the cinema.

But of course we will and we’ll get angry and we’ll write about it in blogs and talk about it at conventions and stalk the director of the film with pain in our hearts and a gun in our hands (okay don’t do that, well, maybe if the director’s Michael Winner. If nothing else it will be ironic).  Besides film adaptations aren’t all bad, some are even better than the books.  The Crow, Once Were Warriors, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (though they will hang you in Savannah, Georgia for suggesting this), Lord of the Rings (sorry Bombadil) and I like my alien psychic death squid as much as the next man but the film ending of Watchman is more elegant.  Or maybe, with the exception of Watchmen and LOTR, I just came to the above books through the films so I already had film interference in the cinema in my head when I read them.

My debut novel Veteran would make a kick arse film that you would all want to see if it were made my way.  I know who I would like to see cast in all the principle rolls.  I know who I would like to direct it.  (I’ll give you a clue it’s a director who has a talent for making the fantastical look plausible.  If you think you know who it is from that vague description then drop me an e-mail, the address is on my site, and I’ll send the first correct answer a signed copy of Veteran.  Only one guess each mind.)  However, the only way to make sure that the film was made exactly how I wanted to see it would be to finance and direct it myself and I suspect I would then struggle to get distribution.  (Not to mention I wouldn’t want to direct it and if I could afford to finance it I’d probably do something else with my money.  Something productive.  Like start my own freaky sex cult on an island in the pacific close to good dive sites.  Thank goodness I didn’t admit that publicly, phew!)

A bit of background:  I love film, my educational background is in film and I have worked on the periphery of the, mainly low budget, film industry for many years.  Mostly as a dog’s body or a pyrotechnician.  I have also sold the options to three of my feature length scripts, though nothing has been made yet, unless you count the odd promotional video; and it was an odd promotional video.

My opinion is, and at the end of the day that’s all any of our vehement dislikes are, that I can only be so precious about an adaptation or a script after I have sold the rights.  I will give my opinion on things if asked but it becomes the filmmaker’s story in their hands and then it becomes the audience’s story if/when they see it.  This is not to say I don’t value what I have written, just that you have to divorce yourself from it to a degree if you’re prepared to sell the rights; if for no other reason than emotional protection when you see this thing that you’ve worked so hard over, probably have a love/hate relationship with already, turned into something that you don’t like.  (In defence of Alan Moore I don’t think he had control of the rights at the time any of them were sold to film companies, so he’s got a legitimate grievance.)

So if Veteran were made into a film (and there is a reasonable amount of interest) I would probably try and influence the process as much as I could, depending on the deal, to get it made the way I see it because you have to fight for your own creations.  That influence, at best, would be an opinion or advice in the role of executive producer.  More likely I’d have nothing to do with it and I’d be lucky to get invited to the premier.

If I don’t like the final result then there’s only so much I can complain about because I chose to sell it.  Of course if this actually happens I will fully turn hypocrite and rail mightily to all who will listen to me in the pub.

Still it couldn’t be worse than Paycheck and it might be a whole new way of looking at Veteran that I’d never considered.  For example Veteran the musical!

So go to the cinema because there’s a lot of good stuff on, and some of the stuff that’s not so good is still quite entertaining.  But if you love the book then remember you can always do something else that night (stay in and read Veteran for example) because Hollywood can’t get to the cinema in your head unless you let them.

I would just like to say thanks to Andy for giving me this chance to rant, much appreciated.

Thanks to Sonia Gibbon for looking over the article.  Mistakes remain mine own.

www.gavingsmith.co.uk

One-Star Reviews

This is intended to be neither a rant nor a whinge, and mine host Andy, in the guise of his anagrammatic ninja alter ego Mr Cyanide, has strict instructions to kung fu me in the head of it looks in danger of turning into one or the other. 

[Mr Cyanide: starts limbering up in the corner, running through his kata exercises.]

My topic today is one-star reviews on Amazon – the giving and getting of them and the appropriate response to them.

Because, folks, sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – these reviews are considered, thoughtful, well written and cogently argued, and for that reason they sting but not as badly as they otherwise might.  As an author you find yourself thinking, “Well, that person didn’t much like my book but at least they understood why they didn’t and they were able to take the view that, while the book didn’t appeal to them, it still might to someone else.”

In other words, they appreciate that authors are human beings, people with feelings.

Then there are the other kind of one-star reviews, less rare.  You know the ones.  Where someone sets out to destroy utterly the book they’ve just read.  Where it isn’t enough to say they felt it was poor – they have to trash the author him/herself and heap abuse on the wretched tome in the snidiest, sneeringest manner possible until it shrivels into a weeping little ball.

Let’s get one thing straight.  Those aren’t reviews.  They’re character assassinations.

[Mr Cyanide: “Steady.”  Robes himself in black combat gi.]

It’s true.  They are.  Many a time they impute dubious motives to the author, hinting that he or she may be deviant in some way.  They make the schoolboy error of associating the author directly with things his/her characters do or say (“There’s a rape scene so, hmmm, the guy must be a rapist”).  They express how personally offended their writer was by the perceived badness of the book.

This kind of review has no intrinsic value, other than the venting of spleen.  Yet it potentially has a harmful effect on the book’s sales.  It lowers the over-all star rating and thus makes the book seem less worthy of the attention of someone casually browsing the site.

It’s that old internet conundrum about power and no responsibility.  Anonymous or semi-anonymous, these reviewers can say what they like without fear of being called to account for their actions.  They can post remarks which they wouldn’t dare put directly to an author’s face.

[Mr Cyanide: “Certainly not mine.”  Cracks knuckles menacingly.]

I speak as one who has for many years earned part of his living as a professional, paid reviewer, with a proper byline and that.  I admit I may have dissed books in the past, but hopefully in as constructive a fashion as possible.  These days, however, I’m altogether a mellower, more middle-aged sort, and when I come across a book I don’t like, I adopt one of two tactics.  I either state as clearly as I can why the book doesn’t work and praise any good points it has, or, more usually, I ignore it altogether, damning it by exclusion.

I’m prepared to face the music if, somehow, I offend an author.  They know where to find me (online).

The same can’t be said for the Amazon-haunting nitwits who freely and heatedly fling their poo around.

One should rise above their prattling, of course.  One should remain loftily immune.  After all, many people continue to buy and enjoy one’s books.  That’s why one still has a career.  What does the inane gibbering of a handful of pigshit-thick ignoramuses matter?

[Mr Cyanide: “Almost a rant and a whinge.  Keep it reined in, Lovegrove.”]

Yes, sorry.  As I was saying, what do a few barbed, dismissive comments matter?  Precious little, in the grand scheme of things.  And in the event that the content of an Amazon review is libellous, defamatory or otherwise actionable, my understanding is that you can ask to have it taken down and Amazon will almost always oblige.

However, it’s better by and large to leave the one-star reviews in place, however hurtful they are.  For one thing, if you’ve annoyed someone that much, maybe you’re actually doing something right.  Art isn’t about pleasing everybody.  Some would aver that it’s about the opposite.  Provocation is as worthwhile as, if not more so than, mere entertainment.

Also, if you can demonstrate that you’re unaffected by the invective, then that negates it, doesn’t it?  If you don’t rise to the taunts, the bullies don’t and can’t win.

In closing, I offer this (courtesy of Mark Chadbourn, though other similar sites are available).  It shows that even literature’s great and mighty aren’t safe from the haters.

Mind you, it’s all right for those authors.  They’re dead.

Lucky sods.

[Mr Cyanide: “Right.  That’s it.  Hai-yahhh!”]

Ouch.

– James Lovegrove

+++

Can I just add, I came across an Amazon 1 star review of the wonderful Mr Iain Banks’ Transition, a vehement attack written by a lady who’d “flicked through it in a book shop”. What?? Crazeeee?? — Thankfully, said offending article has since been removed (hopefully, followed by said offending ladeee).

– Andy Remic

Your Book Would Make a Great Movie! (And Why I Know It Wouldn’t)

My first novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, came out back in 2003. It was released by the now defunct publisher Phobos Books, run by people who had a background in the film industry. I went to the release party on the roof of a trendy Soho apartment building in NYC and literally felt like I was on top of the world. A very common compliment given to me that night was, “Your book would make a great movie!” I probably heard it a dozen times that evening. I’ve since gone on to publish three more novels (Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed) and with the release of each one, I’m approached by well-meaning fans who ask, “When’s the movie coming out?”

My normal response is to smile and thank people for their compliment. I know that they intend their words as praise. But, deep down, even at that first launch party, I’ve always felt the sting of an unintended insult. No longer is writing a novel considered to be an artistic achievement with its own inherent value. Now, writing a novel is merely the first step toward the higher goal of having your story turned into a movie.

This is hardly a new development. Books have been adapted into films since the earliest days of the genre. Conan Doyle published The Lost World in 1912 and in 1925 it became one of the earliest special effects blockbusters. There was a time when movies adapted novels because film was still considered a low-brow art form, and they could gain a bit of intellectual respectability by associating themselves with the more noble art of books.

But, at some point, the question of intellectual respectability became moot in the face of a much more obvious truth: Movies could rake in money that book publishing can only dream of. Many books are considered successful if they sell in the tens of thousands. Sell a hundred thousand copies of a book, and you’ve got a best-seller. On the other hand, if your novel gets adapted into a successful movie, tens of millions of people can wind up viewing it. And, there will be a spillover to sales of the actual book. If you care about having your work reach the widest possible audience, there’s little doubt that a movie release will connect you to new readers. Television and radio talk shows that would never invite on an author to discuss his or her latest work will gladly feature an author who’s there to talk about a book that’s soon to be released as a movie. No author can afford to turn down a promotional opportunity like this.

That said, there’s something kind of sad about the current state of affairs. Original works of art aren’t considered complete until the film has been made. Alan Moore’s Watchmen wasn’t even fully released back in the 80’s before I heard fans talking about how great the movie was going to be. And, after cringe inducing adaptations of Moore’s concepts like Hellblazer, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that the Watchmen movie was relatively faithful to its source material. But, watching the film, I felt pangs of guilt. Moore hadn’t set out to write a great movie. He’d set out to write a great comic book, and succeeded. But we live in a world where it’s not enough of an accomplishment to write what some would argue is the best comic book of all time. You haven’t reached the apex of fame, wealth, and respectability until your story has hit the big screen.

Since none of my books have been adapted to film, I suppose I can be accused of crying sour grapes. So, let me admit outright that if I were offered any sum of money for the movie rights to my books, I would cash the check without the least twinge of guilt. But, also let me state that if I were interested in writing movies, I’m certain I have the necessary story-telling skills and could master the mechanics of writing scripts with a practice. The same is true of comic books: Nobody Gets the Girl was a novel about superheroes, and early on people have been telling me it would make a great comic book. Maybe, but I didn’t set out to write a comic book. I chose to write a novel because I think there are still truths of the human condition that are best conveyed via prose fiction. Films (and comic books) are visual mediums, where the story is conveyed primarily through pictures. Novels, on the other hand, are an art form that comes hauntingly close to telepathy. I’m placing thoughts rather nakedly onto the page, and another human being is able to come along and fill her head with these thoughts. Good writing is said to invoke the senses, and I do strive to fill my works with sights, sounds, and scents, but in truth good writing leap frogs right over the physical senses to engage the mind directly. In a movie, you can watch people on screen as they laugh and cry and eat and make love. With a book, you can, for a moment, become the person doing these things.

There’s an intimacy, a connection between the author and the reader, that no other medium can accomplish. I have my favorite films like anyone, but the greatest moments of artistic connection I’ve ever felt have come from reading. I didn’t just watch Winston being torn apart by Big Brother, I lived it. I didn’t just listen to Huck Finn explaining why he’d choose damnation over betraying his friend Jim; I was there inside his soul, feeling the full weight of the consequences. These were moments of connection for me, moments when I felt like I’d been freed from the prison of my own self to catch a glimpse of the world through another person’s eyes. These are the moments I’m striving to create every time I sit down to write another novel or short story. I can’t imagine even the most faithful adaptation of my work to the big screen ever achieving this.

Of course, maybe I’ve got a distorted picture of the world, living here in a small town in the American South. Maybe out in Hollywood, screen writers, directors and actors feel a certain sting as they come out of their movie premiers and fans walk up, shake their hands, and say, “What a wonderful film! Maybe one day they’ll make a novel out of it.”

So I made my biannual appearance at the DVLA office today. Got stung to the tune of seventy quid, all for the pleasure of using their highways every once in a while (I’m a fan of public transport. I write a lot in the train, but that’s another blogpost).  I mean, isn’t thirty-three percent of my meagre artist wages enough for these people? Or the rates I pay on my house, the VAT on my store receipts? Dick Turpin wore a mask. Adam Ant had a catchy lyric. DVLA have printed tickets with numbers and a robotic Englishman reciting the same invitation over and over and mutha-feckin’ over again (Could ticket number four million and one please got to counter number…).

Is this why I write apocalyptic horror?

Is this why you read it?

Probably not. Mind you, for all its drawbacks (of which I admit there are many) an apocalypse certainly frees us from bureaucracy. At least in the short-term. In fact, an apocalypse in its most severe sense presses RESET on any admin we do or have done to us, whether it’s our bank accounts, car loans or tax records. In the event of that pesky asteroid shower, plague of zombies or nuclear meltdown, you can be pretty damn sure you’ll never need to worry about whether the car you’ve jacked is MOT compliant or not.

I write about the apocalypse because it brings our humanity to the boil. It looks at how we measure up, for better as well as for worse. The characters in my stories are often ordinary everyday people who find themselves, first and foremost, cowering in the shadows when the doop-doop hits the fan. There’s no square-jawed heroics, that’s for sure.

But it’s not all bad. There were a few smiles in the DVLA office: the usual witty exchange with the security guard (a sense of humour must be essential criteria for his job), two old fellows sharing a warm handshake, having run into each other for the first time in years, a baby playing ga-ga with its mother. And the same would be true of an apocalypse: stripped of all the admin, all the programming which dulls our senses or those little nerve endings, those little sparks in our brains that differentiate PLEASURE from PAIN, someone might surprise us. Someone might place greater value in the simple pleasures of life: a can of beer, a packet of smokes, a quick fumble in the hay. A kiss.  A touch. Words we really needed to hear. Tenderness we never thought them capable of.        

Bah.

All that from paying car tax. I should really just dry my eyes.       

(Wayne’s apocalyptic horror, FLU is available now from all good book stores. Visit Wayne online at http://www.waynesimmons.org) .             

Thick skins (as opposed to heads) are as essential in this business as the acceptance that editors are an enigma (and I should know – in my spare time I am one).  I remember one prominent editor for a significant British SF magazine rejecting a story of mine on the basis that he didn’t consider it to be a story at all but rather a script for a TV drama.  The piece, “The Gift of Joy”, promptly sold elsewhere and was subsequently shortlisted for the BSFA Award for best short story.  No doubt about it, the thin margin between success and rejection is all down to perception and personal taste.

On reflection, maybe that editor (a tall, long-haired fellow with a prominent Dutch accent) had a point.  I mean, take my novel, The Noise Within.  I had great fun writing it and was able to throw in all sorts of things – intelligent guns, special ops raids, shimmer suits, AI/human gestalt, renegade spaceships, alien technology, assassin drones, a virtual bar where assassinations are touted on a message board, an exotic pleasure world where drugs hold sway… Yet, when it came to the really BIG scenes – space battles, shoot outs, car chase, mad dash through the crowded thoroughfares of a space station, etc – my imagination would forever picture them in cinematic detail, as if portrayed in Technicolor on the big screen (we’re not talking straight to DVD here). 

Maybe that’s why I envy that so-and-so Andy Remic (‘bastard’ seems far too harsh a word bearing in mind the circumstances).  I mean, not only is he a congenial, charming fellow who writes stonkingly good hang-onto-your-pants action-packed novels, he gets to play around with cameras as well. 

I’ve seen his clever films and trailers for novels and thought, “hey, I could have a go at that!”  But the truth is I couldn’t, because I wouldn’t know where to begin and don’t have the time or inclination to start learning the necessary skills right now.  Besides, I wouldn’t be happy unless I could try such a thing with a Hollywood studio and Cameron-esque budget to call upon (we’re talking the producer here as opposed to the politician).

So for now I’ll have to settle for offering green-tinged smiles as Andy’s filmic ventures grow ever more ambitious and skilled and be content with doing my damnedest to ensure that the images I paint in words are as vivid as I can make them.  If the characters are as real and the action scenes as clear to the reader as they are to me… yeah, I can live with that.

If you’re curious, check out reviews for the book here (written by folk I’ve never met… honest!):

http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2010/04/noise-within-by-ian-whates-reviewed-by.html

http://speculativebookreview.blogspot.com/2010/06/review-noise-within-by-ian-whates.html

I forget where we were.  Drinking our faces off down in Newcastle, perhaps, or hunting mutant sharks in the irradiated remnants of the North Atlantic.  Or maybe it was the time we spent stuck in orbit around that dirtball of a planet.  At any rate, Andy looked at me blearily, and said, you know man, there are only so many military SF writers operating at our levels of elite megaviolence, and we gotta make sure we stick together.  I couldn’t disagree. . .and yet there was a weird gleam in his eye that was making me nervous.  Was he having a flashback to his days back in that bug-infested jungle?  Or had he mistaken me for an infiltration droid?  Go on, I said, feigning nonchalance while reaching slowly for my heavy-duty needler-pistol…

That’s when he explained that he wanted me to do a guest-post on his blog.

Well, shit, I replied. . . why not?  I mean, Andy’s Combat-K novels were the only way I was able to stay sane while writing my Autumn Rain trilogy.  And now that the third novel of that trilogy—THE MACHINERY OF LIGHT –is about to hit bookstores courtesy of Bantam Spectra, I’m salivating to make inroads on Andy’s legions of battle-crazed fans.  And what better way to do so than by telling them that while Andy’s busy slashing his way through the coolest and most intense dark fantasy this side of a bad acid-trip, those of you who couldn’t get enough of the Combat-K universe are hereby invited to step into the world of Autumn Rain, where you’ll find maglev train chases beneath the Atlantic, space elevators being nuked, powered-armor duels at the lunar south pole, and O’Neill cylinders getting the atmosphere pumped out of them by terrorists so savage they make Al-Qaeda look like the Teletubbies.  Not to mention a beautiful cyborg-supercomputer named Claire Haskell whose hacked memories may hold the key to saving the world from a whole new level of hurt …

There’s a trailer for THE MACHINERY OF LIGHT here, but you may as well kick things off with first book THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, and find all about how that space elevator gets torched.  Plus I’ve got a shit-ton of cool art, maps and hardware specs on my website at www.autumnrain2110.com

So check it out.  Now if you’ll excuse me, Andy and I need to reload and do something about that thing that’s climbing toward us up the goddamn wall…