Autodidact: self-taught


Higher Learning

by V. L. Craven

Higher Learning

Malik (Omar Epps) is a young, black, incoming freshman track star. A little cocky–all right, more than a little.

Kristen (Kristy Swanson) is a white, naive freshman with no clue who she is or what she wants.

Remy (Michael Rappaport) is also white and a freshman but he’s odd. A loner. He can’t seem to fit in anywhere.

Out of their hometowns for the first time in their lives–and for some of them, having to deal with people who aren’t the same race, for the first time as well–they scramble to make sense of the new world they’re meant to fit in to.

Malik ends up with a group of guys led by Ice Cube (another guy in the group is Busta Rhymes). Some of their scenes are excellent examples of the way racism is alive and well (the film is twenty years old, but it remains accurate) on campuses. Malik also begins romancing Deja (Tyra Banks).

Kristen starts off hanging out with two friends from back home but after a traumatic experience she finds solace and solidarity with Taryn (Jennifer Connelly).

Then there’s Remy. Remy’s the sort of person the average human gets the urge to inch away from so of course the campus skinheads think he’s just swell and the feeling is mutual.

All of these characters; stories collide in one way or another and no one comes out untouched by the repercussions.

One of the professors is played by Laurence Fishburne and, in case I need to say it, he’s amazing.

John Singleton knows how to handle an ensemble cast and tell several stories at once whilst making a larger point.

I was reminded of this film after watching Dear White People last week. Mostly because the average film about American university life is about parties and hooking up and other things I could not care less about. Just in case you were wondering why this one seemed to be getting dragged out of the mothballs.

Do yourself a favour and watch this one. 5/5


The School for Supervillains

by V. L. Craven

School for Supervillains

Mandrake DeVille is the daughter (sort of–she was grown in a lab) of two of the most nefarious villains to ever villain. [lightning crash]

Much is expected of her. Perhaps she will even, one day, finally topple that blasted Superhero Guild once and for all! [insert maniacal laughter here]

In order to prepare her for her life of dastardly deeds, she must attend the most prestigious of all evil schools, of course. Which is St Luthor’s School of Supervillains. [dun dun DUUNN]

The best villains send their progeny there from all over the universe–one of Mandrake’s peers isn’t from this solar system–so you know this school is top-hole. I mean, you’re not going to send your child a few thousand light years and then choose the second best school, amirite?

So little Miss DeVille is being set up to rule the world…erm, the Underworld.

There’s a minor snag, however.

She doesn’t want to be evil. She wants to be a superhero.

(Sometimes, as a parent, you just never know where you’re going to go wrong. You try to instil malevolent hatred for the whole of humanity and beyond and still, they will decide to fight for good. What can you do?)

Unfortunately for Mandrake and her tender appendages, the adults (and her peers) generally take the opinion that ‘the only good superhero is a dead superhero’, so she must keep her wishes to herself. And the mind-readers around her. Did I mention there are mind-readers? There are mind-readers. And all sorts of other inventive types and creatures.

Will she find a sympathetic ear? Will she work out whom to trust before it’s too late? Or will the Master (the head of her school) and her chief rivals Caligula (yeah, I did a spit-take, too) and Livia work out what she’s up to first?

The School for Supervillains is suitable for ages 9 and up. At 71 pages, it can be read in a sitting if a grown up is helping. It’s the sort of book I would have read more than once as a child. Though I probably would have wondered why she didn’t want to remain a bad guy, but that’s beside the point.

I’m giving this 4/5 because I wanted it to be longer. More story!

Something that’s especially fun about it is that it was done through Fiction Express , where one chapter was released per week and then readers voted one what would happen next. So the story was guided by the readers. I’ll be interviewing Louie Stowell in the coming weeks and we’ll discuss what that experience was like so stay tuned!

[I received a free copy of this in exchange for an honest review.]


Dear White People

by V. L. Craven

Dear White People

Winchester is an ivy-league university with a minority number of minorities. One recent Halloween a very white dorm sent out invitations to their very racist themed party.

Dear White People is the ‘re-enactment’ of the five week lead up to that party.

Okay, it’s all fiction, but barely. We’ve seen the photos of the racist costumes–the black-face and brown-face; the Native American headdresses and sombreros. As though white is a blank canvas of normal humanity and everyone else is putting on a costume every day and pretending to be ethnic.

The invitation in the film is a near-verbatim copy of an actual invitation to a 2010 party at the University of California, San Diego. The party in the film is based on an actual event, as well, though it didn’t turn into a riot. And over the closing credits are photographs of real life university students doing the same things satirized in the film. (That must have been an uncomfortable day on the set. Hoo boy.)

The supposed ‘re-enactment’ starts with Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) at the beginning of his sophomore year. He’s been moved from house to house (people live in large, gorgeous houses rather than prison-cell-like dorms at Winchester) as he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Uncomfortable with his sexuality–he doesn’t like labels–and unsure what to do with his hair (he tells fellow black students he’s growing it out and they laugh and say it’s gaining sentience) he doesn’t know what he wants or who he is. He doesn’t even have a major anymore.

Then there’s Sam White (Tessa Thompson) revolutionary media arts major with a radio show called Dear White People. She wants people to pay attention. She wants to make a difference. But Sam has her own struggles with race to deal with.

Next up is Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris). She wants people to pay attention, too. To her. She wants to be famous. So when a producer shows up at the university looking for a certain sort of person she tries to get his attention by being provocative.

And finally we have Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell). His father is the Dean and he has aspirations for law school and, eventually, his own firm one day. He’s currently head of the house he lives in and is one of those All-American types. He’s Barack Obama, basically.

He has a white girlfriend, though, and that goes over just as well as you’d expect with his cohort. His girlfriend is the sister of the son of the President of Winchester. Who is also the man who beat out his father for that position. The long-term political fallout of this cause all kinds of problems.

Dear White People is funny as hell–there are exchanges and one-liners galore. But it also holds a mirror up to our society and shows how much further we have to go in terms of racial equality. It is accurate and perceptive while being witty.

This one is a must-see. Watch it. 5/5

We all know this guy, right? We know him and we hate him. Don't be this guy.

We all know this guy, right? We know him and we hate him. Don’t be this guy.


The Picture of Dorian Gray

by V. L. Craven

Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man unaware of his beauty and what it brings him. He has become the muse of a painter, Basil Hallward, who is obsessed with him.

One day whilst Gray is in Hallward’s studio being painted, one of the artist’s friends, Lord Henry, stops by. He’s immediately taken with the young man and begins espousing his hedonistic philosophy. He makes Dorian aware of the fleeting nature of beauty–especially his own.

After they return inside Hallward has finished the painting and proclaimed it his finest yet. Dorian realises he’ll never be as young or as beautiful as he is in the picture and makes a Faustian oath before it. It takes some time before the consequences of that oath become apparent, but once it does he begins to become fascinated and horrified at the implications.

Lord Henry’s words have begun to work their dark magic upon him, though, and he goes in search of new experiences, corrupting others along the way.

This is in the 1890s so reputations are easily ruined, mind. But people also believe that sin is worn on the face and Dorian Gray is beautiful. He’s one of those people who remains blemish-free and so must his soul be.

Sin will out, though, as they say.

Lippincott Dorian Gray

I read the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, which has all sorts of notes and other useful information. It’s also beautifully bound and has a sewn-in bookmark. I do recommend the series.

There’s not much to say in terms of critical review. Everyone else has already said everything of intellectual import.

It’s excellent–the sort of classic that makes modern writing seem drab (as opposed to the sort of classic that works brilliantly as a soporific).

It turned out that all the quotes I’d thought Wilde had said at parties and people had written down were actually said by his character Lord Henry. And indeed, the novel is hilarious, as well as thought-provoking.

The fact that I thought Lord Henry was Wilde’s stand-in was apt, as the author himself said: ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.’

The Picture of Dorian Gray highlights the hypocrisy of the age, which was more pronounced at the time, though it’s still so today. The people shouting most loudly about other people’s perversions are generally the ones doing the worst behind closed doors.

And it’s good to know beauty and money can still put people’s minds to rest about corruption. That certainly hasn’t changed in the last 120 years.

Though, hey, gay people can get married now rather than being sent down for hard labour for two years. So… progress?

This is a must read for fans of excellent writing, Gothic literature, the Faust legend, social commentary. Just read it. 5/5


American Horror Story: An Ode

by V. L. Craven
Jessica Lange laying down some truth for the baby witches.

Jessica Lange laying down some truth for the baby witches.

I’ll be taking my first trip to New Orleans in September and, in preparation, decided to rewatch my favourite show set there: American Horror Story: Coven.

Now. I love the entire AHS series. Murder House was mind-blowing because I didn’t know what to expect and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. And Jessica Lange.

Asylum was outstanding because I’ve always liked creepy asylums and I’ve had a thing about sadistic nuns as long as I can recall. And Jessica Lange.

Then Coven came along and ruined the rest of the run of the show because nothing will live up to it. Witches are my favourite supernatural thing. And Jessica Lange.

And holy hell, can we discuss Frances Conroy in each of these series? Just amazing.

I cannot tell you how pleased I was upon receiving this result from this test :

Also disturbingly accurate. REDHEADS FOREVEEEEEEER

Also disturbingly accurate. REDHEADS FOREVEEEEEEER

Coven of course, also introduced Kathy Bates, be still my dark heart , as a regular and Angela mofoin Bassett.

Freak Show, yeah yeah, it was whatever. I liked the musical numbers. Freaks and sideshows have held only a passing interest for me so meh. I enjoyed learning more about Pepper and Edward Mordake was a real person so that character was fun. It was okay.

But it came after this. And after this... Well.

But it came after this. And after this… Well.

In terms of the show overall, though, the entire ensemble is incredible.

Lily Rabe is versatile as can be and I hope she’s in more of this next series than the one episode of Freak Show. Evan Peters somehow manages to look completely different in every series and Sarah Paulson is as solid of an actor as you could want–holding her own against some true giants. No more Lange, unfortunately, but with Bates on board and, hopefully, the rest of the regular crew, the ship will keep sailing.

(And they always bring on boggling guest stars. Patti LuPone?! Patti LaBelle?! STEVIE NICKS! omgomg)

Rewatching Coven has been a treat. They always have clues to the theme of the next series in the first episodes of the current one–the first episode of Coven has the phrase ‘freak show’. The fifth series is supposed to be ‘Hotel’.

And of course there’s a guide to the filming locations in the show so I can see some of the places from the episodes when in NOLA. Madame LaLaurie’s house is already on my list, as is the cemetery. Well…several cemeteries, this is me we’re talking about.

'Have you accepted Baphomet as your lord and saviour?'

‘Have you accepted Baphomet as your lord and saviour?’

The dialogue always sounds like a bunch of bitchy gay men sniping at one another. It was the same with Murphy’s show Popular, which was cancelled too soon. It’s a hallmark of his shows to have teenage girls saying things more suited to a bunch of queens in the back room at the Chubb Clubb. I love it.

But I digress.

They had Ryan Murphy on The Writers’ Room  between Asylum and Coven. It was an excellent episode worth watching if you can find it. He said he’d never do a series about vampires (thank you, Ryan!) When they asked what the final one would be about he said (jokingly) AHS: Mime. Then we learned that Jessica Lange trained with Marcel Marceau.

So maybe she’ll come back for that final series.


How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

by V. L. Craven

How to Lose Friends

Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) is an English journalist with a cynical view of … everything, but particularly celebrity. He has a small publication that’s on the verge of imploding and desperately wants to break into the big time of professional celebrity stalking/mocking. He wants to be a

After a truly ridiculous turn of events involving a pig and Clint Eastwood, young Mr Young is invited to work for the man whose party he crashed, Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), in New York. Mr Harding, you see, owns several magazines.

Sidney has caught his big break. He’s in. He’s going to be someone. But first, he has to make an utter tit of himself. Multiple times. I mean, this is an Englishman in America being played by Simon Pegg.

But he’s still in…sorta. His sense of humour is all weird British and he doesn’t dress properly and … Oh, dear. Sidney wants to take the piss out of celebrities, as God intended, but the people he desperately wants to write for want him to kiss simply all the celebrity backside, as journalists do in the States. Loads of things change when you cross the ocean.

So things begin to falter pretty early on. He does make friends with a colleague (Kristin Dunst) who helps him as much as she can help a person determined to shoot themselves in the foot. Another rather ruthless colleague (Danny Huston) teaches Sidney a few invaluable lessons, as well.

And then there’s the vapid celebrity he’s deeply smitten with, played by Megan Fox. She’s hilarious. No kidding. Her publicist is played by Gillian Anderson and do you need to know any more than that? It’s Gillian Anderson. She makes everything better.

There are some fantastic cameos: James Corden, Katherine Parkinson and her IT Crowd co-star Chris O’Dowd, Thandie Newton and others. Miriam Margolyes plays Sidney’s Polish landlady in New York and Diana Kent is an actress desperately trying to make a comeback. Sidney’s father is played by Bill Paterson.

It’s one of those films where every few minutes you’re saying, ‘That guy!’ and then running to IMDB.

How to Lose Friends and Influence People offers some not-surprising but still depressing information about how publicity and journalism (especially in regard to celebrities) works in the States. And it’s based on a true story . The ‘real’ Sidney Young (whose name is Toby Young) worked at Vanity Fair for five years. The one in the film… well. Five years would have been a miracle for that guy.

Knowing it was based on reality to some degree helped. Otherwise it would have been a very funny but somewhat predictable film. Instead, I was sat watching it wondering what was derived from what and who the real life counterparts were to some people. [The Jeff Bridges character was clearly based on Graydon Carter .]

Overall it was a good time. Lots of laugh-out-loud moments, an excellent cast and Simon Pegg doing his thing. 4/5


Fresh Meat

by V. L. Craven
I had to use this photo of the series 2 cast because it has Jack Whitehall looking like a doofus.

I had to use this photo of the series 2 cast because it has Jack Whitehall looking like a doofus.

Fresh Meat follows the exploits of a group of awkward students as they awkwardly make their awkward way through uni in Manchester. None of them got into halls (the dorms) so they’re sharing a house. It’s a mish-mash of personalities. Let the good times roll.

The main cast:

Josie: (Kimberley Nixon) Bubbly, Welsh, naive and seemingly kind. People really aren’t what they appear sometimes. All of these people put on fronts to appear to be cooler than they are to their peers, but this one… Wow.

Oregon: (Charlotte Ritchie) A literature swot who makes poor life choices in terms of married professors and, you know, sleeping with them. Particularly when their wife is also in the English department.

Vod: (Zawe Ashton) Far more interested in drinking and drugging than studying, Vod, also isn’t a big fan of the Establishment. Go anarchy!

Howard: (Greg McHugh) Scottish, socially inept but kind, Howard is older than the others, as he changed courses from philosophy to geology. If this show were made a few years ago this character would be played by Nick Frost.

Kingsley: (Joe Thomas) Bog-standard English guy. Awkward in the typical way. Just wants to be a good person and get a nice girlfriend. That doesn’t mean he’s not a tit sometimes.

And J.P.: (Jack Whitehall) Complete posh-o who’s in Manchester because he couldn’t get into a ‘proper university’. This was Whitehall’s acting debut and though his character is absolutely dreadful, he’s still my favourite. He’s condescending and arrogant, but also a loser with women and can be genuinely kind.

There is not one cast photo where he's not pulling a face. This man.

There is not one cast photo where he’s not pulling a face. This man.

There are currently three series with a fourth being filmed this year. Each year there are recurring characters that are more or less successful, but it’s the main cast that makes the show.

A standout character from the second and third series (and hopefully the fourth) was Sabine, a Dutch PhD student. She’s very straightforward and doesn’t particularly care for the kids because she sees them for the self-absorbed not-yet-fully-formed humans they are. There’s a hilarious scene in a pub where the British group are asking her how she talks/bonds/gets off with people if she doesn’t drink. I mean…that’s the only way British people can loosen up enough to be social.

It is NOT perfectly natural, you weirdo!

The show was created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the people behind Peep Show. Robert Webb was in series one and two as Kingsley, Howard and JP’s geology lecturer. (And I felt it right in the age bone when I realised that Peep Show is twelve years old. It’s nearly a teenager.)

If you enjoy shows like, well, Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and Bad Education–ensemble casts of disparate people getting themselves into and out of trouble and being awkward in the process–you’ll enjoy this one. 5/5


Penny Dreadful

by V. L. Craven

Penny Dreadful

Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein and Abraham van Helsing walk into a pub in Victorian England. Everyone’s got consumption and there’s an ancient evil or three afoot.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Penny Dreadful is a Gothic drama, fantasy nightmare concoction.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s great fun. Just difficult to categorize.

There’s the main character Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, who should win all the awards) who has a bit of a possession problem. As in, she’s been possessed by … something. Who knows. But it’s a hell of a thing. Then there’s Mr Gray and Dr Frankenstein (his projects have been going swimmingly by the time we meet him) and Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton.

Sir Malcolm is one of those explorers the Victorians were drowning in at the the time. He’s on a quest to find his kidnapped daughter, Mina. Yes, that Mina. Harker. The Dracula one. We’re hitting all the Gothic greatest hits.

There’s the obligatory prostitute with a heart of gold with harsh backstory (Billie Piper) and an American gunslinger from the Wild West played by Josh Hartnett.

The plot can be a little…meandering at times in a Dickensian sort of way. The show is more about characters, though, and the casting is superb. As are the costumes and sets and everything else.

Though the overall plot tends to take its own path, each episode rips right along, generally, and one never knows what’s going to happen or who it’s going to happen to.

There was one episode in the first series that was slow and it featured Anna Chancellor. They managed to make an episode with Her Gloriousness drag. That alone is noteworthy. (The episode had a load of useful but dull exposition and she played Eva Green’s mother–a role she also played in the quite excellent The Dreamers.)

Basically, there are vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster (played brilliantly by Rory Kinnear)…and tuberculosis but that makes it sound like Buffy with consumption. I loved Buffy, but… Ugh. This is hard . Do you like American Horror Story? Do you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Do you like corsets and velvet? You’ll like this. Probably. I’m giving it 4/5.


Lifted by the Great Nothing

by V. L. Craven

Lifted by the Great Nothing


Max is twelve years old. He’s of Lebanese decent (though his father, Rasheed, says they’re just American now); he drinks mixed vodka drinks; he spends time with the Yangs next door.

Max’s father is the centre of his world. He keeps the house clean for him and makes his food–special, fancy meals, because his father works several lowly jobs to make ends meet.

Max’s mother died when he was a baby then they fled war-torn Lebanon. That’s when they became Americans. Rasheed doesn’t like to talk about it, though, so they don’t discuss it.

Eventually, Kelly moves in. Kelly is very socially aware and teaches Max about things like injustice, civil war and genocide and he begins to wonder what happened to his mother.

Karim Dimechkie’s debut novel Lifted by the Great Nothing is about a young man (it’s told in three parts–when Max is 12, 16 and 26) trying to figure out who he is and where he comes from. And in the process he learns a few hard truths about the choices people make in order to protect the ones they love. 4/5

[I received a review copy of this from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.]


Mean Girls

by V. L. Craven

Mean Girls

Last weekend I decided to become the last person on Earth to see Mean Girls. I hadn’t actively avoided it, really. I simply felt that, being on Tumblr, I had seen most of it in gif form. I knew fetch was never going to happen. I knew on Wednesdays we wear pink. I knew Leslie Knope was the cool mom.

For once, though, Tumblr didn’t oversell something. I actually enjoyed this one.

I know, I know, I’ll let you catch your breath from that gushing praise. But when something is praised so highly and quoted so frequently, it’s difficult to expect much. Generally, when any product appeals to the masses it’s because it speaks to the lowest common denominator.

Occasionally, though, you get something else. *cough* Harry Potter *cough*

I’m not saying Mean Girls is on par with Harry Potter, but it was still entertaining. The internet hadn’t managed to show me every laugh and surprise from the film. (Including a really big one.)

I haven’t done my usual plot description then review because I assume everyone with eyes under the age of, say, forty has seen this thing, but if you’re like me and you haven’t, I recommend it.

It’s like Clueless–that sort of unrealistic teenage film that doesn’t even attempt to be about authentic teenagers, but still captures more about the high school experience than those films about trying to lose your virginity on prom night.

Mean Girls sort of reminds me of Popular, that Ryan Murphy television show that didn’t last nearly long enough. They could definitely take place in the same universe.

It’s written by Tina Fey and based on a non-fiction book called Queen Bees and Wannabees , which is about how horrible teen girls are to one another. If that doesn’t catch your interest then no plot description or review is going to. It’s just as excellent as you’d think that combination of things would be and is the sort of thing I’d watch again. On purpose.

The are very, very few teen films I’d say that about. 5/5


Harold and Maude by Colin Higgins

by V. L. Craven

Harold and Maude

As mentioned in yesterday’s review of the film , I’ve been a huge fan of Harold and Maude for some time and watch it at least once a year. So when a novel by the same name came up on NetGalley I requested it, thinking it was the source material for the film.

At first I thought it was the most true-to-source material film adaptation I’d ever read–the cover does say ‘a novel’–but it turns out it’s a novelization of the screenplay. Higgins wrote both the screenplay (it was his master’s thesis at UCLA film school) and the screenplay so it has the same atmosphere of the film.

The novel exists in that same darkly comic, wonderfully bizarre world. Nineteen-year-old Harold Chasen is just as obsessed with faking his own death and seventy-nine-year-old Maude is just as in love with life. Harold’s mother is just as exasperated with all the nonsense and then, of course, there’s the car.

It’s a quick, entertaining read and there are little differences here and there that fans of the film will find interesting. It’s fun to see how scenes were originally written versus how they were edited in the final version and what was cut or changed entirely. Scenes with Uncle Victor, the brigadier general, are different in the novel, for instance. And bits and bobs that weren’t fully explained in the film (how did Harold turn that Jaguar into a mini hearse?) are laid out quite neatly.

The film is such a part of my consciousness I can’t say what a person unfamiliar with it would think of the book or how they’d read certain characters. While reading it I was laughing out loud because I was hearing/seeing the actors in my head.

5/5 for people who’ve seen the film this is a must-read.

[I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]


Harold and Maude Film

by V. L. Craven

Harold and Maude

Harold Chasen is nineteen years old. Wealthy in that old-money sort of way. Obsessed with death in that constantly-staging-his-own-suicide sort of way.

He drives a hearse, watches demolitions and attends the funerals of strangers. At several he notices an older woman (she’s turning 80 within the week)–who also notices him. She’s positively full of life.

Though she does have a bothersome habit of stealing cars…or police motorcycles.

She also poses nude for sculptures and frees trees being choked by smog. Oh, Maude is just what Harold needs.

Harold’s mother, however, thinks Harold needs to get married or join the army. She sets him up on dates arranged by a computer dating agency and then sends him to see his uncle, the brigadier general. These experiences go rather hilariously sideways.

The entire film is hilariously sideways.

Harold and Maude still

I admit my prejudice in that Harold and Maude is one of my top five favourite films. I watch it probably once a year and it never ceases to crack me up.

When the film was originally released in 1971 it was a flop, but eventually became a cult-hit being played on university campuses. It’s wonderfully dark and bizarre. The line-readings are classic, the set designs lush. Every character is perfectly cast.

It’s the sort of film you’ll either ‘get’ and love straightaway or stare at, nonplussed.


I pulled this one out to review when they re-released the novelization of the screenplay, which I’ll be reviewing tomorrow.


The Well Film vs Novel

by V. L. Craven

Similarities and Differences Between Elizabeth Jolley’s Novel The Well and the Film Based Upon It

This post includes spoilers for both the 1986 Elizabeth Jolley novel The Well and the 1997 film of the same name. There are spoilers everywhere and will not be behind the usual ‘here be spoilers’ tags. If you need a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading, here is a photo of Pamela Rabe.

The Well Pamela Rabe

If you’ve decided to stick around, then here we go.

There are more similarities than differences and the film sticks very close to the book–closer than most adaptations do. Many of the same conversations happen, though perhaps in different places.

The most noticeable difference, however, is the choice of casting Pamela Rabe as Hester Harper. In the book, Hester is menopausal or after–she’s fifty-something if she’s a day. Whereas, Rabe wouldn’t have been forty when she played the role. (Don’t get me wrong, they made the correct decision, but I was surprised by how much older the character was in the book.)

Per usual, there’s more about everyone in the novel–films don’t have the ability to capture the inner world of the characters the way books do–and we learn more about Hester’s beloved governess Hilde and Mr Bird and Katherine’s friend Joanna, as well as Katherine’s time at the orphanage.

Hilde had to leave one day after having a miscarriage (or giving birth? it’s difficult to tell from the description) when Hester was fourteen. Hester found her in the middle of the night on the floor of the bathroom bleeding profusely and crying. The next day her father took Hilde away and Hester was sent to boarding school. This gave Hester quite a dim view of bearing children or childbirth or relations between men and women.

Mr Bird dies suddenly near the end of the book but was trying to look after Hester right up until his end. There is some intimation that he was romantically interested in her, possibly. He certainly had affection for her, as he’d sent her cards on special occasions her entire life. She hadn’t wondered why until it was too late to ask. The original Hester Harper is remarkably self-involved.

Joanna, Katherine’s friend who spends most of the book and film on remand, sends letters and plans a visit. She eventually becomes an evangelist and her final letter in the book arrives on white paper with a gold cross on each page. She invites Kathy to join her for a tour of the States.

The Hester Harper of the book seemed much more frivolous and less capable than the one in the film, who was always in control and knew what was what. The Hester of the film also seems to have more of a sense of humour and a better singing voice.

The Katherine of the book (she’s never given a surname) is more annoying, but she also looks after Hester. She’s less conniving in the source material, whereas in the film, she comes across as money-grubbing and manipulative. This could be because the book is very much from Hester’s point of view, but the film has to be from a more objective viewpoint. However, in the book, Katherine never refers to her benefactress as ‘Hester’, as she does in the film. She always calls her ‘Miss Harper’.

The original Hester Harper is much less likable. She’s insanely possessive and absolutely will not allow Katherine to bring a man into their house and certainly not allow her precious Kathy to have a baby, even though, as she ages, these are things the younger woman expresses an interest in. She’s jealous of Joanna, as well, but not to the same degree, and, by the end of the novel, she’s resigned to letting Kathy go with Joanna to America if she wants.

The book explains where Hester gets Kathy (see my review ) which I had found confusing in the film. And in the book the Harpers didn’t have Molly–the woman they let go in the film–to make room for Kathy. The girl also didn’t find the work too hard and strop off only to return. Films need conflict, though. Something else the book explains that the film doesn’t is what Katherine sees in Hester. She seems to like looking after the woman–she brings her sweets at the dance, for example, in the book. But in the film it’s unclear why she’d return that day early on when she’d decided the work was too hard.

In the book, Katherine wears the yellow dress to the dance that Hester makes for her. It’s cause for some snide comments because Mrs Borden thinks Hester is trying to keep Kathy like a child even though she’s twenty-one, but Katherine likes it–she certainly doesn’t intentionally ruin it the way the character in the film does.

After the man is put down the well everything goes the same in both media. However, in the big argument in the film, Kathy says something to the effect of, ‘If you give me the key I’ll do anything you want, I’ll be so good.’ Intimating sexual favours. This line doesn’t appear in the book, though earlier Hester reflects on how her enjoyment of watching Katherine dance makes her feel and:

She groaned. The dance was for her the only physical manifestation of physical love. Hester did not feel guilty about the feeling. It was private. She pulled off onto the gravel for a few precious minutes alone on the edge of the great emptiness.

Afterwards, in her weakness, she cried a little…

So clearly there was sexual attraction on Hester’s side, even though Kathy doesn’t mention it in the book and that’s really the only mention

The last scene of the book is Hester with a petrol can in the car with Mrs Borden and a bunch of her children. She and Kathy had run out of fuel and the older woman felt like a walk so the younger woman stayed in the car to work on her sewing for an upcoming fete. Joanna will be arriving by then for a week-long stay.

The well has just been permanently covered over after the downpour, which nearly filled it. Hester had it covered as she thought Kathy would realise the men working on it all morning would have surely heard anyone alive if, indeed, there had been a living soul down there.

Hester has also set herself on the plan that, if Kathy decides she wants to go to America with Joanna, she’ll simply have to let her and fill the emptiness of her days by constantly finding things to do with her time.

The film ends with Hester in the Bordens’ car with the brood and Kathy hitch-hiking with a bunch of money. The book is never clear on if Kathy has the money or not. In the book Hester doesn’t look for it the way she does in the film.


Oh, and in the book the woolly hat is red, rather than yellow.


The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

by V. L. Craven

The Well

In February I reviewed an Australian film called The Well and found the ending confusing. In said review I said I’d like to read the screenplay to see if the ending was less ambiguous.

So recently I read the novel the film was based on–The Well by Elizabeth Jolley, which was published in 1986.

It tells the story of Hester Harper, an Australian spinster who has spent the majority of her life on a remote farm with her father.

One day she meets an orphan–a young woman named Katherine–who’s been helping out at a local shop but who is about to be returned to the Home, as the man of the house no longer wants her around. On a whim, Hester takes the girl home with her to help with chores.

She grows possessive of the girl. Protective. And Katherine cares for Miss Harper, as well. She certainly likes her money and helps spend it with an abandon the older woman had never felt the need for before meeting the girl.

The girl has awakened something in the woman. An appreciation for life. Her inner world is more vibrant for Katherine coming into it even if her outer self is as old and broken as it was before her arrival. Most of all, she loves watching the young woman dance.

Hester’s father dies and the decision is made to sell the farm her family has lived on for generations and she and Katherine move to a little cottage even further from civilisation, but who cares, as they have one another.

It’s the first time that Hester Harper has been happy since she was a child so she is willing to go to great lengths to preserve her precious, shared life when a sinister event threatens to disrupt what they’ve built.

The lengths she is willing to go to, though, may do irreparable harm to her beloved Kathy, who may not be as innocent as Hester believes.


There’s an old-fashioned feel to The Well. Not being familiar with the songs or dances Katherine mentions (and assuming it was because they were Australian) the book ‘felt’ like it took place in the late 60s or 70s. It wasn’t until the end of the novel when one of the characters makes a passing mention of AIDS that I looked at the copyright. This could be because the book takes place from Hester Harper’s p.o.v. and she’s a queer sort of bird but old fashioned in her way.

It’s very … Australian. In a way I don’t have the words to describe. Some books simply feel like the countries they were written in. Some books are American or English or Australian. There’s an Oz sensibility about it. And also a slightly English. Perhaps it’s the ‘single, eccentric woman living in the countryside giving no cares’ that rings the English bell for me.

That’s not a criticism (the Australian thing, I mean); it simply is what it is. If you’ve never read Australian books before this may seem sparse or if you haven’t liked other ones you probably won’t like this one but I enjoyed it. Hester Harper is a fully-formed character and the reader gets to know her, warts and all. She is stubborn. And, ultimately, a very lonely person. Her loneliness makes her blind and blind people do stupid things.

This is a satisfying, but not uplifting read.

I give this 4/5 but if you’re looking for straight-forward answers or a happy ending keep driving.

My next post will be about the similarities and differences between the source material and the film. Needless to say, this didn’t clear up much for me, but as a fan of the film, I’m glad I read it. It also stands on its own as a novel.


The Duke of Burgundy

by V. L. Craven

DoB Three Panel Maroon

This review is free of spoilers, though in some ways this film is better if you know nothing about it going in. It may sound odd, but I recommend not reading this review, or any review. Just watch the film—it’s incredible.

A young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arrives at her employer’s house—Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen)—a cold, demanding woman who makes her stay late at work and punishes her severely when she makes mistakes.

In the next scene we find out the women are lovers who play sadomasochistic sorts of games. This isn’t a spoiler—we learn this in the second scene of the film.

The women go through their normal lives—the older one is a lepidopterist—and they attend talks at the library, as well as do scenes at home.

But all is not well in kinky-land.

And then the end happened and I was: Whaaaaaa?

I know that seems like a short plot synopsis but it really is better to know less rather than more. Also, the film is more of a character-study than plot-based.

DoB Venus in Furs

The Duke of Burgundy was written and directed by Peter Strickland in the 20-teens, but feels like it was based on a 1970s novel. In an interview Strickland says it was an homage to 70s films, and that’s apparent in both look and feel. The cinematography (by Nicholas D. Knowland) is lush and luxurious.

The setting is somewhere non-specific in Europe and the time could be any time after the 70s. (It was filmed in Hungary and Budapest). The soundtrack is by Cat’s Eyes and compliments the film perfectly.

The Duke of Burgundy is about what happens when Dommes and subs don’t negotiate what they both want. (And something called topping from the bottom.)

There are some trippy sex scenes and music cues that are very 70s. And there’s an entire sequence roughly three-quarters of the way through that’s that sort of LSD weird-out sort of thing you’d see in the 70s.

Even though it’s surreal and artistic, it’s a more realistic depiction of a BDSM relationship than Secretary, as it shows how far the fantasy is from the—often boring or hilarious—reality.

Basically it’s my favourite film now. 5/5

[The images in this post are by Julian House. More are available here .]

Bonus: some behind-the-scenes photos of the film.

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