Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Very Idea: Reviewing the Reviewers

There’s a problem with the way we are reviewing books and movies.

More and more I see reviews questioning the very premise of the movie or book instead of the execution. They can’t get past the blurb they saw on the back of the book or the short plot summary from a friend. It’s a problematic situation that would lead to disregarding much of our most powerful writing and film.

For example, I recently read an article on the new series The Legend of Korra titled “Is The Legend of Korra anti-science?” In the article the author identifies the problematic scene and begrudgingly admits that it might the beginning of a more complicated plot in later episodes, but he still doesn’t like it.

In this scene the main character derides a nameless character for even daring to question the power of Bending. The main character (Korra) is the one who ends up looking ridiculous, setting up a complicated political subplot as well as an area of growth for Korra.

Anyone who watched the first Avatar series knows that this is exactly the kind of complexity that the creators excel at, yet that scene haunts the writer. He seems to want so badly for the very presence of that scene to be negative. This is sloppy reviewing. Even though he’s examined it and found that it might, in fact, work just fine, he can’t get past it.

It finally got to me when The Hunger Games was released. Honestly, I love The Hunger Games. I loved the book and I love the movie. Heck, I even loved the sound track. So it made me very angry when people couldn’t get past the first plot point. Because of a fascist government 24 children fight to the death every year. That, apparently, does not fly.

The problem is that these reviews are often unconcerned with weather or not this element was powerful or if it was done well or if it accomplished what it set off to do. The implication is that the book should never have even existed.

It’s a dystopian novel. Dystopian novels are always over the top. They do so in order to give a powerful social commentary and juxtapose reality. You can argue that it’s unrealistic, but that is different than it being believable or effective. Farenheit 451 had a killer robot dog with needle teeth. Handmaid’s Tale was about women made into reproduction slaves. That is what the book is about. It’s quality and emotional power is a separate issue.

It’s like when people complained that The Fellowship of the Rings was only walking. People generally believed that it was a beautiful, sweeping film. They loved the action and the characters, but for some reason they latched on to the idea that the very basis of the story was somehow flawed. They only walk! It doesn’t matter that it was a fitting metaphor for the epic journey or that it gave the world a feeling of enormity and a sense of impossibility to the quest. It was only walking. Fundamentally flawed.

I even had a problem with the “vampires don’t sparkle” argument against Twilight. There was plenty wrong with structure and execution in the movies and books, but the individual ideas might have had credence. Maybe that element, in another situation, could have been done successfully.

The danger is that, in arguing against elements and not execution, we encourage mediocrity and reputation. It is, at its core, a fear and dislike of the different; the thing that has not been done before. Having a problem with the very idea of something celebrates the past while denying potential. It’s also insulting to the creator, as if they couldn’t possibly do anything good with such an idea.

Perhaps I am so irked by this because it is something I often hear about my own writing. It’s too weird. I can’t write about that sort of thing.

And my stranger stuff is published much more often than my more down to earth pieces. The Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings celebrated sweeping success despite the ideas being unthinkable. I guess the very idea of rejecting the very idea of something hits a little close to home.

1 comment:

  1. I think taking that kind of approach to reviewing means that they're not reviewing what is there, but they're reviewing what they wish was there. It's okay for someone to comment on how something works (or fails to work) in a story, but discrediting key points of a story is not the correct way to view the whole story.
    It reminds me of a History class I took in which we were told that Historians can only talk about the events that have happened, but Political Scientists have more space to forecast what might happen from what they know of a situation or political climate. As a reviewer you can only comment on what happened in a story, and not try to make it something else.

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