english

Adapting Screenplays: Blade Runner

As part of English 408A, Media Writing at the University of Waterloo, I have been doing some extra reading regarding screenwriting. While movies are clearly a visual art, where they excel is clearly in the narrative performance. Due to the compressed length, a screenplay is far shorter, and thus the narrative must be compressed. This is one of the reason why many movie adaptations are so very different from the original novel. Complex subplots which stray from the main plot are cut loose, perhaps replaced with shorter subplots which provide a quicker payback. I've occasionally wondered exactly why it is that the short stories of Philip K. Dick are so frequently adapted by Hollywood. Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford is a prime example, and is also a film classic. There are a number of themes from the novel which were dropped from the film. The most obvious of which is Mercerism, and the empathy boxes. The shared artificial reality, designed to allow users to share pain in a spiritual manner, can be read as a critique of our modern media culture. There's also an interesting parallel to the video screens in Fahrenheit 451. Dick was critical of modern media, in a way that wouldn't necessarily carry over into a commercial film.

Sadly, this and several other themes are left out of the film. In the case of Blade Runner, I think these changes were justified. Film emphasizes the visual, and while I believe that Philip K. Dick was an exceptionally visual writer, many of the themes in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep just wouldn't translate well into film. Where in a novel, the author can show the thoughts of the protagonist, where in film, this can only be achieved artificially, such as through a narrative voice over.

By trimming down these themes, Ridley Scott was able to emphasize those that remained, and to emphasize the new form of visuals. The world of Blade Runner is very different from that of the original novel. Where Dick's world was a post-nuclear wasteland, depopulated through emigration, the world shown in the film is a dark, densely populated melting pot of American and asian cultures. This visual style later came to embody the cyberpunk aesthetics.

It's interesting to consider some of the other adaptations of Dick's work, especially those from short stories. Where in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? themes were removed from the screenplay, when adapting his short stories, the stories are fleshed out. Not every adaptation remains true to even the core plot of Dick's original story. Often, the main elements which remain include the name, those of the major characters, and the key plot point of the story. Others, like the Minority Report, follow the path of Blade Runner, weaving together many of the strands of the original narrative, keeping "mostly true" to the original tale, which in some ways, becomes a minority report of its own.

Classes start again

It feels as if I just handed in my final paper for last term, but it appears that classes start this week. This term I'm taking English 408A - Writing for the Media, and English 301H - Honours Literary Studies. 408A is being taught by Andrew Deman, while 301H is being taught by Murray McArthur. I haven't yet had McArthur for any courses, so that should be interesting.

The course texts look interesting. I've scanned through the first chapter of Batty and Cain's "Media Writing: A Practical Introduction," and it seems to be an actually useful textbook, which is a pleasant change from some other courses I've had. I haven't yet read any of the companion text for 408A, Jenkins' "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide" but it seems to contrast nicely with "Media Writing," with more of a focus on non-traditional media. Page one includes an image from "Bert is Evil" with Bert from Sesame Street fame posed next to Osama Bin Laden.

For 301H, the major literary text being studied is The Odyssey, by Homer. The particular translation is by the late Robert Fagles, which is presumably a modern translation into more modern language than others, while still maintaining fidelity to the greek text. Along with Ulysses, the course readings include excerpts from Aescylus' Agamemnon, Canto 26 from Dante's Inferno, the Telemachus, Calypso, and Lotus Eaters chapters from Joyce's Ulysses (not surprising, as McArthur is a Joyce scholar), and finally, Lord Tennyson's poem Ulysses.

I'm not entirely sure what to expect from this course. The calendar description merely states that through lectures, discussion, and presentations by visiting faculty, this course provides Honours students with an enriched survey of the discipline of literary studies. Topics of discussion will be drawn from bibliography and research methods, critical approaches to literature, literary history, genre studies, rhetoric, media perspectives, and other areas of scholarly interest. This seems to me to be rather vague, and from what I can tell, each offering of this course tends to be rather different.

The course syllabus for 408A states that This course examines the genres and strategies of both journalism and public relations. With a strong orientation towards rhetorical and linguistic theories, this course will cover audience concerns from both within and outside organizations. While this is perhaps a shorter description, it is also far more concrete in nature. I fully expect a number of written assignments on a regular schedule in this course.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this term progresses. Hopefully I haven't signed up for more than I can comfortably handle. I just need to make sure that I carefully manage my time this term, something much easier said than done. My toddler turns three at the end of the term.

Evaluating professors and lecturers

As a part time undergraduate student, I've had several years taking courses at the University of Waterloo. Just a course or two per term, except for that soul-sucking term where I briefly managed three courses. Hello full-time student tax credits. Whenselecting courses part time, there is often a number of factors considered.

Does it fit my schedule? Does it match my interests? Does it fulfill any course requirements? Do I have the prerequisites? What do I know about the professor? Will this course be offered again soon? Here are some of the thoughts I have on some of my former professors, and the courses they taught.

John North

Professor North was my first English professor after returning to academia. This was part of a non-degree term I took while switching majors. The course studied poetry and the novel. One of the course texts was C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold" which remains one of my favouritenovels. His course was valuable in preparing me for English studies. He introduced me to some techniques for speed-reading, which I have employed with some success over the years. I can't recall if he was a hard marker, but he was certainly fair.

Stan Fogel

Stan is one of those crazy profs of which legends are told. It's extremely fitting that he teaches the summer term in Cuba. His course texts are unconventional, his classes can be disorganized, and the course syllabus may be lacking in some detail, but his classes are certainly memorable. One day his class lecture note was a single yellow post-it note on which was scrawled the single word "parrot". This enigmatic note was left until the end of the class, at which time Fogel told us of a language in which the last remaining speaker was a parrot whose previous owner had passed away. Fogel is the Hunter S. Thompson of professors. Gonzo.

Andrew Deman

I had Deman for the Science Fiction literature course at Waterloo. It was a fun course, and it included a number of novels and short stories which I had not yet had the pleasure of reading. The course followed a historical and thematic sense of science fiction literature. The Golden Age, New Wave, Pulps, Steampunk, Posthumanism, Feminism. An interesting aspect of the course was the suggested reading list, from which I've selected a number of books. This course required regular writing response assignments, which was a valuable way to engage with the materials. I believe the marking was tough, but fair. His availability during office hours was great, and I abused the chance to drop in and chat about science fiction that wasn't covered in the class. With his encouragement, I revised a course essay which I presented at the academic track at the 2010 WorldCon in Montreal. This was a great experience, for which I'm thankful. I skipped a different class so I could attend his PhD oral defense. I plan to take a course on Media Writing with him again in January. I'll also be surprised if he doesn't come across this blog entry.

Aimée Morrison

Another professor I fully expect to find this blog entry is Aimée Morrison. I had the pleasure of creating a selected studies reading course under her guidance. Here's a tip: nothing helps increase student engagement with the material than creating the course yourself. I created an outline and text selections from the works of Philip K. Dick, and then with further guidance, built up a selection of critical resources examining his work, and the wider theme of postmodernism. This course also included a regular schedule of writing small responses which incorporated the readings of the course. More importantly, these were extremely limited in length. Writing to a short length was a great challenge, and I feel it improved my academic writing. It takes greater effort to cover your major points without being sidetracked by literary flourishes, or a wander train of thought. Aimée blogs at the Hook and Eye, and is also on twitter. I look forward to taking another course with her.

Jacqui Smyth

I took a creative writing course with Jacqui. The course was a writing workshop, and in my opinion, had an overly large class size. While her critiques were insightful, the nature of the class means that you're going to get fifteen responses which begin with "I really liked this story," which eats into precious critiquing time. While I understand why she prefers for students not to submit genre fiction, as she would not necessarily be aware of genre-specific tropes and expectations, and therefore she would be unable to fully respond to these works, she was still receptive to them. I suspect that I took the course, and the critiquing, more seriously than some of my classmates. It was a great course nonetheless, and I still keep in touch with some of my classmates.

Tristanne Connolly

You can tell when a professor loves the subject. It shines throughout the course. This was certainly the case with Professor Connolly in the Romantic Literature course I took. Following the literature of Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats, one cannot miss the enthusiasm in her lectures. While Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was on the course syllabus, with permission, I wrote about The Last Man in my final essay. I would love to take another course with her.

Randy Harris

I took a course on contemporary rhetorical theory with Harris two terms ago, which has had a large impact on how I perceive media influence, and negotiate meaning. Through Harris' course, I learned about rhetoricians such as Perelman, Booth, Burke, Weaver and Toulmin. A very thought-provoking course, and also leading some interesting research in rhetorical computation. This was perhaps the most important course I've taken.

Gray Graffam (Anthropology)

I've had Gray for two anthropology courses. Both were night classes, and were great. Anthropology 101 (Introduction to physical anthropology) was perhaps more interesting, as it deals more with archaeology rather than the sociological implications of social anthropology. Gray has some pretty amazing stories of his archaeological expeditions around the world. I'd love to take more courses with him, but I'm trying to focus on english studies, rather than anthropology.