Thursday, 21 August 2014

Queen of the Tearling - from Book to Film

I treated myself to a new book the other day. It's called Queen of the Tearling and it is the debut novel of Erika Johansen. Picked it up in Waterstones, read the blurb and bought it on the spot: it's a fantasy adventure about a young woman thrown into danger and forced to stand on her own two feet. Couldn't really be more up my street.

Looking at online reviews now, it's got everyone very excited. The publishers snapped it up, everyone thinks it's great... Apparently I have good taste in books. Apart from the one douche who described it as a "female Game of Thrones" (rage*) it looked pretty promising.

Then I discovered that David Heyman, producer of Gravity and Harry Potter, aka most successful British filmmaker in my mind, had purchased the rights to the book, before it was even published. He's already lined up Emma Watson to play the lead (more on this later) and there is a premature IMDB page and everything.

Fast work Mr Heyman. I hate you a little bit because I wanted to get the rights to this book first (can you stop being so successful please and thanks?). But I also love you because you make awesome films. So at least Queen of the Tearling is being made by someone I trust to do it justice.

Then I began reading...

And I have very mixed feelings. I will now attempt to explain my complex feelings, but I promise no spoilers!

First I would like to go through what I do like about the book. Mainly, it is the characters. Johansen has magicked up some really engaging people for her debut. The deadly and mysterious Mace is great in the mentor/protector role and even though he's never described I feel like I fancy him... weird? Maybe. Then there's The Fetch - a twisted but honourable Robin Hood. Everyone loves an outlaw! Then there's the Red Queen, a sexed up and tyrannical version of the evil queen in Snow White. She takes male slaves to her bed to keep her worries at bay. There's something so satisfying about a good villain, whose weaknesses and anxieties make them even more dangerous. What I love most about these characters is you never know everything about them. Even by the end of the book, I know just enough that I feel like I know them, but their pasts and minds are kept from you.

Of course the protagonist, Kelsea, is the one reason this book has done so well. She is described as slightly over-weight and ugly, yet this doesn't matter. Because she is totally and completely badass. Intelligent, witty and insightful commentary lets us into Kelsea's point of view as she tackles the daunting task of ruling her kingdom. She is kept very human - at 19 she still has qualms about boys, her appearance and sex. But this is all kept in perspective by her fierce determination to do the best for her people. She is very much the kind of heroine and role model I want young women to have.

The best thing is that while Kelsea admits to fancying a male character, there is no romance story in this book. No love triangles, no pining, not even a kiss. It was so refreshing. Here is a book about a strong woman in a world of politics, adventure and fantasy. I haven't read any other book that does this - can anyone tell me one?

While we're being positive, I should also mention the book's pace. It was an easy and compelling read - not the thrilling read-athon that is Harry Potter - but the closest I've found within the genre. Although, I'm not sure what genre it would sit in. It could quite easily sit alongside teen fic like the Hunger Games, but some heavier mentions of rape and violence may prevent this, and the level of fantasy is akin to Game of Thrones - not screaming off every page, but present enough to keep it firmly in that category.

My negative comments around the book mostly involve the setting. The world of the "Tearling" is never really fully explained, so submerging yourself becomes difficult. What I thought was a novel set in a medieval-like, fantasy world is actually our own planet, centuries in the future. So far in the future that the human race has migrated to a new continent and abandoned electricity. It definitely throws a spanner in the suspension of disbelief wheel when you're happily reading about an imaginary land of horses, archery and then suddenly the narrator mentions e-books!?

This also proves problematic when the fantasy elements become more prevalent. Because now you know this is set in the future of planet Earth and we don't have magic here, so it's a struggle to fully believe in the powers Kelsea develops and in the witchcraft of the Red Queen. My other problem with the fantasy of this novel is that it becomes a deus ex machina. I thought Kelsea was awesome without the magic, can't she save her own ass? I much prefer fantasy elements that work as a super power of nature, creating obstacles for humans to overcome.

Going back to genre and where I would expect to find this in a book shop, I think that is another of its flaws. I feel like the story wants to be a teen fic and is mostly written in that way; fact paced and character-driven, shallow in its social commentary and mostly light in tone. Until now and again a brutal reality is presented, such as a hideous gang-rape, paedophilia and slavery. It's as if the publishers want to brand this as the "female Game of Thrones" and so have forced in these elements to bring it out of the teen fiction aisle. It feels wrong to me.  

So if I'm to conclude my thoughts on the book, I am glad to have read it and I look forward to the sequel, which I hope will be darker and see Kelsea taking ownership of her powers.

When it comes to the film I can see how well the story will translate to screen: a character-driven story light on context and setting will transition easily. The casting of Emma Watson I disagree with. Unless she puts on a few pounds and gets her face modified in post production she is not going to match the description we have of Kelsea. Will we ever see a leading lady who doesn't conform to the usual beauty standards? I think I trust David Heyman to stay true to the book's biggest strength (the lack of romance) but I would not be surprised if some kind of love interest was worked in to (sigh) "appeal to the female demographic."

A lot will also depend on the casting of Mace and the portrayal of the Red Queen; these two need to be sufficiently menacing and ugly also. I'd love the film to go really dark and raw, for the design team to show the future, dystopian planet we inhabit with all its rough edges.

I really think if they do it well and stick close to the material they have, the film could be great! There is a serious lack of complex female characters on screen and Watson's fan-base means a lot of young women will want to see this movie and (hopefully) have a good role model for once, instead of bloody Bella Swan or (god help us all) Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades.

Has anyone else read the book? Tell me your thoughts.

*Rant of the Day: Nothing is comparable to GOT. This implies that GOT is for men, when actually its female characters are the strongest and arguably most popular. Having a female protagonist does not/should not make this a book for women. Calling it a "female" novel is completely backwards and everything I hate about gender inequality.