(SHOULD I READ IT OR WATCH IT?)
In December, the first story of change and redemption that pops to mind is of course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that most of us know from having watched it rather than read it. No matter its flaws, I love the story and can’t help feeling deeply satisfied every year at this time as I re-watch it. It has probably been done to death, reinterpreted in stories, movies and cartoons, but I love it for those moments when we see the change, the epiphany in Ebenezer Scrooge, and when the new Scrooge re-enters his old world, making waves.
There are several versions of a Christmas Carol (the novella) available at the Library: some adult editions and many beautifully illustrated editions for children (take a look at Ben’s Christmas Carol, and Charles Dickens and Friends).
And then there are all those movie adaptations―at least ten. The Library carries many, including one with Albert Finney, as well as A Muppet Christmas Carol that features a terrific soundtrack. The version that is considered a classic is the one with Alastair Sim (viewable in its entirety on YouTube in a very clear and crisp recording), but I find it tremendously disappointing. Sim’s very dated acting style is almost cartoonish, and his interpretation pales in comparison with George C. Scott’s intense performance (1984), which is by far my favourite; it gives me so many of those moments of emotional connection that great stories create. Butterflies. Shivers.
I’ve experienced those same kinds of moments of inspiration and elevation as a reader and movie lover many, many times, thanks to the kinds of fiction that offer glimpses of hope through the redemption of a character.
Among the classics of literature, there are few stories greater than the redemption of Jean Valjean, who is transformed by his love for the child, Cossette, in Les Misérables. But Victor Hugo’s magnum opus is huge, and you may not feel like tackling it right now, so instead, why not listen to the gorgeous and moving recording of the musical, with a score written and composed by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg?
For a really 21st century adaptation of Les Misérables (designed for our shorter attention span !) why not read it in graphic novel form? The Library has two books that fit the bill, both in manga style. A final option could be to return to the land of Hugo and view the 1958 movie starring Jean Gabin (the Library has several copies).
Closer to home, another tale―this one set on North American soil―makes many people’s favourite films lists. It’s a Stephen King story of friendship and hope in the face of crushing injustice and adversity. Have you guessed which it is? Why, The Shawshank Redemption! King’s short story is actually titled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, but it’s best not to explain it (spoiler alert!). It’s hidden inside a collection of stories titled Different Seasons (1982). I shied away from the movie for years (the brutality of prison movies bothers me), but so many people love the film and describe it as uplifting that I finally gave in. It’s hard to believe that its original release was a box office disappointment.
If the story of inmates Andy and Red inspires you, there’s another story out there that you should know about, and that’s Louis Sachar’s Holes (1998), a Young Adult novel that may very well have been inspired by Stephen King’s story, as it echoes many of its themes. Sachar’s book was already really successful when it was adapted to film (Sachar also wrote the screenplay) in 2003 (has it already been 11 years?).
Holes is the story of Stanley Yelnats, a likeable teen who believes that he’s under the spell of a family curse; and maybe he is, because having been found guilty of theft, he winds up at Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention and correctional facility which, despite its name, is in the middle of a barren desert, and the turf of a pretty corrupt Warden. Just like Andy in Shawshank prison―though in a sweeter and definitely funnier way―it’s the friendship he develops with the feral boy Hector Zeroni (a.k.a Zero), believed to be stupid by everyone but Stanley, that gives him the hope and inspiration to escape and redeem his family name.
Holes is a terrific novel, and the movie actually provided actor Shia Labeouf with his breakout role―as Stanley himself.
While I was brainstorming to come up with feel good, elevating stories that crossed over to cinema, it occurred to me that actor Jeff Bridges has had a hand in many.
The first of these is Fearless (1993), a gorgeous film directed by Peter Weir, based on the novel by American writer Raphael Iglesias. It’s the story of what happens to Max Klein (played by Bridges in the movie) who walks away from a terrible plane crash (providing some extraordinary scenes in the movie) unharmed―in appearance only. In reality, of course, Max’s life has been ripped from its foundations. Fearless recounts how he finds his way back to the earth and to the light.
It’s a beautiful story with several searing moments of truth and inspiration.
And then there’s K-Pax, a sleeper of a movie that was ignored by many but loved by Roger Ebert and by me! This movie brings us an understated Jeff Bridges in the role of a psychiatrist whose work in a hospital connects him with a new patient, the gentle enigmatic genius who calls himself, simply, Prot, and claims to be a visitor from the planet K-Pax. Much like Fearless, K-Pax deals in the open-endedness of life’s most important questions, without offering simplistic answers. It’s a movie from which you walk away with a full heart.
And then there’s True Grit, the novel written by Charles Portis in 1968 that was adapted to the screen, most recently and with the greatest authenticity, by the Coen brothers. In this tale, Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old from Yell County, Arkansas, hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (surely, one of the great character names in fiction) to apprehend the man who shot her father. The integrity and resolve of both of these characters will be sorely tested through their quest, but in the end, there is redemption, especially for Cogburn.
There’s so much you can read and watch this season, to counter the winter blues! Here are some more suggestions if you’re searching for something beyond Santa and his reindeers (though of course they do quite nicely in December):
- Don’t forget Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (well, how could you?)―both the book or the movie versions―guaranteed to make your heart swell with joy;
- Or else pick up The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a modern-day Grinch redeemed by his very own Cindy Lou Who ( and go check out TO SEE A WORLD IN A BOOKSTORE);
- Consider watching (or re-watching, because it’s à propos) Groundhog Day;
- Or discover (if you haven’t already) two movie gems, one made in Quebec and the other, in France, that will fill you to the brim: L’Audition and Intouchables.
So stick your hand into the Library’s big bag of delights and see what inspiring books, movies or CDs you get!