why modernizations matter

I have a lot of fun with modernizations of classic novels or plays; whether it’s experiencing them or dreaming them up, I’m drawn to them exceedingly. There is nothing more entertaining than watching your favorite characters burst onto the scene of modernity – it’s like they’re entering into our world. When my brother, cousin and I watched Clueless, I don’t think anyone enjoyed seeing the updates to Austen’s Emma as much as I did (and I definitely don’t think the two of them liked me screeching out scenes from the original book). When you pitch a novel into the modern world, you lose all the trappings that distance you from its issues; it’s easy to look at costumes and old language and say, “This happened, but it was in the past, so it doesn’t really apply to my life.”

Let me talk about one of the best birthday presents I have ever received: This year, for my 21st, my family got me tickets to the Dallas Theater Center’s modern performance of Les Mis. I do not say this lightly: not only was it the best production of Les Mis that I have ever seen, but it may have been the best performance I’ve attended, period. The musical hasn’t really changed in its staging since its inception, and that tends to remove the audience; this threw us right into the issues Hugo had been trying to bring to light in the 19th century. The preface to Les Mis says it best:

“so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

With this production, I was slapped in the face with the realization that these miserable things really do still plague our society. The cast was diverse, desperate and honest, conveying emotion that I didn’t realize the play had left. The prisoners wore orange and the plight of the ex-con is palpable and raw; lovely ladies was a shocking jolt. The poor pushed shopping carts and held “ex-veteran” signs, Valjean had prison tattoos, the students sipped lattes and traded their hipster scarves in for bulletproof vests and Che Guevara caps; the Thenardiers ran a seedy dive bar. The police brutality was so painful and palpable; in the final barricade scene, the faceless police officers surrounded the audience, moving in through the crowd and killing the rebels; it was so personal and awful and topical. I questioned the revolutionaries a lot more this time – in today’s world, what would drive someone to lead themselves and their friends into the mouth of death? – but Gavroche’s murder made me realize what they were fighting for.

More than anything, it did exactly what Les Mis was intended to do: it inflamed my sense of justice and my desire to try to right the societally imposed wrongs that I see in the world. In N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (confession, I haven’t finished) and several conversations with my father have helped me realize that trying to make the world better isn’t optional – as Christians, especially, we are called to feed, clothe, shelter, and comfort our fellow man. It’s not a resume-building volunteerism that should propel us, but a desire to see God’s kingdom realized on earth:

“Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise not to a meek acquiescence to injustice in the world but to a robust determination to oppose it.”

Moderizations are incredibly fun and entertaining, but the point should always, always be to encourage a deeper understanding of the original text by applying it to our own world. The point of so much literature is to touch on modern issues; although they might seem old-fashioned now, at the time they were written, their authors intended them as a commentary on modern society’s shortcomings.

In another vein, I saw the trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Annie last week and was blown away; I didn’t expect to be as excited as I am, but when I saw that they had made Annie a foster child, I was so struck and so glad that they updated the story. In this version, Annie is black, and although some (racist) people were upset, I could not be more glad. In the original version, Annie’s red hair marks her as belonging to a group that was marginalized (more strongly in the 19th century) – the Irish. Today, Annie’s race also places her in a racial group that is still often shown prejudice and unfair treatment; African-Americans have to fight stereotype every day.

Representation is so important; as vital as it is for everyone that all different types of people are portrayed as real characters in media, it affects children most.  When young girls and boys can see themselves in television, books, and movies, it inspires them and gives them characters to identify with. It makes them believe that they can be the heroes of their own stories: Latina girls watching Brooklyn Nine Nine can aspire to be cops, and Asian-American boys watching Up can hope to be as brave as Russell.  With the modernized Annie, thousands of African-American girls and thousands of children in foster care can see themselves on screen and say, my story is important; hopefully, the rest of us can say the same.

Hugo was right – by nature, people are broken and striving, and time will not change that. People have been the same since the beginning, and we continue to struggle between good and evil. This can seem daunting and hopeless, if we let it, but we have to keep working toward change for God’s kingdom. There will always be a story to tell or to retell; hopefully, we will continue to speak out for those who struggle to be heard.

><>

Advertisements

the symphony

I’ve been trying to write this blog post for weeks.  I jotted down all of my thoughts the night of the event and proceeded to lose and find that sheet of paper at least five times.  It’s currently lost.

One weekend in April this year, I went to the symphony for the very first time.  My friend and I gawked at the Rococo gold-and-white beauty that is Powell Hall, settled down in our fancy dresses, and waited for it to begin.

It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and I can safely say that it was life-changing.

Although I expected to like it, I didn’t expect the explosion of thought that would accompany enjoyment of the music.  I was completely fixed in my seat, but it was as if that tethering of intense focus only gave my thoughts more room to come alive above the wordless music.  Each different twist and turn of the music pushed my mind in another direction, prodding it, summoning up ideas and realizations.

The symphony itself was incredible.  I sometimes listen to classical music as I study, but this was arresting, much more so than mere background music.  There’s that lovely moment of prescience on the note right before where you wait on that cusp, feeling a contented jolt at a correct prediction and an electric pleasure at being proved surprisingly wrong.

Berlioz was terrifyingly brilliant.  Paganini was a madman. Aren’t all artists mad, though, I thought?  If madness is seeing something that isn’t there, then poets and artists – seeing the past, the future, and people that don’t even exist – are raving.  If madness is seeing what isn’t, then I was hallucinating right there, living in between two realities, planted in one and peering into the other.  These are some of my visions.

Watching so many people move together as a unit evoked an imperfect metaphor of the body of Christ and how beautiful true community can be.  In true community both people’s individual selves are kept intact as well as the group as a whole (Romans 12).  Diversity in the midst of community is one of the most beautiful things the body of Christ exhibits, people from every tongue and tribe and nation coming together for the singular purpose of living life together to praise God.

I thought about the misjudgement people make in comparing writing to music, and the beauty in telling a story without any words at all.  I tried to feel the plot from the notes and the instruments, and I didn’t completely get it.  But I remember feeling uneasy as my hairs rose, prickling, on my arms, or feeling relief at the tolling of bells.

I was also utterly captived by Augustin Hadelich, the violinist.  I saw how beautiful passion makes a person, and how much more there is to beauty than just physical appearance.  As he played, I thought about the intimacy of relationship between a musician and his or her instrument.  He knew every inch of the violin, exactly what to do with it, how to explore and find new wholes and play old melodies in an entirely new way.  He played, and I found myself in a space outside of time, and the rest of the world could keep on moving while I stayed and listened to him.

I imagined him as a boy, learning to clumsily pluck the strings of his new instrument, or maybe a borrowed violin, lightyears different from the borrowed violin that he currently played.  I imagined his first recital, his frustration that, even though his ability was growing, he still couldn’t play the hard pieces.  I imagined the horror that he felt after being trapped in that fire, his flesh rearranged and reconstructed, the terror that must have gripped him at the idea he might never play again.  And I imagined him with white hair, his mended skin wrinkling, playing with as much feeling and skill as he did here.

I saw the dome of the symphony hall tremble, speed up, begin to decay.  I imagined the cushions falling from their seats and the lights blowing out and leaving tiny shards of glass on the dirty carpet, the roof sagging and the paint peeling and the wind blowing leaves across the empty stage.  I imagined the hall in a hundred years, desolate, nature performing for herself and no one else, and I wondered if, even then, it would remember the sound of that symphony, if it would somehow ingrain itself into the structure.  If it would hold it close and bring it back up on lonely days, when the storm outside didn’t quite reach the inside, when the plinked dripping of the rain through the floorboards of the stage renewed itself in Paganini or Berlioz and the ghostly tune swelled within the shell of the hall.

And then a gasp of air, and the hall is glowing golden again, complete and full of life and music and the hushed rustle of hundreds of bodies shifting in their seats, fabric against velvet.

I’m sure there was more than this, and I’m disappointed that I don’t remember the flood of ideas.  I wished that symphonies could be like museums, letting everyone experience what I had; I wondered if everyone would want to.  I thought much of writing, much of inventiveness, much of God, some of others, and little of love.  But the symphony was nearly two months ago, now, and my memory has left me with this and with a feeling of fulfillment, peace, and reaching beyond my own shell.

><>

Listen to this: Augustin Hadelich playing Paganini: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsJyuJppA7s

Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DWjI1uLSzw