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Winter’s Tale

February 25, 2014

It is time for a bit of magical writing, I believe. I must do something to make February come to an end, and have decided that the only way to do that is to get a certain book out of my head by writing about it.

All winter long I have had Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin on my bedside table. I read about 400 of its 688 pages and then heard the movie was coming out, so I stopped. There’s no point reading a book right before the movie comes out; you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Last weekend I went to see the movie by myself, and I was delighted by it. Magic! A flying horse! A love story with a very hot heroine (sorry, couldn’t help myself there—in the movie she melts snow with her feet which is funny even in the face of imminent great tragedy, kind of like the scene in The Princess Bride when Westley’s mostly-corpse is asked what’s so important and it says “true love” but it sounds like “to blave.”)

And that, in a nutshell, is what’s making lovers of the book and serious critics groan about the movie. The book is long and multi-layered and crammed with characters and symbols, and the movie takes a couple of the storylines and pumps up the characters like inflatable dolls and poses them for a couple of the most spectacular scenes. I love that! But a lot of what I love about it is that it’s funny. Will Smith as Lucifer? I’ll pay money to see that!

It’s also full of scenes that you wouldn’t think you’d ever see. Someone actually filmed Peter Lake’s lair above a train station complete with pinholes that look like stars if you think to look up? I want to look at it! And the flying horse, well. Let’s just say that you get more than one look at its wings.

This movie could be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show, if we would just give it a chance. Preferably at midnight, and well-fortified with whatever fortifies you.

Lovers of the book would probably like to see more of the unlikely scenes, like the places where the bad guys (“short tails”) meet early on:
“They felt privileged to convene on the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, waist-deep in not entirely empty water tanks, nestled in terror between the spars of the Statue of Liberty’s crown, in the cellar beneath an opium den on Doyer Street, or at the edge of the central sewer fall, sitting like picnickers in the dark by the side of Niagara.”

Or the scene in which the good guy, Peter Lake, does what his mentor asks:
“’With all your strength, Peter Lake, strike now!’ Peter Lake struck an enormous blow, and waited for further instructions. He waited and waited—and when finally he looked behind the shield, he saw Mootfowl, smiling alertly, unusually still, serene, pinned through his heart to an oaken log.
‘Oh Lord,’ Peter Lake said, too shocked to feel any grief even for a man he had loved so much. He had stuck Mootfowl like a butterfly.
You could not drive an iron stake through the heart of a man of the cloth, and expect to go unpunished.”

Although the trappings are mystical, take any one of the elements from the book out of its immediate context, and it’s funny. Take for example the mysterious “Baymen,” who know the secret name of Peter Lake’s magical white horse and tell him that “there are ten songs….one learns them, beginning at age thirteen, one each decade….the third song, Peter Lake, is the song of Athansor.” Peter reflects that knowing the horse’s name doesn’t change their relationship, but…
“something had changed, or was changing. Everything always did, no matter how much he loved what he had. The only redemption would be if all the tumbling and rearrangement were to mean something. But he was aware of no pattern. If there were one great equality, one fine universal balance that he could understand, then he would know that there were others, and that someday the curtain of the world would lift onto a sunny springlike stillness and reveal that nothing—nothing—had been for nought….”

The great human romance of the book, between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, is over by page 188, which gives you an idea of the great swathes of the book that are cut out and completely ignored by the movie.

The other romance is with the city of New York. Having just spent months playing a rather difficult and yet unrewarding twentieth-century composition for symphony entitled “Reflections on the Hudson” by Nancy Bloomer Deussen, I was uninclined to respond sympathetically to rhapsodies like this one:
“On the Hudson, there was always the opportunity to be educated deeply in the heart. The beauty of the landscape did the rest, along with the magic of the moon, the river’s hot and reedy bays, the glittering silver ice, days of summer or days of snow submerged in an ocean of clear blue air, fields never-ending, the wind from Canada, and the great city to the south.”

I am, however, delighted by chapters like “Nothing is Random,” which begins with the image of
“a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another”
and ends with
“any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.”
I’m delighted in spite of the mention of the dead being brought back to life, even, as the magic in this book is of the sort that would shine a bright light on necromancy and reveal it entirely as a dirty, rotten parody of life.

Dark and light come together at the end of the book, with a new mayor who “was the first mayor ever to be elected without the bosses….they did not know what to expect from him. He might speak about winter’s charm, excoriate the evils of television, or wonder out loud about the city’s destiny….with exactly a month to go before the millennium, he chose in his inauguration address to discourse upon the metaphysical balance that informed all events and was so characteristic of the city as almost to be its hallmark.”

This is not to say that New York does not experience an apocalypse:
“Afraid to leave their cars and venture into the city of the poor, especially since pillars of fire were now twisting amid the rubble, most people locked themselves in, petrified with fear, as thousands of marauders streamed onto the highway. Cars were rocked, windows smashed, and lighted pieces of wood dropped into gas tanks. Families were pulled from their cars and dragged separately into the darkness. The shoulders of the road became a slaughterhouse in which trembling victims and shining blades met to produce rivers of blood.”

But a new city rises. One might almost say there is a vision of a city upon a hill.

The movie makers actually capture some of the tone of the book well, in the miniscule bit that they decided to tackle. And tackle it they did, pulling it down, keeping it there, succeeding in stopping it from getting across a goal line.

Still, though, they must have expected magic. And what we get is…Will Smith as Lucifer!

So, an end now, to Winter’s Tale. Time for spring…as I write, so mote it be.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2014 12:17 pm

    I thought I had read this, once upon a time, in my early 20s, shortly after reading A Soldier of the Great War, but it hardly sounded familiar at all. I may have to refamiliarize myself with it.

    • February 27, 2014 8:44 am

      It’s possible I didn’t summarize enough for you to remember it. There are a LOT of characters and storylines, and I mentioned only a few of them.

  2. drgeek permalink
    February 25, 2014 3:23 pm

    I usually like to re-read Winter’s Tale every 5-10 years, more to see how I have aged than how the book has. I think there is much that is overtly funny… from Athansor bounding up onto the vaudeville stage, only to be enamored by the lights and wanting to try out a few facial expressions… to an appearance of a Samurai warrior out of the cloud wall in the Bayonne marshes where he is immediately killed by a marsh man, and the marsh man remarking “oh crap, it’s tin.” when he goes to pick up the sword… to the verbal gymnastics of Mrs. Gamely and her pet rooster… to Hardesty Marratta being “putty in the hands of the Widow Endicott”… to Craig Binky with his bodyguards Scrotu and Alertu and his airship “the Binkopede”. I haven’t seen the film… and I approach it with ferocious hesitation.
    The book has Virginia Gamely saying something like “I have imagined both great races and great victories. The races were better.” I fear that the movie is neither… and why give it the power to describe anything about the book?

    • February 27, 2014 8:47 am

      If you’ve read the book more than once, you will probably not like anything about the movie. Stay away.
      I see movies and books as very different things; I don’t believe anyone can give a movie “power to describe anything about the book.” I could not enjoy the LOTR movies, for example, if I didn’t think of them as Peter Jackson fanfiction.

  3. February 25, 2014 5:25 pm

    While I’ll admit I’ve no desire to read this book at all, I kind of want to see the movie now. The next Rocky Horror? I could go for that.

    • February 27, 2014 8:47 am

      There could be a drinking game based on how many times Colin Farrell tosses his hair back out of his eyes.

  4. February 26, 2014 12:28 pm

    I haven;t read the book yet and my husband read it so long ago he barely remembers it. I was going to read it before I saw the movie but it sounds like I should wait and read the book after the movie? And Will Smith as Lucifer, love it!

    • February 27, 2014 8:49 am

      My advice is always to wait and read the book after the movie. It can only improve the experience, in most cases.
      The Perks of Being a Wallflower might be an exception to that rule–the movie is better.

  5. February 26, 2014 8:56 pm

    I haven’t decided if I would like the book OR the movie. I am sure I will probably watch the movie at some point… We will see about reading it!

    • February 27, 2014 8:50 am

      If you like the few storylines featured in the movie, then you know you could read the book and get about 40 more!

  6. February 27, 2014 3:38 pm

    I went to see the movie with a friend. Neither of us had read the book and neither of us cared for the movie. Maybe if we’d approached it as a comedy we would have.

    • February 27, 2014 4:48 pm

      Being well-fortified might have helped too. Much of the comedy was definitely not intended, but that makes it better in some circles (sheepish grin).

  7. February 28, 2014 7:56 am

    What a ride! It sounds like it might be better just to think of the movie and book as two completely separate entities. Also, just realized your posts haven’t been showing up in my bloglovin feed (I miss GoogleReeder) so I’m sorry I haven’t been by as much!

    • February 28, 2014 11:27 am

      In general, I think of a book and movie as separate entities.
      The reader situation is difficult… I use Feedly and have gone back to my old habit of looking at most of the blogs on my blogroll about once a week.

  8. February 28, 2014 4:49 pm

    ‘pumps up the characters like inflatable dolls and poses them for a couple of the most spectacular scenes’ Lol! Love it, what a great line in an altogether great review. No movie could ever translate 700 pages of dense, multi-layered narrative into a 90 minute film, so it had to do something different, right? That’s the problem with turning cult books into movies. I’m always a little wary of very long books, but one day I might read A Winter’s Tale, just out of curiosity to see what it’s like.

    • March 2, 2014 11:11 pm

      I’ve always loved long books, partly because when I was a child, there was a ten-book-per-week limit at the public library. I read all the longest books they had.
      Of course, this might explain my attitude towards seeing the movie first. As you say, no movie can take 700 pages and make much of it.
      Glad you liked the inflatable doll line, and thanks for the compliment.

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