Category Archives: Books & Their Films

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Classification:  Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Epidemic, human nature, loss of sight, civilization and savagery
Content to be aware of:  graphic violence

“You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner of the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives…” from Blindness

Summary:  Beginning with one random motorist and spreading rapidly throughout an unnamed country, an epidemic of blindness deprives a nation of sight.  Only one is spared and thus forced to witness the descent of a people from civilization into savagery.  In an attempt at containment, the government quarantines the afflicted.  During their internment, a small group of protagonists forms, including an ophthalmologist (ironically) and his wife, a young woman, a boy, an old man, and another husband and wife.  The group bands together in a fight to survive even when all hope seems lost.

Notes:  Though I highly recommend this novel, it is not an enjoyable story to read.  Gritty and harrowing, it reminded me of the similarly disturbing work of William Golding in Lord of the Flies for its theme of the fragility of civilization.  What tethers humanity to civilization?  Truly could we so easily transform into beasts?  The author employs reader-response technique, writing with minimal punctuation and depriving the reader of conventional descriptions and characterizations (such as names and additional identifying features), which can make for slower reading, but is effective for simulating the confusion and unknown experienced by the characters.  Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
5 Flags

Blindness (Miramax, 2008)
Director:  Fernando Meirelles
Main Cast:  Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover
Rating: R

Synopsis:  “White sickness” sweeps through a metropolis, blinding an entire population.  Initially the sightless are interned in an unused asylum, and conditions degenerate as more and more people are crammed into the facility.  Among the interned is the only woman whose sight has been spared.  She attempts to care for and protect her husband and the small group of people with whom they have banded together.  When another group of internees seizes control of the food supply and demands payment in exchange for food, a horrifying war ensues as the interned struggle to survive.

Review:  A project requiring the adaptation of a story about blindness to a medium wholly dependent upon visual effects cannot be anything but doomed from the outset. (Click the movie poster image to link to the Rotten Tomatoes page for Blindness.)
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Book or Movie? Book.  Blindness is about people in general, rather than individual characters.  In the novel, the plot propels the reader forward, not an attachment to the characters.  The characters are “Everymen,” but this characterization technique is not successful in the film.  Without a dynamic, charismatic personality with which to identify, the audience fails to develop any emotional investment in the story.

Why I chose this book and filmBlindness is my husband’s book.  He is Portuguese and I imagine he wanted to read Saramago solely for that reason.  Indeed, Saramago is the only Portuguese writer I can name.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself prowling around our book room in search of something to read and decided to give Blindness a go.

I was surprised at how quickly I was absorbed in the story.  This is not an easy book to read, firstly for the lack of punctuation and paragraphs, secondly for the dark, gruesome imagery.

I was also surprised to discover the controversy that surrounded the theatrical release of Blindness in 2008.  In this press release, the President of the National Federation of the Blind expresses his anger at the portrayal of blind people as “incompetent, filthy, vicious, and depraved.”  He goes on to claim that “to portray the blind in this manner, even as alleged allegory or so-called social commentary, is outrageous and reprehensible–and it is a lie.”

With all due respect to the President of NFB, I have to question whether he read and understood Saramago’s novel.  Blindness is not a story about blind people.  It is a story about a nation of people who suffer a tremendous catastrophe and the ensuing chaos.  It reflects on the dark side of humanity and is an important social commentary in a world whose people are increasingly dependent on this one of five senses.  In response to the objections of the blind community to the movie, Saramago was quoted as saying, “Stupidity doesn’t choose between the blind and the non-blind.”

For Jose Saramago’s autobiography, click here.  For Saramago’s 1998 Nobel Lecture, click here.

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The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Book & Film Adaptation)

Classification: Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Cultural identity, Maori, whales, sexism

Ages 12+

 “[The whale] is a reminder of the oneness the world once had.  It is the birth cord joining past and present, reality and fantasy.  It is both.  It is both…and if we have forgotten the communion then we have ceased to be Maori.” ~ from The Whale Rider

Summary:  Deep in the ocean, an ancient bull whale guides his herd through increasingly treacherous waters.  He grows sick with nostalgia for his master Paikea, the whale rider, with whom the old whale shared a special communion.  But generations ago, Paikea left the sea to people the land of Whangara on the east coast of New Zealand.  Depressed and confused, the whale begins to lead his herd toward the beach where he last saw Paikea.  Meanwhile, Paikea’s descendants are in turmoil for they are in need of a new leader.  Koro Apirana, the aging patriarch of the Maori tribe, is determined to school the young men of his community in the old ways.  Koro’s wife Nanny Flowers and his grandson Rawiri look on as Koro continually ignores his small great-granddaughter Kahu, whose given name is the same as Paikea’s traditional tribal name:  Kahutia Te Rangi.  Though only a child, Kahu demonstrates all the wisdom and skills Koro seeks in the tribe’s next leader, but Koro insists a girl is not meant to fill the role.  When the whale herd’s destiny collides with that of the tribe’s and little Kahu is caught in the middle, Koro Apirana is forced to choose between the old ways and a new future.

Notes:  Told alternately from Rawiri’s and the bull whale’s point of view with Maori verse woven in at key points, this story resonates through land and sea with the haunting quality of a whale’s cry in the deep.  When Koro tells a tale to his gathered people, he asks if his story “belongs in the real world or the unreal world?”  “Both,” he insists.  This novel too straddles legend and truth, fact and fiction, in the way of great literature.
5 Flags

Whale Rider (South Pacific Films, 2002)
Director: Niki Caro
Main Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Rating: PG-13

Viewer’s Annotation:  A young Maori girl, Pai Apirana is committed to helping her community preserve the ways of their ancestors even though her grandfather, the tribe’s chief, refuses to teach Pai because she is a girl.

Synopsis:  Koro Apirana’s visible and devastating disappointment that his grandchild is a girl causes 12-year-old Pai to struggle to hold her head up around the stern man.  Though Koro has two sons, he will be the last chief of his tribe unless a new leader emerges.  Determined to find such a leader, Koro trains all of the tribe’s boys in the ways of their people, the descendants of Paikea the Whale Rider.  Banished from Koro’s school, Pai still learns the chants and skills, surpassing the boys in every area and winning a regional speech contest with an essay about her Maori culture.  Unmoved, Koro continues to ignore Pai.  When a pod of whales beach themselves, the whole community despairs, for the hopelessness of the whales seems to mirror the tribe’s situation.  Only Pai is able to pull everyone, even the whales, through the tragedy.

Review:  With incredible acting from the entire cast, this film is deeply moving, depicting the tension between tradition and change for a community whose very identity is threatened by modern culture. 
5 Flags

Book or Movie?  Either.  One of the rare instances when each is outstanding.  What I do love about the book that is not translated to film is the bull whale’s development as a character.  On the other hand, the film brings to life the Maori community, from the eager young boys Koro trains, to Nanny’s card-playing, covert-smoking friends.

Why I chose this book and film:  I suppose I was drawn back to this story after hearing about the Sea World whale trainer who lost her life a couple weeks ago, but the story is an excellent read for Women’s History Month for its themes of sexism, self-discovery and leadership. 

I fell in love with the movie when I saw it in a theater years ago, and I read the book within days of viewing the film.  I saw the movie with my dad, who is Filipino, born and raised in Hawaii.  I never knew my dad’s father who passed away when my dad was a teenager, but from the stories I’ve heard he was not unlike Koro Apirana. 

I know a bit of Maori culture–brief history, a few songs, dances, and poi ball tricks–from the days when I was a hula and Polynesian dancer, but this story is familiar for more than the chanting and the musical swish of rapaki.  It is the sad story of indigenous people the world over, whether they are islanders or not, and their struggle to retain a sense of themselves in a global community that trivializes all they hold dear. 

For more about Witi Ihimaera and Maori culture, click here and here.

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Filed under Adult Fiction, Books & Their Films, YA Literature