Zipper Sisters and Others > Deryni Movies

Is this the Deryni Moment?

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I've been a bit reluctant to start a new topic, especially since "Memo to the Filmmakers" gets so many reads (1788 last time I checked) and zero replies, but this idea has been buzzing round my head for the last week, and this article from the LA Times has goaded me to type again. I also run the risk of being misunderstood in some of the comparisons I will make, but I cherish the hope that you will read the thing through before you flame me for what you think I've written (I alluded to a small point in a chat and got attacked for it until another member came to my rescue, so I speak from experience). I will strive for brevity, but I promise no results.

There's a good deal of media coverage discussing the state of Hollywood this time of year, and some of it alludes to the tentpole project, with its merchandising opportunities and the presumed economic security (noted in the LA Times piece) of previously existing ideas or material. The book/TV series/graphic novel/toy with a proven audience base is supposed to be a hedge against boxoffice failure for the risk-averse studios. This is supposed to reflect a major shortcoming of the major studios' mindset. Perhaps in the the general way it is, but in particular cases it may not be. Specifically, previously created works that reflect something in the current zeitgeist can offer both a hedge against the risk and a fresh feeling of timeliness. I suggest that KK's works, particularly those from Deryni Rising forward, are such works.

An overarching theme of ITKS and the subsequent novels is a tale of a vilified minority group that suffers because their very identities and the hideous deeds attributed to them (in most cases, falsely so) evoke fear in members of the majority over a period of decades/centuries. Power-hungry members of the majority stoke those fears and lies among their fellows, in part to secure their own power, and create a body of punitive secular law and religious dogma to codify their hatred. Despite these pressures, more members of the minority group are born all the time. Some minority members live openly (and pay a price), while many others conceal their membership in the minority group—some of them going so far as to internalize the hatred of the larger culture, denying their very natures to themselves. The solidarity of the minority group is tested as some members denigrate those who are thought to be inferior in having or demonstrating the minority trait, without much actual evidence that such inferiority exists (and much evidence that it doesn't), despite the manifest unfairness in penalizing people for things beyond their control, and in the face of common enemies who would cheerfully destroy the lot of them for possessing that same trait in any degree whatsoever. Sterling members of the minority group prove their loyalty and their worth in the face of centuries of discrimination, thereby gaining allies in the majority group. Restrictions of first law and then dogma are eased. A younger generation of leaders emerges who question the old precepts of hatred and discard them as incorrect and irrelevant. A long process of reconciliation begins.

Sound familiar? It should. The paragraph above could describe the changing position of LGBT people in Western democracies over the course of our lifetimes. Individuals reveal their orientation, putting human faces on the scary old demon queers. There have been (and sadly still are) tensions between gays and lesbians, between gays/lesbians and bisexuals, between "straight-acting" gays/lesbians/bis and transgender/genderqueer people. Full-on criminalization and the stigma of mental illness have been lifted in many places. Legal impediments only somewhat less onerous (employment discrimination and civil marriage bans) are gradually going away. While a vociferous subset of the hetero majority tries to turn back the clock, demographics are not on their side; polls indicate that younger generations of people support gay equality and reject the old ideas. The saga of the Deryni in eleventh- and twelfth-century Gwynedd mirrors themes in our news today.

That's merely the thematic aspect. I've already discussed at length the technological advantages of high definition for telling these tales on the silver screen, and several of us have mentioned the merchandising potential of the series. Factor in the winding down of the Harry Potter film saga and the opening that presents in the box office schedule, as well as the precedent it sets for a longer series of films. Remember that books have plenty of action (arcane duels and rituals, even a few battles) as well as existential angst. Recall the ongoing success of The King's Speech and consider that box office glory can come from emotionally compelling fare. Consider too the possibilities of Oscars in light of the LOTR successes. Think of the actors (particularly those with reputations and/or personal production firms) who might spot these themes and the dramatic power of various scenes and take an interest. Hell, picture Christian Bale, beard and all, portraying Warin de Grey about to stab Duncan McLain!

Many of us, myself included, have wanted these books to come to the big screen for a long time. I say our time has come at last. Do you agree? Don't be shy!

I agree with you, BalanceThe Energies, because the themes are very relevant to experiences in many places around the world today.   Fear of minorities, fear of "differences", desperate strategies to deal with real and perceived threats.  But my greatest fear is that alas, Hollywood all too often goes 'over the top' and rams The Big Themes down your throats, so that any sense of subtlety is lost.  There is also a most distressing tendency to go for the 'big action' scenes and flashy special effects, where none are needed.  I am sure we will get fireworks in the actual duel in DR, but I would sincerely hope that this is not made into the be-all and end-all of the movie, and that we are given a sense of the characters, tensions and conflicts to which you refer, and which lead up to the coronation.   

IF - and it's a big IF given the medieval settings - the scriptwriters and directors can see the Deryni books as something other than flashy 'swords and sorcery' stories, then yes, the books have great potential in terms of the themes.  I would hope they could be filmed along the lines of A Man for All Seasons or Becket or The Lion in Winter, where those aspects come to the fore, and magic is simply the basis on which certain people are feared, rather than an excuse for showing off special effects.   One of the problems with the Harry Potter movies is that many of the books' subtleties, themes and nuances have been lost, and (most heinously in terms of many book fans!) some of the key aspects between the three main characters were altered.   Sure, the makers were concentrating on telling a good movie story, but if you are wanting the movie versions of KK's books to resonate in terms of their complex and relevant themes, then they need to be made with respect for those aspects.   I would hate to see High Deryni, for example, be given anything other than the quiet ending KK has written - a thoughtful and emotional Kelson musing on the burdens of kingship and what has happened, what he has had to do, and will have to do in future.  I'd like to see it stop right there, with the end credits going up as he's given a white horse and he and his companions ride off to take the cheers of the Haldane army.   

I'm not sure whether to hope Hollywood recognizes the themes of the Deryni series, or hope that they don't!  It's a sort of "damned if they do, damned if they don't" proposition, most of the time.  Sometimes they don't recognize the themes of the story at all, but if they manage to capture as much of the surface storyline, basic conflicts, character interactions, etc. in the film as in the original book, then at least 80% of the original essence of the story will get through, and astute viewers might still pick up on the subtext, or at least be intrigued enough by the movie to go out and buy the books, and will discover the subtext there.  That is what I'm hoping for with the Deryni film(s), because in my opinion--given recent Hollywood offerings--that would likely be our best case scenario.

Sometimes, though, Hollywood says "Oh look, here's a cool and culturally relevant theme!  But it's subtle and we can't count on 100% of the audience getting it, so we'd better glitz and glam it up, take out all this 'unnecessary' stuff in the story ('unnecessary,' that is, to pushing their agenda, though quite necessary to the story if it's to remain something resembling the original, fully dimensional story and not just a delivery mechanism for an agenda!), change the characters a bit to 'modernize' them and make them more 'relevant' to today's audiences, and make the theme so glaringly obvious that even a toddler fresh out of diapers will learn The Moral Of The Story!"  And then you end up with a story that either slams you with an agenda to the point of killing the story ("Happy Feet," which starts out as a fairly sweet 'children's' tale--albeit with some awfully adult subtext!--about penguins trying to attract mates, but eventually devolves into a rant against commercial overfishing in Antarctic waters that had some young children--my own daughter included--traumatized, leaving the theatre in tears and vowing never to eat fish sticks again!), or you end up with filmmakers inexplicably forgetting what the original story was meant to be about in the first place because they've had "Better Ideas." (For one horrific example, compare the book version of A Ring of Endless Light with the TV version: vs. ).  Now, I happen to love dolphins, and as an impressionable young teen, the book version of A Ring of Endless Light briefly made me consider a career in marine biology.  But it's first and foremost a book about a teenaged girl's struggle to come to terms with mortality, not just a "save the dolphins" story, and to strip away all of the rest of the book's message to reduce it to that both demeans the original novel and its intent, and alienates viewers (this one, anyway) from the "New And Improved Theme" the filmmakers tried to make it all about instead.  That's what hammering viewers with any theme tends to do, no matter how worthy the theme might happen to be.

And that's what I'm desperately afraid would happen to DR and the rest of the series, if Hollywood starts to see the series as "stories with a theme" instead of just "really cool stories we could do some fun special effects with."  I'd rather have the audience see the stories on screen as close to the original books as Hollywood is capable of depicting them, even if that only deals with the 'superficial, surface stuff' of the books, and hope that at least 80% of the underlying essence gets through despite the filmmakers' blissful unawareness that it has any sort of "theme," and that viewers are left wanting more, go out to buy the books, and KK ends up filthy rich off the royalties.  ;)  Otherwise, call me cynical, but here's what I predict will happen if this film ends up in the wrong hands:

"Oh, sweet!  Here's this great Deryni series of books that's chock full of LGBT issues; that's certainly timely and culturally relevant, so what can we do to crack that up a notch and make sure the audience doesn't miss the point?  Well, let's see...sure, this is the coming-of-age story of a boy king who is learning how to be a man and rule wisely and well...yadda yadda...ok, that doesn't really serve the agenda, so we'll downplay all that, but look here, here's a really compelling character in this Alaric, and he's one of those misunderstood Deryni, and he's got LOTS of freakin' potential...yeah!  OK, so just to make sure folks get the point, he's not just Deryni now, he's persecuted because he's Deryni AND he's gay...oh, wait, you say there's a wife coming up in the later books?  Well, no problem...'Richenda', 'Richard', no one's going to know the difference unless they've read the books, and they came out years ago...what, the 70s or early 80s?  Yeah, so 'Richard' it is, because s/he's just a bit character anyway.  So, Alaric's our hero, and he and his cousin Duncan are off to save the day, and...oh wait, we do need to write this Kelson chap in a bit, right?  OK, so that's our subplot now.  He's a boy king, so let's make him an angsty dithery sort, because strong leaders who know their own mind are SO 1960s, and we're not out to write about decisive men like Thomas More anymore.  Even the New and Improved Aragorn and Peter of Narnia had to learn how to dither and be J. Alfred Prufrocks*, because we can't have strong leaders presuming they know what they're doing without having to angst first...if they dared to wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled, they might disturb the universe!  So this Kelson...he'd be insecure too, much more so than he was in the books--that's more realistic and relatable, you know--and the great climactic point of the film can be when Kelson grows enough of a spine to stand up to Loris and have this showdown with lots of fireworks...what do you mean, Loris isn't in this movie?  Well, it can't be Alaric vs. Charissa, because if Alaric's gay, there's no chance to spice that duel up with sexual tension and lots of innuendo for audiences to giggle over, so let's just chuck her out of the script and bring Loris in a bit early.  Unless we want to change Charissa to Charles...."

I'd like to think that's over-exaggerated for comic effect, but then I go back to the differences between the book and film versions of A Ring of Endless Light and I really have to wonder if I trust Hollywood to "get" this series at all.   Since I don't, I'm hoping they'll stick to what they do best when they bother to try harder--telling a decent story that bears at least some strong resemblance to the original, with some decent special effects, and enough substance to make the viewers want to rush out and buy the books afterwards.  *sigh*  They might not have "nailed" the full essences of Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter either, but at least they attracted more readers to those series, and if the DR film and any subsequent ones can manage that instead of alienating potential readers by being too hamfisted and so off the point that the original stories can't shine through, then I'll be content.

*For those of you whom I just lost with that literary reference, here's what I mean by "Prufrock."  I swear I think of this poor fellow whenever I watch many of today's modernized angsty-dithery "heroes" on film.   :D

LOL Evie - but there is much truth (alas) in your Prufrock adaptation.

But apart from Hollywood's inability to 'get' important themes, my biggest fear is that the strong religious element would not sit too kindly with various powers that be.  The Church in Gwynedd may only be modelled on the medieval Church, but I can foresee some most unholy problems with certain elements of the current religious Right in the USA were these films to come up with what appears to be a "Church vs magic" theme, with most of the good guys on the magic side.   Sure, WE know that there are good and bad guys on both sides, but even on your superficial action movie scenario, you cannot escape the involvement of the Church, and the elements of fear and bigotry amongst the Church leaders.   Hollywood can handle corruption, cabals and intrigues in the political world, right up to the White House, but I don't like its chances of dealing with the strong religious elements in the books, without running into trouble with very vocal sections of the US community, or making a total travesty of the books and their plotlines.   Fortunately, KK is alive and well, and would (we all hope!) have strong veto powers over scripts.

Look at the fuss over the Harry Potter books, which have been banned from many local schools and libraries on the grounds that they promote the 'evils' of magic.   The HP books are constantly on the ALA's "challenged" list, purely for the witchcraft and magic elements, and they don't even mention "religion" as such!!   Fortunately, KK's books have escaped that kind of scrutiny and ill-informed challenge - so far. 

Well, as I wrote on another group when the final HP book first came out, if you're too busy railing against the fantasy "magic" in the books to bother reading them, you're going to miss out on the whole point of the stories, not to mention the fact that the Potter universe happens to be chock-full of Christian symbolism (which is doubtless why Rowling, in an early interview, said she didn't want to reveal too much about her religious beliefs for fear of giving away the series' ending too early.  Rowling, IIRC, belongs to the Church of Scotland, which might not be conservative enough to please the most rabid of her detractors, but last time I checked, the CoS was still Christian!)    I mean, never mind the whole sacrificial love theme, the communion cup imagery, protection under the blood of one who died for you, etc., since some of those elements arguably crop up in other world religions as well.  But is it even possible for any astute reader, Christian or not, to miss all that death/burial/resurrection stuff in Book 7 going on at KING'S CROSS, of all places?   ;D

But yes, there will always be those who miss the point, and can't be bothered to watch the films or read the books because of preconceived notions.  And my fear is, if the theme of a Deryni movie is "amped up" to the point of interfering with the story (due to Hollywood's often ham-fisted approach to storytelling), people will get preconceived notions about what KK "meant" or "didn't mean" by her books based on what filmmakers have decided to make their stories mean, not based on what she actually wrote.  And really, her themes have applicability to various situations at various times, whether it's LGBT issues in the early 21st Century, or antisemitism of the mid-20th Century (and remember, when KK first created the Deryni, that's what she had more in mind at the time, although certainly similarities can be drawn).  I'd hate to see them become too narrowed down by filmmakers as "THIS is what the stories have to mean," since they are meaningful to different readers for different reasons, and I expect the same would hold true for the films as well, if the filmmakers are wise enough to be as subtle as the books rather than...well, you know, Hollywood.    :D


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