I’m not sure whether these actually count as book reviews per se but I wanted to look at two books I’ve recently read which both struggled to overcome the same challenge – when a cracking idea doesn’t necessarily translate into a cracking book.
The two books I’m looking at here are:
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith, and
- Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes
In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the world of the classic Jane Austen novel is under attack from zombie hordes and, against this background of a war versus the undead, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy play out their ‘will they won’t they’ love affair.
In Look Who’s Back, Hitler wakes up in Germany 2011, dazed and confused, with no memory of anything that happened after 1945. The dictator is back from the dead – with no memory of defeat. How will he react to Germany now – and how will Germany react to him?
If these were given to you in an elevator pitch, you’d think ‘yeah! These sound amazing!’ And these are two wickedly brilliant ideas.
In Hollywood, it’s the ‘what if’ premise – a huge factor in blockbuster movies, such as ‘what if someone brought dinosaurs back to life?’ ‘what if a friendly alien came to earth and became best friends with a young boy?’ ‘what if an army of ghosts attacked New York City’, ‘what if a group of terrorists took over a building but there was a New York cop on the inside?’ and so on….
Both of these books are part of that approach – ‘what if Hitler was around today?’ ‘what if we mix zombies with Jane Austen?’ It’s high concept type stuff. You can just feel film execs getting their blood pumping over these ideas.
So it should be no surprise that both books are films – Look Who’s Back has just opened in Germany and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is due to be released next year.
So, great premise, interesting ideas. But that’s not the same as story.
Without wishing to go OTT on ‘story’, as there’s a whole lifetime’s worth of study on this, story has to have a beginning, middle and end. Characters and plots are interdependent and cannot exist without the other, each having impacting and developing the other. And it’s all got to have a purpose.
Which is where we then start to come unstuck with these two books.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, well, it is actually the actual Jane Austen words with the odd reference to zombies thrown in. The zombies are already there at the start of the book and they are there at the end – neither rising, nor falling. Their presence doesn’t change the story at all and doesn’t really change the characters.neither do the characters change them.
After the first zombie attack at the Netherfield Ball – the Bennett girls kill a few zombies and then the dancing resumes – the book is just a pattern of the odd zombie attack weaved into the complete text of Pride and Prejudice.
It’s a gimmick that serves no character or plot purpose and after about Chapter 3, just starts repeating itself and loses its charm.
The set up for Look Who’s Back is, clearly, one of a blistering political satire. There is so much to explore here – how would politicians react to Hitler, how would German society? Would Hitler hate the Germany that he found – or would he actually be incredibly proud of its success?
But like PP&Z (Let’s hear it for acronyms), it doesn’t create a story. It’s all rather episodic – Hitler discovers computers, Hitler discovers Wikipedia, Hitler discovers German newspapers, Hitler discovers You-Tube, Hitler becomes a You-Tube sensation, Hitler walks down the streets and some people look at him oddly, and, err, that’s really it.
It’s interesting and well observed, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Hitler doesn’t become a huge politician at the end, the Nazis aren’t reborn, Hitler isn’t particularly vilified though he becomes a minor You-Tube sensation (think Zoella but with a bit more of a ranty style). And Hitler is much the same at the end as he is at the beginning. Nothing changes. Germany isn’t changed, Hitler isn’t changed, the minor characters aren’t changed…
I was just crying out for something to happen. In both books. Both lack that tight blend of character and plot feeding each other that propels the story forward with narrative drive. Both seem to be great ideas that never really reach full potential. For me, the books are opportunities missed.
So, disappointing, yes. But can we take a moment to just salute their book cover designs. Just how good are they, eh? Awesome. Both of them. A great asset when it’s sitting on one of the tables at Waterstones but what’s that old adage about judging a book by its cover?