So, John Scalzi runs a number of “Big Ideas” at his site, which strikes me very much as being proof of my idea of fiction as nothing more than the expression of an idea. The “Big Idea” that focuses on Robin Talley’s work “As I Descended” strikes me as another one of those ideas that are just really, really bad. The original premise of the work isn’t a bad one: a modernization of Macbeth. Doing it as a “Young Adult” novel doesn’t seem to be all that great an idea. Setting it inside a high school seems to be potentially interesting but a potentially disastrous idea. And it only gets worse from there.
Macbeth is, obviously, an extremely bloody play. Before I started As I Descended, I’d never even considered killing any of my characters. I’d written dark stuff in other books, sure, but death is so final. Shakespeare was writing about a brave, accomplished medieval warrior who broke character by offing a few specific guys (after a career spent slaughtering presumably less important people).
Um, since she was setting it inside a high school, she might not have needed to deal with so much blood. After all, if I recall correctly — I have no yet managed to read that “Complete Works of Shakespeare” that I have, but I covered it in high school — the key to Macbeth is not that he kills people. Macbeth does not kill Duncan or Banquo, for example, because he wants to kill people. He kills them because he feels that killing them is the only way to achieve his ambitions, ambitions that he is spurred upon in by his wife. So he’s trying to get them out of the way. In a high school setting, there are many ways to get people out of the way that don’t involve killing them, especially in the world of high school popularity. Character assassination can easily substitute for actual assassination there. And if she had done that, she might have been able to avoid …
I had to take a contemporary 17-year-old girl whose previous experiences with violence had been limited to a few kicks on the soccer field and make her into a would-be violent criminal. I went through months of false starts before I could figure out how to get Maria (and, to be honest, me) into the necessary emotional place.
The Psycho Lesbian trope (note that this is a link to TV Tropes). No possible problems with invoking that trope, right?
Shakespeare’s casts tend to be larger than your typical YA novel’s. So after much consternation I wound up combining characters here and there, and scaling others back where I could. In my favorite instance, I fused Banquo and Lady Macduff into one character named Brandon.
But … Banquo and Lady Macduff have very different roles in the play. You can interpret Banquo as the too loyal and too trusting friend to Macbeth — as I argued in a high school essay — or as someone ambitious himself who was angling for advantage but Macbeth got to hm first, but that role is, in fact, utterly and critically important. Lady Macduff isn’t that important and is mostly a spur to Macduff, but if you combine the characters then all you would do is reduce her role to that. You could just as easily have simply eliminated Lady Macduff and let Macduff oppose Macbeth for reasons other than simple vengeance for the loss of a loved one (which, to be fair, he actually had other motives as well).
Brandon and Mateo wound up forming a nice counterpoint to my Macbeth/Lady Macbeth (Maria/Lily) combo, in that their relationship is much less dysfunctional.
Okay, this might be open to interpretation, but was the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth relationship dysfunctional? You can argue that they were well-suited for each other and it was only the means they had to use to gain their mutual ambitions and the fallout from that caused the breakdown of the relationship.
Despite her claims that she researched critical essays — although she only mentions it for one speech — she doesn’t really seem to understand the play, and herself admits spending lots of time trying to figure out the blood metaphors and the like by pouring over the play itself. She says that she wanted to do as literal a retelling as possible … but her setting doesn’t lend itself to that, having neither the actual goal nor the attitude that would allow for all of the killing that she somehow thinks have to be there. She also, in the quotes, doesn’t seem willing to either take a stand on her own interpretations or allow that for others. She seems to be inserting her own takes into it, but is unable to see what is really important to keep and what can be changed.
Now, you can argue — with some justification — that criticizing it like this is a bit out of bounds if I haven’t — and am not going to — read it. The issue is that here I’m taking what the author is proud of in the work and saying that, given what I know about the play, that she shouldn’t be. What she focuses on is not only not what is great about the play, but in fact seems, to me, to detract from it. We can discuss this, of course, but just as I wouldn’t have to watch “The Phantom Menace” to see that introducing midichlorians as the explanation for the Force is a bad idea, I don’t need to read this book to know that turning Macbeth into what seems to be a common psychopath is also a bad idea.
I sense much bad ideas in this work.