Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dante with Pecs

This month Dante’s Inferno has gotten a lot of media attention. By Dante’s Inferno, I don’t mean the great poem. Xbox just released a game entitled Dante’s Inferno, in which players lead a buff warrior-knight, Dante, through the nine levels of hell. He must battle his way to the very bottom to save the soul of his beloved Beatrice, who had been kidnapped by Lucifer.

I write that Xbox’s game is “entitled” Dante’s Inferno and not “based on it” because it bears little resemblance to Dante’s poem. In the poem, Dante journeys through hell and interacts with the damned. There is some action, as when his enemy Filippo Argenti tries to grab him. But it is nothing like game character blasting his way through a horde of unbaptized babies in Limbo. Xbox kept Dante’s infernal topography and the names “Dante,” “Virgil” and “Beatrice.” But they changed everything else to make a more exciting game. Indeed, in the poem, Beatrice is a heavenly being who Saves Dante. “Saves” with a capital “s,” because her intervention allows him to turn from sin towards redemption.

Xbox’s game raises the question of the difficult relationship between mass media and the arts. When mass media—movies, TV shows, and now video games—are based on literary works, they have to transform the texts, sometimes dramatically. Film scripts need to shorten and condense the plots of novels; they have to simplify complex ideas, and put them in the mouths of characters. No one would play a game literally based on Dante’s “Inferno”—it’d be too plain dull!

Of course, there is a positive side when mass media is based on literature. Games and films generate interest in the works among people who otherwise might not read them. And when they are successful, more interest—and sometimes money—goes toward the works and the people who study them.

What causes consternation among readers of those works is not so much how the media alter them. That is to be expected. It’s how the new versions actually supplant the originals in many people’s minds. The show (or game) becomes the new “standard,” and has the tendency to marginalize the original. JK Rowling’s books are rich, nuanced works, which the films strip down to their most simplistic form. Yet for as many times as I’ve read all of them, I can’t help but picture Harry Potter as Daniel Radcliff.

At times, people expect the original to have the changes—and the special effects—of the latest movie, TV show, or game. Worse still, others don’t realize that those changes have nothing to do with the original.

Case in point: conjure up the image of a velociraptor—about the size of a man, green lizard-skin, maybe 12 feet long from nose to tail. This is the velociraptor from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. And it’s incorrect. Scientifically speaking, velociraptors were about 6 feet long, and stood about waist-high to a person. As happens with literary works, the movie-version has totally supplanted the scientific reality in people’s minds.

Oh, and they were probably feathered too.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sick at Heart

Help! The king is ill and is killing his subjects!

After learning that his beloved was unfaithful the king lost his mind. He began marrying young women, bedding them on the wedding night, and then executing them the next morning. But when Scheherazade was in his bedchamber, she told him a story; she embedded one story into the first so that when the evening ended, the narrative was incomplete. She thus postponed her execution by a day. The next evening she did the same thing, and so on for many more nights to come.

After a thousand and one nights, however, a funny thing happened. The stories came to an end and the king was cured of his insanity.

A more dramatic cure takes place in Boccaccio’s Decameron. During the plague of 1348—a real event which killed over a third of all people throughout Eurasia—ten youths escape to a Tuscan villa. They spend two weeks telling a hundred tales. But at the end, they return to Florence… and the plague is gone.

Of course, I’m not going to suggest that literature can cure mental illness, to say nothing of physical ailments. But for centuries literature has brought comfort to readers.

For centuries, the history of literature was about giving voice to different groups—people of a common language, heritage or citizenship, or of a particular region or belief. The process is still ongoing.

For example, in a society that still undervalues certain groups—women, people of color, of lower socio-economic status, or of certain sexual orientations—it can be uplifting for individuals to “read their story.” Of course, the works are fictional, and therefore not literally “their story.” Still it is important for people to see themselves as actors in the world, even when the society defines them otherwise.

But socio-politics is only part of the picture. Literature can speak to difficult experiences, and can help people make sense of them. Whether dealing with emotional betrayal or universal calamity, it gives a person the sense that someone else understands their predicament. And that knowledge alone can be crucial.

Literature may not change tragic circumstances, and it won’t cure psychosis. But it can make a difference in how someone faces their situation. And sometimes, that makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, February 1, 2010

No One Saw It Coming

Economist Thomas L. Friedman has discussed how the world economy has made national borders obsolete. You might think that the languages would be valued more highly right now. Yet Americans still learn foreign languages at woefully low rates.

As I have stressed several times in this blog, the value of the humanities transcends the question of job preparation. But the question increasingly posed to all academics these days is the value of their fields—“value” often understood strictly in terms of economics. Will this information help someone get a job? For many reasons, the humanities fare worse in answering this question these days.

My field, Italian, suffers the same fate as the rest of the humanities. Sometimes more so. We simply haven’t done a good job overall of explaining the benefits of Italian. People associate Italian with pleasure—food, fashion, art, and opera. But business?

For decades, Italy has been a part of the G-7 (or G-8 or G-20) groups of economically powerful countries. Last year Italian automaker Fiat announced its take-over of Chrysler. Business has become transnational, and Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler is only another example of that fact. Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler is a clear example of how Italian is a valuable business asset.

I wish I could say that I had some foresight of Fiat’s owners’ decision. I had no more prescience than anyone else in the US. And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make.

No one saw Fiat’s decision coming. But in the wake of Fiat’s purchase, Italian appears a little bit more essential. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Particular areas of knowledge seem trivial until they suddenly become necessary. In the first half of the twentieth century, physics was a backwater. Then World War II necessitated the production of an atomic bomb, and then the Cold War required many more. With the government’s interest—and investment in—nuclear physics, it became the cutting edge. Similar shifts take place all the time. When President Nixon declared a war on cancer, oncology research became a booming field. With the threat posed by the Soviet Union, federal moneys went to Russian and Slavic languages. And what field could be less lucrative than paleontology—until, that is, Hollywood produces a blockbuster about dinosaurs.

A university education benefits the individual, of course, but it also benefits the society. The community profits by having people trained in many different areas. It is arrogant to presume that some fields of knowledge are essential and others are not. Because who can tell? It is just a matter of time before circumstances require a group of individuals trained in those areas.