Heavenly Peace

The carol was born out of necessity:  The organ in a small Austrian church broke down just before Christmas Eve Mass.  Father Joseph Kessler and choir director Franz Gruber hurriedly composed a hymn as part of an alternate celebration.  It was 1818 when the gentle lullaby like carol was first heard to guitar accompaniment.

Neither man thought that their songs would be heard beyond the doors of the church, but Silent Night, Holy Night (Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!) remains one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time.  The last lines of the first verse are especially poignant, as they not only describe the slumber of the Holy child, but became a call for peace in the madness of two world wars, providing common ground between two enemies.

You might have heard the story of the Christmas Truce of World War I.  The version I heard told of a brave soldier standing from the trenches and singing the hymn in the midst of fierce gunfire on Christmas Eve.  As his singing rose above the din of gunshots, both his fellow soldiers and the enemy slowly ceased fire and joined in.  Both sides enjoyed a moment of peace before the fighting resumed.  Many variations abound, but historian Stanley Weintraub researched and wrote a definitive book on the Truce titled Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.  In 1914, during the first December of the First World War, German soldiers were determined to celebrate Christmas, despite conditions in the trenches and the constant threat of death by enemy fire.  They raised Weihnachtsbaums – Christmas trees – and sang carols.  Some even dared to cross over enemy lines and extend a hand of friendship to English soldiers and their allies in the spirit of the season.  Thus, informal truces began along the Western Front:  Guns were silenced, gifts and food were exchanged, and friendships were made.  Silent Night, by now known around the world, was often sung or played on instruments, easing the tension of war and allowing soldiers to reflect on something other than the foul conditions of trench warfare.

Silent Night figures prominently in the Georgia made film My Christmas Soldier.  Some Georgia history figures into the plot as well:  According to historian and screenwriter Mauriel Joslyn, 11,000 German POWs were held in 40 prison camps across Georgia between 1942 and 1947.  On Christmas Eve in 1943, a young boy and his sister, waiting at a small train station for their father, hear the adults’ paranoid whispers about a box car filled with German POWs on their way to a prison camp.  Despite the fear and hatred fueled by the talk, the children seek out and make contact with one of the German soldiers.  They exchange food and gifts, like the soldiers of WWI.  Moved by the children’s kindness, the POWs sing Silent Night in their native tongue.  The Americans adults hear and recognize the melody, and echo the hymn in English.  As a result, the attitudes of the Americans and the German POWs towards each other are changed.  Though My Christmas Soldier is fictitious, its story is inspired by actual events that occurred throughout Georgia during WWII.  “When you think someone is an enemy,” Joslyn says in an interview on the My Christmas Soldier DVD, “When you think someone is dangerous and there’s a prejudice involved, sometimes, when you really get on common ground, your attitude changes.” 

Kessler and Gruber wrote Silent Night to overcome a sudden predicament; little did they know, they also created that common ground for peoples in two global conflicts.  On that common ground, soldiers on the Western Front who were forced back to fighting after the Christmas truce fired their volleys harmlessly over the heads of their new friends; German POWs in Georgia enjoyed amity – not just humane treatment – during their imprisonment, which motivated many of them to remain in Georgia after the war.  The lullaby carol inspired at least temporary peace in these instances, and most importantly, change in the hearts of enemies.  Silent Night will surely last to inspire more peace and change, through its own lyrics and through these moments in history.

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce is available at CCLS.  Ask a Staff member for assistance.

My Christmas Soldier is available on DVD.  Check the website for more information.

Read my article on My Christmas Soldier at CinemAtl.com

Find more history on the carol Silent Night! Holy Night! and its composers at the Silent Night Museum.

Published in: on December 20, 2007 at 9:29 pm  Comments (1)  

Book vs. Movie: Skipping Christmas and Christmas with the Kranks

WARNING!! Beyond this place, there be SPOILERS!!! 

Can you really skip Christmas?  Not deck the halls, hang lights, give (or receive) gifts, go to office parties or throw your own with seasonal foods and delicacies?

Luther and Nora Krank thought they could.  In John Grisham’s Christmas novel Skipping Christmas, the Kranks, facing Christmas without their only child and the hassle and grind of seasonal festivities, decide to “take a break” and go on a cruise instead.  Shunning every and all of the traditional holiday rituals and activities, they become a laughing stock to the community at large, a target for prankish kids and a pariah for their conformist neighbors.  Luther and Nora stick to their guns, readying for their trip to the Caribbean… until a phone call changes everything.

Grisham’s novel was made as the 2004 film Christmas with the Kranks (the name was changed so not to be confused with Surviving Christmas, released the same year).  Tim Allen as Luther and Jamie Lee Curtis as Nora seemed promising as the Kranks, but they and the whole movie fall short of the novel.  Overall, both book and movie Kranks come off as selfish jerks; but the book Kranks don’t seem as big of jerks as in the movie.  This is probably due to Grisham’s witty writing, where he lets us get to know Luther (Nora is a slightly smaller presence than the movie) better, and gives us better understanding as to why Luther is weary of so many holiday happenings.  Also, the Kranks have a few allies:  Folks who like their idea, but don’t have the fortitude to do it themselves.  The Kranks, while pretty faithful to Skipping, lacks those things that makes the book work.  The movie is a typical movie comedy, with its big name stars doing their schticks, throwing in some physical comedy and the requisite abuse of an animal – the Scheels’ cat – for laughs.  Only a slapstick sequence where Luther goes shopping in the rain serves as impetus for the Christmas break idea.  The writing and dialogue is bland and expositional.  I often found myself thinking, “This was funny in the book.  Why am I not laughing?”  It relies too much on Hollywood formula and possibly Grisham’s name to make room for any depth.   

 The Kranks does make attempt to tell the story economically and visually, as a good movie adaptation should do.  The movie trims away some of the book’s redundancy, and attempts to raise the dramatic tension; I think there is its undoing.  Some of the redundancy – the revelation of skipping Christmas and the reaction; the “that’s so ridiculous” speeches – serves the book in giving insight to Luther’s state of mind.  The movie adds some plot points to provide some character motivation, like the neighbors pressuring Nora to put up the snowman display on their rooftop, and a burglar who almost robs the Kranks during the Christmas party.  But these additions fall flat and do nothing for the movie on any level.  Movie Nora is brought to the front as a more sympathetic character.  She shows more reluctance to go along with Luther’s scheme and more likelihood to crack under peer pressure.  As such, she gets a bigger share of the slapstick routines.  She shows more repentance than Luther when the neighbors help them throw a party despite their idiocy:  The book doesn’t make a show of Nora’s gratitude.  On that note, book Luther’s final gesture to the Scheels is much more genuine than movie Luther’s.  Book Luther is moved by his neighbors’ sense of community, and didn’t need to be prompted by a scolding for hard-heartedness like his movie counterpart.

 

As stated, the Kranks in both media show themselves as schmucks, as do other characters.  But this character flaw is more pronounced in the movie, making them less likeable than the characters in the book, where clever dialogue and respectable writing plays on the pathetic natures but makes redemption real.  Though I said that I wouldn’t make these judgments, this is a case where the book is truly better than the movie.

 

Skipping Christmas is available at all CCLS Libraries.

Published in: on December 17, 2007 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thursday, Dec. 13 Last Day for Scholastic Half Off Book Fair

Hours on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007 will be 9:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.  Customers may pay for their purchases with cash, checks, credit cards, debit cards with charge card logos, and purchase orders.  Great holiday gifts and inexpensive way to restock classroom bookshelves. Books and gifts for infants through adults.  For directions call 770 473 3850 or look on library’s website, www.claytonpl.org

Published in: on December 12, 2007 at 10:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

You’re Getting Older, Mr. Grinch!

Now here’s something you probably didn’t know… The Grinch has turned fifty!  An article from the Seattle Times reports on a fiftieth anniversary edition of the classic Dr. Seuss book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!  The new edition contains the story and a retrospective by Dr. Charles D. Cohen, a collector of Dr. Seuss memorabilia. 

First published in 1957, Grinch has endured as both children’s literature and pop culture classic:  Say “Grinch” and people know who and what you’re talking about!  The Grinch, a crusty critter who perches atop a precipice above Whoville, is cross with the cacophonous Christmas carolers who colonize the city.  So his surly soul surmises a scheme to snatch the spirit of the state of Whoville!  An animated version of Grinch premiered on television in 1966 (a fortieth anniversary edition was released on DVD last year), and is still broadcast annually.  A film version was released in 2000.

Watching Grinch on TV was a tradition for my siblings and me growing up, along with A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Rakin-Bass animated Christmas specials.  Believe it or not, I didn’t come across the book version until my freshman year of college!  At a trombone studio Christmas party, one Professor William Cramer – a tall, lanky man with a booming, resonant bass voice – sat in an armchair and with a measured cadence, read Seuss’ clever rhyming story to us trombonist, who sat around him on the floor like little children!

Like Professor Cramer, an annual reading of Grinch is a neat tradition to start with your family!  (Many families in Victorian England started a similar tradition when A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843)  And for the Grinch fan and Dr. Seuss enthusiast, the 50th anniversary edition is a must for your library!

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is available at all CCLS Libraries.  The 50th anniversary edition referred to in the Seattle Times article is not yet available at CCLS.

Enjoy the Dr. Seuss website, and books available (for children and adults) at CCLS.

Published in: on December 10, 2007 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Atlanta book blogs

While making my morning rounds catching up with the blogosphere, I saw this post in Metroblogging Atlanta.

Two Great Atlanta Book Blogs.

I especially enjoyed the blog Baby Got Books. This is a great blog and not to mention timely since they point to a variety of “best of 2007″ lists for books.

Enjoy!

Published in: on December 10, 2007 at 4:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book vs. Movie: The Greatest Gift and It’s a Wonderful Life

WARNING!! Beyond this place, there be SPOILERS!!!

 The short story was destined for obscurity:  No one would publish it.  But author/historian Philip Van Doren Stern’s belief in his short story The Greatest Gift proved to be that work’s salvation.  His self-publication of his work lead to It’s a Wonderful Life, produced and directed by Frank Capra. 

The movie faced a similar fate in 1946.  Barely breaking even at the box office, there was no interest in re-releasing it in subsequent years.  If not for the advent of television and a clerical error many years later, It’s a Wonderful Life would not have its place in the hearts and minds of moviegoers, or in cinematic history.

 

George (Bailey in the movie, Pratt in the short story) becomes so depressed with his life that he wishes he was never born.  A stranger grants him his wish, and George sees what life would be like without him.  Seeing that the town and the lives of his family and friends are changed for the worst, George repents of his attitude and appreciates life anew.

 

Comparing the short story to the movie shows the creativity of the screenwriters, as well as the liberties they can take with the originals.  Gift is basically the third act of Life, where George gets the opportunity to see what his hometown would be like if he was never born.  Life borrows some events and details from the short story to build the first two thirds of the movie.  The idea of an angel helping George is not explicitly stated in the short story; just a man who shows up at the bridge who talks George out of jumping.  But the mysterious man is made into an angel named Clarence, an apprentice angel who’s assigned to keep George from committing suicide.  As in Gift, Clarence shows up just as George decides to jump from the bridge.  Before Clarence goes to earth, he is introduced to George by seeing his life up to the fateful moment.  In doing so, we see the events and disappointments that have kept George from leaving home and traveling abroad and contribute to his depression.

 

Many elements of Life that make the film so memorable are not in Gift.  The town of Bedford Falls (not even named in the short story) itself is as great a character as George, Mary, Clarence, Uncle Billy and Old Man Potter.  George’s courtship of Mary, the dance, the face-offs with Potter and the savings and loan are all inventions of the screenwriters.  The film’s third act is more dramatic than Gift, and very dark.  George sees Bedford Falls turned into a city of sin, his friends and loved ones become cynical and depressed shells, and even little things that involved him enlarged to negative proportions.  In Gift, George sees just three events that are changed by his absence – a tree that he damages, the visit with his parents, and seeing Mary with a different family – that play out in a low key yet impacting manner. 

Gift is smaller in scope than Life, but it still brings home its message with quiet grace.  Both short story and movie convey Stern’s idea of the importance and value of an individual’s life in the scheme of things.  Set against the backdrop of Christmas gives that message a bit of sentimentality, especially in Life, but its impact stands despite.  On page and on film, life is truly the greatest gift of all.

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The Greatest Gift is available at CCLS in a short story collection Christmas Stars, and as a separate volume through PINES.

The “It’s a Wonderful Life” Book gives a rich history of the classic film, including the screenplay of the final version.  Available at CCLS and PINES.

The novelization of It’s a Wonderful Life is available through PINES.  Please ask Staff for assistance in obtaining this and other book titles.

The film of It’s a Wonderful Life will broadcast on NBC television on Friday, December 14 at 8 pm.  Click here to to see a parody of the film (I won’t spoil the surprise!)

Published in: on December 5, 2007 at 5:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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