Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 16, 2012
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Bourne Legacy, Discovery of Witches
Sometimes you just have to feel sorry for executives working in the movie studios. They're
involved in American culture's loftiest enterprise -- the art of arts, as far as the public is
concerned -- and they're judged by that standard.
Yet they have to work within the rules of American business -- make a profit, benefit the
stockholders, keep your job, get a promotion.
On the one hand, then, they have to make as much money as possible. On the other hand, they
want to please the critics, win Oscars, and be revered at Hollywood parties.
To achieve the latter, they need to make nasty little art pictures that nobody really likes but
everyone with delusions of taste has to pretend to.
To achieve the former, they have to make huge popular movies that will rake in vast amounts of
money, which they can then pass through the magical accounting process to pay for all the losses
of movies that didn't do so well.
That is why The Bourne Legacy exists. It is by no means cynical -- it is a project that involves
passion and deep belief at every point in the process.
The executives have a passionate commitment to pleasing the worldwide audience by continuing
the highly lucrative Bourne franchise beyond their ability to attract Matt Damon to star in it.
And the filmmakers -- writer-director Tony Gilroy and his brother and co-writer Dan Gilroy --
have respect both for the earlier movies (since Tony Gilroy wrote them) and for the need to
create an intelligent, worthy film that will extend the universe to include characters that are not
The Gilroy brothers have done a superb job of coming up with a parallel story that never
contradicts the earlier Bourne movies (after all, Matt Damon may want to come back and do
another Bourne flick), is not tied to the feeble writing of Robert Ludlum, and yet absolutely
duplicates the nonstop action, harsh personal costs, and dark moral dilemmas that audiences
have come to expect from films that have "Bourne" in the title.
To accomplish this, they created what amounts to a sci-fi thriller in which human beings are
being re-engineered by means of chemical alterations in their DNA.
I read one review where the critic impatiently failed to understand why the script calls the pills
that the agents in this program have to take "chems" instead of "meds," and then they keep
nattering about the chems even though nobody cares.
The critic said this because he's an idiot. They're not "meds" because they aren't curing
anything -- they're making huge changes in the intracellular structure of the human body.
They're "meds" only to the degree that a jackhammer is a drill.
Furthermore, every single turn of the plot, every single moral dilemma, and the main character's
desperate need to get more chems all depend on how the chems work, what they do, and how
their function can be permanently replicated in the hero's body.
Everything that is said about the chems is essential to understanding everybody's motivations.
Not a word was wasted.
Given my experience with most studio executives, I think it's almost miraculous that The Bourne
Legacy's sci-fi premise is actually reasonably smart, clearly created, and well-exploited.
In other words, the Gilroys are that rare breed: Hollywood writers who actually care about the
plausibility of their story, and do not insult the intelligence of their audience.
Of course, such intelligence and integrity have their price -- people who are in the theater only
to eat popcorn and have a thrill ride can be annoyed by the need to let new thoughts and ideas
enter their heads. They get impatient -- as did the afore-mentioned cretinous critic -- with all
the time spent in not insulting them. They did not come to exercise their intelligence. They
came to have fun.
Well, The Bourne Legacy is fun -- but, as with any sport, it's only fun if you understand the
rules of the game, and that's what all the talk about chems is -- the explanation of the rules of
So the thrill-ride audience did not talk up the movie or come back to see it again, and so the
opening weekend was not as strong as hoped. Also, everyone could see from the promos that
Matt Damon was not in the movie, so a lot of people expected it to be a hackwork sequel and
they didn't bother coming at all.
The result was an opening weekend that was notably weaker than that of the previous two
Bourne movies. Duh! It's a sequel without the series star! What did they think? But the idiots
in the industry are blaming Jeremy Renner, who plays the hero, Aaron Cross, for the "poor"
It was a great opening weekend for a sequel without the star. This movie should have made the
low money of items like Dumb and Dumberer, the no-stars sequel to Dumb and Dumber.
Instead, it's doing much better.
But still Jeremy Renner, who is absolutely brilliant in this (as in everything he's done) has to put
up with critics saying things like, "Renner doesn't have Matt Damon's warmth."
Yes he does. He has astonishing depth and pathos in a movie genre that absolutely requires a
stoic hero. This is Clint Eastwood/Arnold Schwarzenegger country -- steely-eyed determination
is the default expression. So Renner's powerful performance reaches well beyond the
requirements of the genre and promises a remarkable career.
Unless the idiots tag him with a false label like "cold" or "can't open a movie."
This is his first action-movie starring role. He should be celebrated for his work in Bourne
Legacy, not tarred with the blame for the "low" box office. The decision to move ahead with
this film should have been made with the full knowledge that it would never perform,
financially, at the level of the other Bourne movies. There is no blame to attach -- it's what they
bargained for in the first place.
All that could be hoped for was an adequate box office performance. Instead, the Gilroys and
Renner have given them a terrific movie that will have staying power. In my opinion, it is
smarter and fresher and more original than either of the original Bourne movies. The Gilroys
came up with a better original story than Robert Ludlum ever did, and Renner is every bit as
good an actor as Damon.
If you want a cold actor, that would be bad-guy Edward Norton. Norton is brilliant, but he can
do "icy," and that's perfect for the part he's playing. It's also fun to see Stacy Keach and Scott
Glenn in small but pivotal roles; and Rachel Weisz does an excellent job of playing the doctor
who has the power to save Aaron Cross -- his life, yes, but also his identity, his soul.
I didn't have great expectations for this movie because I expected cynical garbage -- a movie
tossed together just to make a buck. Instead, everyone involved with this movie did their best
work, and it's way, way better than anyone could have expected.
And, to the credit of the studio executives, they hired the good people and they said yes to their
good decisions. They had a good movie and they knew it. That may have raised their
expectations for the initial box office, but they should have remembered that this movie had huge
obstacles to overcome, obstacles that would cripple the opening weekend.
In a rational universe, people would be talking about how this movie did far better -- artistically
and financially -- than any sane person could have expected.
I had never heard of Deborah Harkness or her novel A Discovery of Witches when we happened
to be on the same panel at Comic-Con last month.
The panel was dominated by a self-important clown who thought he was channeling the spirit of
the late Ray Bradbury; Deborah Harkness provided the strongest antidote to his utter foolishness.
That's because Harkness is a professional historian, who has written books on Elizabethan
paranormalist John Dee (John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End
of Nature) and Elizabethan science (The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific
She has studied human behavior across time and she has no illusions about human nature. But
she has also been fascinated with beliefs about the paranormal, and in our own time, when an
absurd fascination with never-existent vampires has taken over various sections of our
bookstores and libraries, it was natural that she turned her thoughts to this question, as she puts it
herself: "If there really are vampires, what do they do for a living?"
It is such a joy when a person who actually knows something creates a fictional universe. She
doesn't just throw together cliches drawn from generalized vampire lore; this novel is not drawn
from the work of other novelists. Rather it is a fresh approach that depends on Harkness's own
deep and wide research in the beliefs and practices of another age, brought forward into our own
Thus her story takes place in a version of our present-day world in which, besides ordinary
humans like us (I almost referred to us as "drowthers," because I'm in the midst of writing the
sequel to my own contemporary fantasy The Lost Gate), there are three kinds of magical
creatures: vampires, witches, and demons.
But none of them is really like any version of these creatures you've ever seen before.
Oh, she takes into account all the lore about them, but twists it all around to make them and their
society more coherent and infinitely more interesting than any other treatment of them that I've
Demons tend to be artistic types, a bit flighty and easily distracted, capable of great creativity but
also of dangerous unpredictability.
Vampires do hunger for blood, though they usually hunt non-human prey. They are very hard to
kill, but they do not become monstrous killing machines governed only by their appetites -- at
least, not after the first few years after their re-birth into vampirism. And those who create new
vampires regard them as their children, retaining ties with them -- and taking responsibility for
them -- for centuries.
And the heroine of the novels is a witch, descended from two of the great American witch
Now, the actual "witches" of Salem were innocent, decent people accused and judicially
murdered during a fit of groupthink madness. (We haven't got much better -- witness the
political/media mob attacks on Sarah Palin, Linda Tripp, and George W. Bush, which were never
justified by anything other than malice and the desire to destroy a political danger.)
So it bothers me when people write about them as if they had really been or done what their
enemies falsely accused them of.
But it also bothers me when people accuse Richard III of being the monster that the usurper
Henry VII actually was -- even though the only evidence against Richard III comes from his
political enemies, the Tudors, and their sycophants. That doesn't change the fact that
Shakespeare's Richard III is a very good play; and Harkness's use of the slanders on the Bishop
and Proctor names is pardonable because of the excellence of her novel.
Make no mistake: A Discovery of Witches is definitely structured as a romance novel in a way
that Gone with the Wind and Pride and Prejudice are not romance novels and never were.
That is, at the center of Discovery of Witches is a love story that controls the novel to a degree
that neither Mitchell nor Austen allowed their love stories to distract them from their main
Gone with the Wind is about the survival of a tough-minded woman in the midst of the collapse
of the civilization she was raised in -- it is far more about that civilization remaking itself, as
personified by Scarlett O'Hara, than about her relationship with either of her two lovers (or any
of her three husbands).
Likewise, Pride and Prejudice is a novel about the difficulty of knowing other people's true
characters, and is built around unjustified assumptions about Darcy and Jane (both caused by
their introversion) and about social climbing that distorts the ethics of too many of the characters
in their society. The love stories are not afterthoughts -- it is all built around marriages -- but
the Elizabeth-Darcy love story is not the only one in the book (there are three other marriages
that equally dominate the plot), and family loyalties and responsibilities are actually more
important to the story than are any of the romances.
Of course, I could talk for hours about both these novels. My point here is that A Discovery of
Witches comes from a different tradition of novel writing. Yet even though Harkness has
definitely shaped her novel around the relationship between scholar (and non-practicing witch)
Diana Bishop and her vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont, it is still a novel deeply informed by
history and highly logical in its world-creation.
This is in sharp contrast with the shoddy world-creation and contempt for history shown by most
"historical" novelists. From The Scarlet Pimpernel on forward, historical-romance writers are
notorious for the utter absurdity of the anachronisms and the impossibility of the actions of the
characters in their novels.
That is not Harkness, not for a moment. All the relationships are well-drawn and utterly
believable. The characters are complicated, well-motivated, and have interests in life beyond
getting married (or getting laid). In other words, while Harkness has entered the historical-fantasy-romance genre, she has entered it at the very top, as one of its best practitioners ever.
Instead of being dragged down by the laziness and silliness of most previous entries in her
chosen genre, she elevates that genre to the very best of its potential. The result is a gothic
romance that even a snob like me can thoroughly enjoy.
Meanwhile, there's not a thing that regular readers of the genre will object to. After all, they
don't want their stories to be stupid and bad; they simply put up with the stupidness and badness
because that's the only form that their literary drug-of-choice usually comes in.
Harkness delivers the drug, not in the form of a painful injection or bad-tasting medicine. She
delivers it in the form of a banquet.
Like a banquet, it is long. But it's delicious.
Plot? There's plenty of it, though because it's a romance we don't move as far into the plot as
readers of non-romance fantasy or historical novels might wish. There is a magical book in the
Bodleian Library at Oxford, which Diana Bishop receives and opens by "chance" which turns
out not to be chance at all.
We gradually learn many things about the murder of Diana's parents when she was a child, about
why she has been able to avoid her own magic so successfully, and about why so many people
seem to be interested in controlling her if they can, and killing her if they can't.
Do I wish Harkness had told this story as a historical fantasy, with the romance elements in a
more subordinate position -- more like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel -- or
as a straight gothic novel like Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale? Yes. But that's because I
am more familiar with and prefer the tropes of those genres.
Given that Harkness has chosen a genre that I am not as sympathetic with, I can only salute her
for holding my interest so completely.
She even made me like and care about a fictional vampire and a whole vampire society --
something that I really never thought possible, since I have long viewed the whole enterprise of
vampire fiction with something between boredom and contempt.
She does it by not making them relentless parasites, but instead giving them a chance to be
intellectually sophisticated and morally complex in ways that even the ambitious Twilight series
could not quite bring off.
In Harkness's fictional world, the vampires' need for blood is not like heroin addiction,
controlling every waking moment of their lives; rather it is more like the sexual lust of 18-year-olds, always present but also completely controllable, so that they can be and accomplish far
more than to try to satisfy that one desire.
Did I mention that Harkness is such a smart and witty person that she is able to create characters
that are witty and smart? This gives the writing a sizzle and pop that adds to the deeper
pleasures of story and character.
If there is any danger sign for the future of this series, it is this: Diana Bishop gradually
discovers that she has a massive dose of every kind of power that a witch can have (indeed,
that's what she was born for), and her only limitations come from her own deliberate ignorance
of how to use those powers, and some magical restrictions placed upon her in childhood for her
In other words, the danger is that in later volumes she will be so godlike that the story will move
out of human realms and human concerns and human dilemmas, and that would be a shame,
because it is the humanness of this novel that makes it so very good.
The sequel, Shadow of Night, has recently been published, though the third novel has not; still, A
Discovery of Witches is strong enough, and complete enough, that I recommend that you not wait
for the whole series to appear, but instead relish the first volume for the pleasures that are
complete within it.