Friday, October 6, 2017

So Why Choose That Book? The Controversial First Edition of J-Lo’s Film

I did have myself a shocking giggle when I watched the scene from The Boy Next Door. I like Jennifer Lopez and her movies, and didn’t expect much when someone posted the video saying, “No one caught this ridiculously glaring mistake.” Usually my reaction is, “Oh, get over it.”

When the young man comes in and hands Lopez a “first edition of the Iliad” I was dumbstruck. How could he be so naïve? I wondered. Everyone knows Homer’s epic poem to be an ancient Greek tale, right? Obviously that’s not a first edition because it was originally an oral telling, and even when it was finally put in print that was still much older than the copy looked. (Year 1616 is the earliest English translation I’ve found so far.)

I assumed one of two things: The script had only written “a first edition,” and the prop master, possibly going off of a list alone—though that seems foolish for a major motion picture—just made an old looking classic book. Or they were looking for Ulysses, a story about the odyssey of one soldier returning home from the Trojan war, written by James Joyce in 1918. But really did no one say anything? Possible, if the director was a colossal dick-head. You get a bunch of people who don’t care about the project dealing with someone who tears them a new-one for idiotic reasons, you’re probably not going to be the one to say, “Wait a minute…” especially considering the possibility that you might be the one poorly informed.

Including me.

I typed in “first edition of” and before I even got to “Iliad,” it had popped up. Apparently this was a pretty popular question. In fact, the first thing to come up was about people’s search for first editions copies incited by the film.

As it turns out, the director had made a comment.  

While the original screenwriter claims no responsibility over the scene, it having been added long after she lost any control, the director claims that this choice was intentional and he’s not an idiot, but in fact a collector of first editions and knew exactly what he was talking about. He explained that a “first edition” is not necessarily the first ever printing of a book, but the first version of printing by a company, or rather, the first “setting of a type.” If the company decides to do a second (or more) printing without making any changes, the book is still considered a first edition, but first printings of first editions are what’s collectable.

So, he argues, it was a first edition of the Iliad.

The argument makes sense. Pretty well informed, in fact. Yet while it is accurate, something still doesn’t seem right. There is something about that seen that still comes across as fake.

I once wrote a somewhat controversial (in which everyone had staunch opinions) post about what to do when the truth is vastly different than what common assumption is. I discussed examples like how the preview audience of Cloverfield was certain the head of the Statue of Liberty was 100 times the size it actually was, or what to do when the technical name of something is different than what locals use. In it, I discussed the common problem of when your audience is more naïve than you are, and yet you’re the one who looks wrong. What do you do?

He should have been aware of what the common populace’s belief of what is meant when someone says “first edition.” Considering he wrote that specific scene and helped decide on the actual prop, he definitely pulled that specific title out of somewhere.

According to the prop master, the copy seen in the film is an 1884 translation by Alexander Pope. The first printing of his work was in 1715. One copy of this version was going for 2,500 pounds, which, according to the last time I went to Britain, is close to 5,000 American dollars.

So my first thought was that they were just looking for any book that fit the aesthetics and a first edition of Pope’s translation of the Iliad would be considered valuable; they picked that title because it fit.

But Annie Brandt’s exact words were, “"While searching for copies of the Iliad that would be used for the film, the style and look of this book was chosen by myself and Rob Cohen.” (The actual prop in the film was printed by a company who wanted to make beautiful versions of classic novels, as many publishers do today.)

If her wording is correct, it means that the Iliad was chosen before the copy was found. The director picked it deliberately.

Again, why?

We have the overall issue of most people thinking “first edition” means the true first edition. This, as a collector, as a writer, as a director, and as someone with a room filled with people making the scene, he should have known. Maybe he did and just chose to ignore it. But for what purpose?

Let’s start in-world. Why did the character choose that book?

According to the director, he lied about getting it from a garage sale so as not to embarrass her. That’s what I assumed when I heard him say those lines; it just sounded like a lie. If we pretend that the lie is true, which is far less ridiculous than a person who doesn’t know how valuable a book like that would be happen to have it lying around, the character made the point of finding it and buying it.

Some years ago I ended up buying a signed anthology of short stories for my boyfriend’s birthday. It cost an arm and a leg, but featured over 200 signatures (huge book), including Stephen King and Dean Koontz. It was horror, which I knew he liked, and obviously contained some known names, but the book itself was not something which most people would recognize the title of, and though he likes King, he’s not his favorite writer. I bought it because it was the coolest option of what was available to me. First editions, signed copies, and even good looking books are hard to find, especially if you want something specific.

A first edition of Alexander Pope’s version would require a lot of effort and money to find. And if we were to say it isn’t Alexander Pope’s version, but another first edition, if it was something that anyone cared about, it would still not be sitting around in some bookstore. I’d wager it’d be in a private collection, available for sale strictly through them. If it wasn’t one of these coveted versions then I’d have to ask who cares? In fact, even if it was Pope’s edition I’d still have to question the character’s reasoning. While a book is a great gift to get into a bookworm’s pants, I’d have to say that the Iliad would be low on my list. Sure, if I got offered it, great! But I much rather have a personal gift—like any old version of the guy’s favorite book—or, if we were going to go for grandiose gestures, I’d want a book I loved, one I cared deeply about, was interested in, inspired by. Personally, I rather have the complete compilation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Out of the classics, the Iliad is a wondrous but dense and tedious read, one that I have no intention of completing again. If I was going to spend a lot of money on a booklover, I would first and foremost try and find something that is more than just, “You like books and first editions are expensive, here you go!”

And that’s where we get to the nitty-gritty. The book was not chosen due to its availability. He had to seek it out. If we were to stay with in-world criticism, only two things can be assumed: the young male is ignorant to most literature and, like many pretending to be wise in the field, stuck with what he knew to be considered great, or it was genuinely personal, as in the Iliad was her favorite classic novel or maybe it was a translation she believed to be important, a preference that many teachers have. But considering her reaction, I’m going to go with no. Later the director claimed it was because that’s what she was teaching and what they bonded over.

Especially knowing her first statement was about money, lacking any sort of surprise or genuine joy, the whole scene seemed incredibly superficial. It looked to me that the director chose the Iliad because it was a classic. It made her look smart. He picked that prop because it was attractive whereas most first editions are fairly cheaply made (as they are meant to be read), ugly from the damage and fading over the years. He wanted something expensive because as we all know, women only care about money.

Even if we were to say that it was the audience’s naivety that caused the backlash, even if we were to say that it’s their own damn problem, that moment could have been much improved by a different book. Instead of having another generic literary lover who likes all of the academically approved things, she could have been defined better by a more specific choice. He could have been defined by the book he gave her. I’m not saying him handing over a first edition of Lolita wouldn’t have turned heads, but even something like Lady Chatterley’s Lover would have simultaneous linked back to the movie’s concept, hinted at him already pushing his boundaries, and been less likely to get people to roll their eyes at the grandiose gesture being that, while a classic, it is a newer classic and one that you wouldn’t expect every college student claiming as their favorite. If he had picked something less generically “good literature,” it would have suggested the director’s love of fiction and not as much his desire to look like he loved fiction. I’m not expecting a J-Lo flick to be intellectually stimulating and wouldn’t ask them to make it something it doesn’t want to be. I like them for their lack of social risk taking. However, when you have a writer writing about a character who loves literature, I do expect more insight, less airs, less snobbery, more honesty.

The willing incredulousness of an Iliad first edition came down to the false feeling of the moment. Perhaps if, as a book collector, the director had really considered what books he would actually want, what books were actually obtainable, and what books really meant something to these characters, people wouldn’t be so quick to write him off as an idiot.

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