03 November 2007

Anthony Horowitz: "How Depressing It Is"

A while back I linked to this complaint in the tabloid Daily Mail from Anthony Horowitz, creator of juvenile spy Alex Rider. Reading the graphic novel adapted from the movie script adapted from the original novel brought that article to my mind again today.

Horowitz claimed it was just too hard for him to create villains when he had to avoid ethnic and other stereotypes:

How depressing it is that Herod Sayle, the Lebanese businessman that Alex Rider fought in his first adventure, Stormbreaker, quietly morphed into Darrius Sayle, Californian trailer trash, by the time the film came out last summer.

In the UK edition, he's the son of a failed hairdresser, but in the American edition that had to be changed when I was accused of homophobia - because to some people hairdressing would seem a gay profession.

Over there, he's the son of a failed oral hygienist.
Horowitz's article didn't acknowledge that the original name "Herod Sayle" was a cheap pun to begin with. It left out how the character had already "morphed" from Lebanese to Egyptian in the US edition of the book, undoubtedly with his approval, so he had long compromised the original characterization.

What's more, Horowitz's whinging about losing "hairdresser" in favor of "oral hygienist" obscured how that he apparently believes boys who grow up poor in the Third World must have a "failed" father. Actual grinding poverty has no place in this view of life.

Whether Egyptian, Lebanese, or Californian, Herod/Darrius Sayle is born poor and tumbles into an elite British education. In the books, he as a young child saves rich people's lives. In the graphic novel, his mother wins a lottery. Sayle hates the bigotry and bullying at his new school so much that it motivates both his success as a computer magnate and his genocidal scheme.

Of course, anybody would hate bigotry and bullying directed at them; I've already written about Horowitz's lack of understanding and compassion on that point. His implied lesson in Stormbreaker, in all its forms, is not that the future prime minister shouldn't have bullied Sayle at school, but that Sayle shouldn't have been sent to that school in the first place; he would have been happier in the Lebanese slum/Egyptian slum/California trailer park where he began.

Just as Horowitz's characterization and plotting seems to play to bigotry, so does his Daily Mail essay. It's a standard-issue rant against the constrictions of "political correctness"--yet how in the world does that follow from the essay's start?
When it comes to children's literature, the most fun that a writer can have is creating the bad guys ... and the fact is that there's nothing kids like more than a good villain.

At the end of the day, Peter Pan is just a girl in green tights, but when Captain Hook enters the stage, the theatre comes alive to the sound of jubilant boos and hisses.

Who is it we remember from Treasure Island? Is it Jim Hawkins, the cabin boy, or the effortlessly stylish Long John Silver?
Ethnicity and "political correctness" never come up with those classic villains. Stevenson and Barrie didn't build those characters on stereotypes, and they didn't write to newspapers lamenting how much easier it would have been to do so.

In fact, the roots of Captain Hook's character rest in--irony alert!--an elite British education. In the stage play, Hook's last words are "Floreat Etona," the motto of Eton College, and Barrie later wrote a speech titled "Captain Hook at Eton." In the novel, Barrie's narrative voice whispers, "Hook was not his true name. To reveal who he really was would even at this date set the country in a blaze." Captain Hook was an insider, not an outsider, which made him a character for the ages.

Given Horowitz's article from last year, we might wonder what he came up with as the antagonist in the newest Alex Rider adventure, Snakehead? The Telegraph reports he's the leader of an "Asian crime network" named Winston Yu:
In typical Horowitz fashion, though, he is far from being the usual two-dimensional villain. He is the son of a Chinese woman who has sent her boy to an expensive public school (Harrow) on the strength of her earnings as a hired assassin.
Yes, that's "typical Horowitz," with more than a little ethnic stereotyping at the foundation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Bravo and then some. I never got past Stormbreaker for the reasons you've so succinctly stated, so I'm happy to see I wasn't the only one. Thank you.