Z for Zachariah and Adaptation

First of all, let me thank you all for the stimulating discussions we’ve had this term in class. I’ve been gratified at the quality of discussions and the number of you who are regularly contributing to the discussion each class period. Driving home yesterday after our discussion of O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah and the 2015 film adaptation, I had some further thoughts that I thought I’d share.

O’Brien’s book begins with Ann Burden in a state of balance. She’s comfortable in the house, she has a supply of food that comes both from the local store and the small garden she’s been working. She entertains herself with books and playing music. Granted, the tractor no longer runs because of the lack of gasoline, but Ann seems to have found a state of equilibrium without the comforts of modern technology. When Loomis comes onto the scene, this equilibrium is broken, and the central story (and conflict) of the book is arguably all about the implications of this rupture and how Ann deals with it and what she learns from the experience. As we discussed in class, Loomis might represent a patriarchal authority being imposed on the valley, or simply the hierarchical power structure of the adult, or perhaps even the reintroduction of “advanced” knowledge and technology (note how he enables Ann to once again use the tractor by manually operating the pumps and brings in the cutting-edge suit that protects from radiation). Whatever he represents, he disrupts the balance with the natural environment that Ann has struck after her family left the valley.

In discussing the film adaptation, I noted that the introduction of Caleb, the young man not present in O’Brien’s book, could have been a ploy to develop a love triangle that’s been an oft-used trope in literature and film, especially young adult literature. Certainly the conflict that develops in the film between Caleb and Loomis for Ann’s affection (and, consequently, for the relative comfort and potential future that the valley can provide) brings a level of conflict that is not only more familiar to viewers but more palpable.

Internal conflicts are much harder to depict in film as opposed to in a novel, and O’Brien’s book is almost entirely about the internal conflict Ann feels about Loomis and the future he does (and then doesn’t) represent. The screenwriters’ decision to bring in a third character is partly about externalizing that conflict, making it more present. But, in thinking about it more yesterday, I also think it’s consistent with the spirit of O’Brien’s work. If Z for Zachariah is primarily about the upset that comes into Ann’s life, then the film is pretty consistent with the book. At one point in the film, it seems possible that Loomis and Ann will be able to be a couple and perhaps begin a future for humanity–it’s almost as if the balance Ann had worked so hard to build before Loomis appeared will be restored and, perhaps, even strengthened given Loomis’ scientific know-how. But once Caleb comes on the scene, that balance is ruptured again and becomes even more imperiled: Caleb’s appearance brings out troubling aspects of Loomis’ character (who has been portrayed as gentler and more appealing than he is in the book), but Caleb’s something of an unknown as well and we can’t be any more confident that he’d be a suitable match for Ann.

Two final thoughts about the adaptation. One, it’s significant that the showdown between Loomis and Caleb in the film comes in the context of building a water-wheel to bring electricity back into the valley (which is only alluded to as part of Loomis’ plans in the book). Here again we see the “invasion” of scientific knowledge into the natural balance of the valley, the same kind of knowledge that brought about the destruction that traps Ann in the valley and threatens her when she decides to leave. And, two, as I mentioned in class, I’m not sure what to make of the choice to cast Loomis as a different race from Ann and Caleb; is that to evoke historical stereotypes about race, or is it designed to make us more self-aware about how embedded those stereotypes can be when Loomis does turn out to be suspicious?

Weekly Update, May 12

OK, so it’s kind of in the middle of the week, but here are some thoughts and reminders for you.

I enjoyed and appreciated the discussion yesterday on Hesse’s Witness. It’s intriguing to me that verse novels are popular for young adults (and I think readers, at least those that I’ve observed in classrooms, generally respond favorably to them) but not so common in the real of adult literature (that I know of, at least). Witness is a powerful example of both the genre itself and the potential of the genre to allow for complex, multilayered explorations of the human condition. As some of you noted yesterday, we don’t get to enjoy full characterizations in a verse novel like this, with so many narrative voices, and that might be less satisfactory for us readers. But we do get some significant insights into the condition of bigotry and the courage required to overcome that human weakness thanks to the broad number of voices. And that’s worth a lot, I think, in light of the challenges we sometimes hear to YAL that it can’t be complex as other forms.

If you’re interested in the verse novel and would like to explore those that do provide stronger characterization, I’d recommend you look at Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade [HBLL | Amazon]. Another title that’s attracting a lot of attention right now is Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover [HBLL | Amazon]. Both feature a single narrator with a distinct voice; the former features a young woman who babysits for a teen single mom who’s struggling to get her life together, the latter features a young basketball player who tells his family’s story in verse.

One last thing to note: I will be traveling next week and will have limited access to the Internet. I know the Keyword Project is due at the end of next week, so I’d suggest you get started thinking about the individual essay this week so I can help address any questions you have. I’ve posted links on the assignment page to a couple of model essays from last semester that I hope will give you a sense of my expectations for this piece (in addition to the explanation on the assignment page).

Weekly Update, May 2

This was a whirlwind week I think, given all we tried to jam into two days of class. Some reminders of things that you’ll want to keep in mind as we prepare for next week:

  • Continue to think about the keyword you’d like to focus on; we started forming groups on Friday, but remember that all that’s fluid for the next little while. I was excited by the list we started gathering on Friday, as some of the terms you’re interested in looking at (like sexuality and steampunk and bleak lit) are terms that I think really need to be added to the wiki.
  • Your inquiry project proposal is due this week on Wednesday; we’ll talk a bit more about that on Monday, but you’ll want to look over the topics on this site (in the Resources section of the site) for some possible topics. But I think our discussion Friday of the history of young adult literature and even the issues we explored as we interrogated the terms might provide some ideas.

I look forward to hearing on Monday about your experiences immersing yourself in the cultural construct of the teenager. Last semester I watched some of the show “The 100” (on the CW network) as part of my research and was reminded that these actors are older young adults (usually in their early or mid-20s) playing the role of teenagers. And often, as in the case with this show, they’re engaging in some pretty adult behaviors and conflicts. That’s another wrinkle, I think, in our discussion of how media influences our ideas of what it means to be a teen and how the adolescent experience is portrayed.

Finally, for those of you who might have missed our discussion on the history of YAL, or who enjoyed it so much that you’d like some more of it, then here are a couple of links that provide some insights into that history (although they don’t stretch as far back as our discussion did):

Thanks for a great opening week and I am really looking forward to this (sadly, short) term together!