Sunday, January 27, 2008

Movie better than the book

When the movie Amazing Grace was in theatres, I missed seeing it. I promised myself that once the movie came out on DVD, I would watch it with the family or if they were reluctant, I would watch it on my own. I knew very little about William Wilburforce -- other than that he was the moving force behind the abolition of slavery in Britain -- so figured I might get something from the experience. I tried to watch it at one point during the holidays but the interruptions made it impossible. This month, I finally got to see it without any intrusion.

The movie is fine. Not great, not deeply inspiring, just a nicely handled historical movie focused on Wilberforce and his campaign in the English Parliament for the abolition of slavery. The targeted audience for the movie was clearly families, church groups, and educators. That being the case. it shouldn't surprise anyone that the packagers of the movie produced a glossy, four-color, 18-page "study guide" for the movie and marketed Eric Metaxas' biography of Wilberforce as the "official" companion book for the film.

The title of Metaxas' book is specifically Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery. Note that this is very definitely not a novelization (a full text rendition of the movie's actual script). Based on the publisher's reputation, and the fact that it was presented as non-fiction, I anticipated a basic work of historical biography. "Accessible" is actually how the book flap described it. It's important to note as well that this work was neither published by a publisher of children's literature (Harper San Francisco) nor was it targeted to the youth market. The book is decidedly being marketed to an adult demographic.

The difficulty is that the text is neither fish nor fowl. It isn't a serious biography, but neither is it written at a vocabulary level that meets the standard of accessibility that it claims. There is no index to assist the reader in pinpointing periods in the subject's life (a standard inclusion in most biographies) and yet the text uses words like "peroration" in describing political speeches. There are no footnotes in the text, despite direct quotes from primary sources such as letters and journals. Usual practice would dictate at least a date and indication of both writer and recipient of the specific letter. And while there is a section entitled "Bibliography", it isn't really a bibliography at all in the sense that the titles offered are not the works specifically consulted by the author but merely annotated titles of five or six biographies recommended to the reader.

At one point, I went to Metaxas' web page to learn his qualifications for writing this book only to discover that he isn't a trained scholar, but as a writer and/or media commentator. His career spans writing for both children (Veggie Tales) and adults (The New York Times). But here's a sample of his product: "During this trip, Wilberforce and Milner prosecuted their conversation with such intensity that the ladies took notice. Mrs. Wilberforce now complained of her son's less frequent visits to their carriage. Poor, ill-attended Mrs. Wilberforce! If only she had known that she was competing for her son's attentions with the man who was Stephen Hawkings, Dick Cavett, and Andre the Giant all rolled into one." Or this nugget, "By every account it was one of the finest speeches of Wilberforce's life, and those who judged such things thought it had elevated him into the marmoreal pantheon of immortals." He thinks his readers will feel comfortable with phrases such as "marmoreal pantheon" but doesn't want to intimidate those same readers with either formal bibliography or footnotes?

I don't read many biographies in any given year, but when I spend the money and take the time to read one, I expect something rather more solid than this.