Sunday, October 26, 2014
I decided to cover the two together, because I don't think you can really mention one without the other. They just seem to go together. While most urban fantasy has a magic user of some description in it, witches and wizards do seem to be surprisingly under represented as central characters, but I'll get to that later.
Like ghosts witches and wizards have existed in fiction for as long as people have been telling stories, and they also share other things in common with ghosts, in that many believe witches and wizards are real, even now all over the world.
There were a number of other words used to describe ghosts and that holds true for witches and wizards: enchanter, sorcerer, magician, conjuror, druid, spell caster, mage, warlock, shaman, the list is almost endless and new terms seem to crop and be rediscovered or come into popular use on a regular basis.
While people have always told stories about witches and wizards they're not as well represented as one might think. There's probably a two fold reason for this. One is that due to the belief in witches and wizards and their powers people may have been a bit concerned that to speak against them, or even about them, may draw undue attention and have them cursed or enchanted. The other is that for a long time, particularly in Europe during the middle ages, and even into the Renaissance, being suspected of practicing witchcraft was an offence punishable by death. Writing or speaking about it could see someone hauled in by the Inquisition for torture and possibly a fairly unpleasant death (burning seems to have been a rather popular option). This also spread to the Americas and the Witchfinders were every bit as dedicated as their European counterparts when it came to ferreting out suspected practitioners of witchcraft.
It's also rather interesting to look at the portrayal of witches as opposed to wizards. Witches were almost always the villain of the piece and they were quite often drawn as unattractive old crones, who ate children and had sinister black cats as familiars, they also flew around on broomsticks and had a penchant for black clothing. Wizards on the other hand were kindly old chaps with long white beards, robes of varying colours, they carried staffs and were often mentors of young square jawed heroes.
Even in Arthurian legend Merlin comes out of it rather well and his nemesis is an evil witch called Morgana Le Fay.
Witches often popped up in Grimm's fairytales and other European folktales. They were generally villains in those too. They lived away from society deep in the woods and shunned human contact, unless it was to take over a kingdom or eat lost children.
It was probably Shakespeare who first started the idea of witches as scarred, unattractive crones crouched over a steaming cauldron and tossing in such delicacies as eye of newt into their potions, with his trio in Macbeth. Other writers took their cue from the bard and continued to work on his prototype. They often appeared in covens of three, too. Terry Pratchett lampooned it all very successfully with his Witches books in his long running Discworld comic fantasy series. Characters like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg subverted that trope wonderfully well.
L. Frank Baum attempted to put a different spin on witches in his Oz books. Yes, the Wicked Witch of the West was green skinned and rather crone like, but Glinda the Good Witch was young and blonde and beautiful (she rather reminded me of the Blue Fairy in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio) and Ozma was younger again (I really like Bill Willingham's Ozma in Fables as a girl in her early teens, but wiser than her looks would lead one to believe).
However Walt Disney went back to the evil witch trope in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White's evil stepmother Grimhilde looked young and vital, but that was an illusion and she was black hearted, attempting to kill her stepdaughter, so that she could have the throne, the kingdom and be the fairest of them all into the bargain.
Hollywood didn't really seem to take to the witch, I'm not sure why and it was our old friend Thorne Smith who dragged the concept kicking and screaming away from what had been done for centuries. Smith's final book: The Passionate Witch (it was unfinished at the time of his death, completed by Norman H. Matson and published posthumously. Matson also put out a sequel Bats in the Belfry) was about a more modern type witch. It was later filmed as I Married a Witch, which along with the film Bell, Book and Candle formed the basis for the 1960's TV series Bewitched.
In terms of cartoons and comics witches were good business. Following the success of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Harvey Comics created Wendy the Good Little Witch. She was a pretty little blonde girl who wore a red cloak and hat, she also flew around on a broomstick, but had been raised by three, green skinned, warty stereotypical witches, who despaired of her ever being bad.
For some reason Archie Comics produced a series in the 1960's about a teenage witch called Sabrina who lived near Riverdale in Greendale. She was the focus of the Groovie Goolies spin off cartoon. The character had her own comics, her own animated series, there was a live action movie made and later a successful long running TV sitcom, starring Melissa Joan Hart.
TV show Bewitched (1964 - 72) really showed that there was a market for witches out there, and it's star wasn't a warty old woman with green tinged skin, she didn't hang about around a smoking cauldron, chanting horrible things or drop lizard and amphibian parts into it, she looked and acted like a stylish and attractive young '60's suburban housewife and later mother. Even her mother Endora, although sort of the villain of the piece didn't conform to the standard view of witches, nor did her dotty great aunt Clara.
The show was very popular and probably paved the way for witch themed TV shows from that point on. It's doubtful that shows like Charmed would have been made if not for Bewitched, even Sabrina's live action show may never have happened. The show also prompted a similar themed show in I Dream of Jeannie which featured a pretty female genie.
Bewitched had a rather weird morality that can probably be attributed to the time it was made. I could probably do a blog post on that alone to be honest. They did keep trying to recreate the show's popularity. Lisa Hartmann played Tabitha Stevens. the grown up daughter of Elizabeth Montgomery's Samantha Stevens in 1977, but the show never took off and had a very short run. The less said about the Nicole Kidman 2005 film remake the better. There's actually a proposal to make a new Bewitched at present, focussing on Tabitha's daughter Daphne, but it has not been picked up yet and it may never happen.
Pickings were pretty slim after Bewitched, Sabrina aside, and I never really took to that. The show seemed to revel in it's cheesiness and cheapness and Salem the talking cat annoyed me intensely.
There was a TV movie starring Linda Blair (I know, I know) called Stranger in Our House in 1978 that was rather chilling. I really liked the ending in which it is revealed that despite being seen in a car that went off a cliff and exploded the witch didn't die after all. It begged for a sequel, but this was never made.
The Witches of Eastwick starring Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer as the witches and Jack Nicholson as the Devil was based on John Updike's 1984 novel and was a big hit when it came out in 1987. It wasn't actually that bad a film, but it's success was due more to it's star quality than anything about the story or the film itself.
1996 movie The Craft dealt with teenage witches and was a sleeper hit and later cult favourite.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured witches right from the early days. The 3rd episode is called Witch and introduced a recurring character. The first season also introduced Jenny Calendar who originally called herself a techno pagan and was later revealed to be a member of the gypsy tribe that cursed vampire Angelus with a soul. Her tutelage and later tragic death prompted Willow to study witchcraft and become a powerful witch in her own right, as was her girlfriend for a few seasons Tara McClay. Although the two shows did cross over at times, Angel never really dealt with witchcraft as much as it's parent show.
I always found Charmed to be a poor reflection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with witches in place of slayers and demons instead of vampires. However the show about the witchly Halliwell sisters ran for 8 years and garnered quite a following.
Supernatural also has plenty of witches popping in and out, but they're not the focus of the show.
In 2012 CW had a short lived show called The Secret Circle that centred around a group of teens with supernatural powers, it was based on a series of successful teen novels of the same name by L. J Smith.
Witches interestingly enough don't really seem to be a hit in urban fantasy. Anita Blake has magical ability, but she's a reanimator, not a witch as such. The best example I can think of was Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde series. Diana's a wiccan, who describes herself as a practicing witch. It was unfortunate that at the time Lackey wrote the books they didn't really take off commercially, because now they'd be a huge hit, and the author doesn't seem to have a great interest in writing about the character anymore.
Now while the witch was making a name for herself and changing her look the wizard went his not so humble way as well.
Merlin was always popular, and had plenty of imitators. Largely every wizard in books since Le Morte de Arthur seemed to be physically based on Arthur's court wizard. Even Gandalf shared more than a bit in common with Merlin.
Whereas witches were often evil, wizards generally weren't. There were evil wizards, Saruman and Sauron spring to mind, but they were usually balanced out by someone like Gandalf. Witches weren't often extended that courtesy. There were plenty of imitators once Lord of the Rings became big business. Terry Brooks' Allanon from his Shannara series, David and Leigh Eddings' Belgarath (although he did have a daughter Polgara who was equally as powerful and popular as he was, they both got origin books), Raymond Feist's Pug from his Midkemia books and it could even be argued that Joe Abercrombie's scheming, manipulative Bayaz is a subversion of the wizardly trope, but they're all from epic fantasy.
Next to Merlin and Gandalf it could be argued that the most famous of wizards is a kid with spectacles by the name of Harry Potter. He and his alma mater Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry put young witches and wizards on the map and into the public consciousness in a big way, both through the books and the movies that were made from them. I tend to think that Harry probably owes more to his creation to Ursula Le Guin's Duny/Ged/Sparrowhawk than anything.
Before this Enid Blyton kept the fires burning in the imaginations of children. Both her witches and wizards were rather stereotypical and they were peripheral to the main stories, but they were an element and an important one that that.
Hollywood never really seemed to take to wizards prior to the live action version Lord of the Rings. I suppose they appeared in the occasional low budget sword and sorcery, but that seemed about it.
There was a 1970 - 71 British TV series called Catweazle about an inept 11th century wizard, who despite his rather dubious talents as a wizard manages to transport himself from his cave in the 11th century to the modern day and winds up living on a farm and being assisted in this strange new world by a young boy called Carrot. Most of the humour in the series came from Carrot's attempts to hide his friend from his father and coming to grips with modern technology (he refers to a telephone as a 'telling bone' and thinks it's magical). There were also novelisations of the episodes and seasons of the show.
Wizards didn't really get TV shows of their own. I guess they just weren't as entertaining pre Harry Potter as witches. There was an American sitcom called Mr. Merlin, that ran for one season. It had the famous wizard as a kindly, but mysterious garage owner who has to guide teenager Zac through life because he pulled Excalibur disguised as a crowbar out of a bucket of cement. It was rather predictable and never really worked, though. Only mildly amusing, occasionally and only if you had nothing else to watch.
1998 saw a TV mini series called Merlin, starring Sam Neill as a younger version of the legendary wizard and showing how he came to his power.
When it came to wizards on TV they just never seemed to get past Merlin. 2008 saw Merlin premiere on BBC One. The show was also nicknamed Camelot 90210, because of it's pretty and youthful cast. I found it rather hit and miss. It was hard to buy the premise that Merlin started off as a kitchen hand in Camelot and became a young Arthur's squire (he was actually slightly younger than Arthur), and it was often quite ridiculous. It also required a major suspension of belief in that Merlin could hide his magic from Arthur for as long as he did, without Arthur, dim as he was, not working it out. It seemed to be a running gag that Merlin was an awful liar, but no matter how feeble his stories were, Arthur never worked them out until the final season. The company that made the show have never been able to repeat the success with other legends, despite trying with Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts (Atlantis).
Similar to witches, while there are plenty of male magic workers in urban fantasy there aren't many that are main characters, although it's starting to come around. Of course Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden is the most prominent. Harry Copperfield Blackstone Dresden actually advertises himself as a Wizard for Hire, and he's the star of a highly successful series of books and a short lived, but underrated TV show also called The Dresden Files, which was axed far too soon.
Benedict Jacka has a series about a character called Alex Verus, who is largely an English version of Harry. I read the first book, but found the main character intensely annoying, so didn't stick with it.
Kevin Hearne has a series about Atticus O'Sullivan, a 2,000 + year old Irish Druid, who consorts with gods and mythological creatures, that's quite a lot of fun, even if the best bit is Atticus' talking wolfhound Oberon.
Laura Resnick's Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, while being about the struggling actress Esther has as another major character, her friend Maximilian Zadok, a 350 year old Hungarian wizard. The first book in the series Disappearing Nightly, was about a stage disappearing trick that went horribly wrong and the third book Unsympathetic Magic dealt with voodoo.
Recommended reading and watching:
Various retellings of the Arthurian legend, best traditional version is T.H White's The Once and Future King. I personally recommend Parke Godwin's Firelord, but Merlin is hardly mentioned in that one.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
The Oz books by L. Frank Baum.
The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien
The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien.
The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin.
The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike.
The Diana Tregarde series by Mercedes Lackey.
Harry Potter books 1 - 7 by J.K Rowling.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.
The Esther Diamond series by Laura Resnick.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I Married a Witch (1942)
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Craft (1996)
Harry Potter (2001 - 2011)
Bewitched (1964 - '72)
Catweazle (1970 - 71)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
The Dresden Files (2007)
Merlin (2008 - 2012)
Sunday, October 19, 2014
I've covered vampires and werewolves as staples of supernatural fiction or urban fantasy, so now it's the turn of the ghost. To be honest the ghost was actually a bit of an afterthought, which is rather silly, because there's probably been more written about them than any of the others. Not many people really think that they'll ever encounter a vampire or a werewolf outside of the pages of an urban fantasy novel or a TV show or film, but ghosts on the other hand, plenty of people who don't believe in vampires and werewolves do still wonder about the existence of ghosts.
For as long as people have been reading, writing and telling stories they've been telling them about ghosts. Part of this comes from a belief in there being a life after death. Becoming a ghost is a kind of way to still be alive following the death of the physical form. There are so many words for ghost: spirit, apparition, spectre, phantom, poltergeist, the list goes on.
In terms of literature I think we've always told ghost stories. It's become a tradition, especially amongst children and young teens to tell scary stories at Halloween and around campfires or on sleepovers. Generally the scary story involves a ghost of some description.
Ghosts have been appearing in literature as early as Homer's Odyssey, where they were described as the inhabitants of the underworld. They also appear in the Old Testament. Roman playwright Plautus and historian Pliny the Younger both wrote accounts of haunted houses. Ghosts also appeared in the work of Seneca.
There are ghost stories amongst the many found in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The 11th century Japanese work The Tale of Genji also featured ghost stories.
Ghosts appear regularly in the Elizabethan theatre. Shakespeare made use of ghosts in 3 of his best known plays: Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy featured a ghost and was later admired and possibly parodied by the likes of Shakespeare, Johnson and Marlowe.
The tradition continued throughout the 16th and 17th century, with the British and Scottish border ballad, even now Scotland seems to be a great place to set a ghost story, with it's rich and often bloody history. Of course one of Scotland's literary greats Sir Walter Scott was fond of a good ghost story.
The classic ghost stories come from the 19th century and the Victorian age and it could be argued that the rise and popularity of writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu ushered in a golden age for the ghost in fiction. We cannot forget Charles Dickens who gave the world some of the most famous ghosts in the classic 1843 tale A Christmas Carol. I've already mentioned Poe from the American school, but there's also Washington Irving and his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which like Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been endlessly copied and presented. Even today there's a TV show based on the story. Playwright Oscar Wilde was one of the first to see the comedic potential for a ghost and gave the world The Canterville Ghost. This has been filmed more than once with the 1944 Charles Laughton version being the best of them for mine.
The tradition continued into the 20th century. Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell and even Noel Coward wrote ghost stories. Not surprisingly Coward's Blithe Spirit was a more humorous look at the phenomenon. A writer who is not often mentioned and is my opinion criminally underrated now is Thorne Smith. Smith probably did more for ghost fiction in his day than plenty of other authors of the time who are better known now. He wrote a few fantasies, but he's best known for Topper in 1926. He wrote 2 Topper novels. They concerned a respectable married banker and his experience with a young deceased couple. There were 3 Topper films made, Cary Grant starred in the first of them, and it was also made into a TV show from 1953 to 1955.
The Ghost and Mrs Muir was a 1947 film with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, it was based on the 1945 novel of the same name by R.A Dick and it also became a TV series. I remember it better than the Topper show, but it seems to have been less successful on the small screen.
Like the vampire and the werewolf, the ghost also found itself as the subject of film and later TV. Possibly driven by the stories told around campfires and in sleeping bags late at night, and the fact that ghosts are relatively easy to fake on film (you just do some trickery to make the actor look like they pass through something solid and hey presto ghost!) ghost films proliferated.
I've mentioned The Canterville Ghost, Topper, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, all quite successful. Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit was also filmed during the 1940's, a seeming Golden Age for ghost stories in Hollywood. Ghosts also seemed somehow less confronting or scary than vampires or werewolves, which is why they often got filmed as comedies, rather than straight horror. The horror would come later.
In 1977 a book called The Amityville Horror was released. The author claimed that the events in the book really did happen, although there's been a lot conjecture over what actually took place and what was described. Whether it was true or not the book did sell well and became the subject of a 1979 film, also called The Amityville Horror (it was remade in 2005). There were two sequels written to the original book and as well as the 2005 remake there were 10 or 11 other Amityville films, one is due to be released in 2015.
In 1982 Stephen Spielberg brought out Poltergeist, which like The Amityville Horror was closer to horror than anything else and also dealt with an unseen type of ghost known as a poltergeist. It also spawned 2 sequels and there's another remake due for release in 2015.
The Nightmare on Elm Street saga began in 1983 and that gave audiences a new ghostly horror in the form of the facially scarred, razor fingered Freddy Krueger. At last count there were 9 Elm Street films featuring Freddy Kreuger, at one point he battled fellow horror alumni Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th) and was also a playable character in the video game Mortal Kombat.
The played for laughs came back in 1984 with Ghostbusters (there was also a sequel and there are rumours about a remake, as well as a chart topping song by Ray Parker Jr. that gave us the immortal line: 'who ya gonna call?'). The ghosts in Ghostbusters were a little different to how other films had portrayed them in the past. These ones were brightly coloured balls of ectoplasm, as opposed to the white spectral imaginings of them in the past.
Beetlejuice in 1988 harked back to the Topper style of ghost I felt, with an attractive young deceased couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin fighting to save their dream house from being invaded by a new family who had interesting architectural designs. They form an alliance with the unsavoury, amoral Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) and then wind up battling him for the soul of the new family's teenage daughter (Winona Ryder).
1989 saw a different type of ghost story in the Kevin Costner vehicle Field of Dreams in which a team of ghostly baseball players from the past manage to help the main character sort out his issues with his dead father.
The ghost as a romantic lead was the focus of the 1990 hit Ghost. That showed examples of how a ghost can affect the corporeal world and also helped the main character of the murdered Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) find his murderer and bring him to justice. The same year Truly Madly Deeply with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman came out and was a superior example of a funny ghost story and brought home how annoying having a loved one come back really could become when one of the people is still very much alive.
There's an underrated gem called The Frighteners from 1996. It was one of Peter Jackson's early films, and it really deserved more attention than it got. It reminded me of what Stephen King would do if he played it for laughs. It's another poltergeist type film.
M. Knight Shyamalan's 1999 film The Sixth Sense brought the idea of the ghost right back into the public eye and again showed a way a ghost can influence the real world and those in it, as well as come to terms with their own mortality. The Blair Witch Project also came out in 1999 and was a different type of ghost story, but again brought home how scary they can really be if handled correctly.
Disney attempted to cash in on the Disneyland ride The Haunted Mansion with a film of the same name starring Eddie Murphy in 2003, but it failed to do a Pirates of the Caribbean and didn't make enough to encourage further films, it was also critically panned.
The fact that a few of these films are being remade or given new life in continuing entries into their franchise indicates that ghosts are still popular with the public.
TV has also given ghosts plenty of coverage over the years. As well as the previously mentioned Topper and The Ghost and Mrs Muir, cartoons have been a surprisingly popular form of ghost story.
The most famous of those is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and this was also made as a big screen film in 1995 with Christina Ricci befriending the lonely and harmless child ghost from the cartoons.
Scooby Doo is well known for it's depictions of ghosts, but they were generally hoaxes perpetrated by someone trying to pull a con job and were unmasked at the end by the gang.
Ghostbusters also spawned a cartoon.
There was a mid 70's show called Nobody's House. It was a British children's show about a family that moved into a new house that was built on the site of a Victorian workhouse and the children of that family encountered 'Nobody' an orphan who died in the workhouse.
This sank without a trace, but in 1983 Jennifer Slept Here was to my way of thinking slightly above average. It concerned a fast living Hollywood starlet who died young and as a ghost befriended the teenage son of the family that moved into her old house. Audiences and critics didn't really take to it, and it had a fairly short run.
It wasn't until the 2000's that people really saw the potential, although generally the ghosts aren't the focus of the story. They appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (there was a recent fan made video for a talked about, but never made cartoon that featured Tara as a ghost. I really wish they'd done that with the character for season 7 of the show, it probably would have been more satisfying than the Willow Kennedy pairing of that season, which to me never really worked), Angel and Supernatural. They were peripherally the focus of both Medium and Ghost Whisperer as well as Tru Calling.
The two shows that did it best though were the UK version of Being Human and American Horror Story: Murder House. The second of those gave me chills, especially Evan Peter's troubled teenaged ghost.
I know I keep mentioning Being Human, but it really was a brilliant show. The concept of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a house and a life and trying to be human was so simple, but so well executed. Everything from the performances to the writing just worked in the show.
Harry Potter also featured ghosts in both the books and the films, although I never felt they were elevated above the level of poor parody in the films and worked much better in the book, plus they had more to do. I can't even remember Peeves in the films.
Strangely enough they aren't used a lot in urban fantasy. Anita Blake reanimates corpses, but they're not really ghosts, closer to zombies. I think it's harder to really get the point of ghosts across in urban fantasies than it is other supernatural creatures that are used. Gail Carriger has ghosts in her Parasol Protectorate books, but again they're relatively peripheral.
Jim Butcher is one of the few to do it successfully in The Dresden Files, in fact the 13th book in the series is called Ghost Story. The TV show that was based on the books also presented Bob the Skull as rather ghostly, which isn't quite how he's written.
Cherie Priest's Eden Moore series is about a girl who can see ghosts and uses them to solve mysteries. I haven't read them, but Cherie Priest is very good and these have a southern gothic feel to them.
Laura Resnick has covered a number of supernatural phenomena in her Esther Diamond series and the ghost got it's turn in the 5th book of the series; Polterheist.
Seanan McGuire has Sparrow Hill Road. That went a storied road. It began life as a song on her first album Pretty Little Dead Girl and was the story of a girl called Rose Marshall who died on the way to her high school prom and went on to haunt drivers on Sparrow Hill Road. Rose later appeared in 12 stories on website Edge of Propinquity with an updated story and toned down a little, she'd gone from killing drivers on Sparrow Hill Road to guiding people from one life to the next as a route witch. In 2014 the stories were prettied up, altered a bit, reordered, had another one added to make it an even baker's dozen and released as the book Sparrow Hill Road. Rose apparently shares a universe with one of Seanan's urban fantasy series InCryptid.
Reading and viewing (movies and TV)
Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Topper by Thorne Smith.
The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A Dick.
Armada Ghost Books edited by Mary Danby (there were about 15 of these, they were largely aimed at younger readers, but they have some excellent examples of the ghost story).
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (especially book 13 Ghost Story)
The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.
Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire.
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)
Field of Dreams (1989)
Truly Madly Deeply (1990)
The Frighteners (1996)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Topper (1953 - 55)
The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1968 - 70)
Nobody's House (1976)
Jennifer Slept Here (1983 - 84)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
Angel (1999 - 2004)
Supernatural (2005 - present)
Being Human UK version (2008 - 13)
American Horror Story: Murder House (2011)
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
The other day in the first of a series of post on the stock supernatural types in urban fantasy I covered the evolution of the vampire. Today it's the turn of the werewolf.
Werewolves are often associated with vampires, they quite often occupy the same books, films and TV shows. Sometimes they're allies, but more often vampires and werewolves are enemies.
The werewolf has appeared in legends and myths for a lot longer than vampires have. This makes sense, because in many parts of the world (Australia's one of the few exceptions), people live side by side with wolves, and so legends and myths are told about them.
They tend to be associated with vampires because wolves are a big part of life in the same part of the world, eastern Europe.
Despite this werewolf fiction is not as prominent as vampire fiction and took longer to appear.
The fairytale Little Red Riding Hood is often seen as an attempt to warn children of the dangers in the woods, one of them being wolves, but in recent times it's been reinterpreted as a werewolf story. Angela Carter's 1979 short story The Company of Wolves, filmed under the same name in 1984 took that view and the 2011 Amanda Seyfried film Red Riding Hood, used that idea as well.
Some have attributed werewolf subtext to the Robert Louis-Stevenson classic The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, and while the Hyde character is often portrayed as rather animalistic, I don't think there's much there to suggest that he's a werewolf.
They were the subject of a number of gothic horror serialised stories and novels throughout the 19th century, even Alexandre Dumas wrote The Wolf Leader in 1857.
It was, as with the vampire, the American film industry that brought the character into the public imagination. Again during the 1930's werewolf films proliferated. Bela Lugosi became identified with Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr. did the same with the werewolf or 'wolfman' as they were often referred to. In fact singer and songwriter Warren Zevon made reference Lon Chaney Jr's performances as a werewolf in his 1978 classic Werewolves of London. Chaney's wolf man, Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein appeared as a 'terrible trio' in a number of films during the period.
The werewolf, like the vampire, became a figure of fun over time. No Muppets or Sesame Street characters, but the Archie cartoon spin off The Groovie Goolies featured a hippy werewolf called Wolfie.
I think things changed a bit for the werewolves in 1981 when the film An American Werewolf in London hit the screens. While a lot of the film was quite amusing, it wasn't entirely played for laughs and it had some serious moments, plus it looked at what a curse being turned into a werewolf was for anyone unfortunate enough to have this happen to them.
In 1985 they went back to laughing at the werewolf with the Michael J. Fox film Teen Wolf. The film was actually made before Back to the Future, but released after and it rode high on the lead actor's popularity. It was successful enough to spawn a sequel in 1987 with Jason Bateman replacing Michael J. Fox as the wolfish teen, and playing the cousin of Fox's character. It has more recently been resurrected as a more serious teen drama TV series on MTV.
Werewolves started to appear as staples in urban fantasy at about the same time as vampires did. The Anita Blake's and the Southern Vampire Mysteries feature them. Both series have all sorts of weres and don't just confine it to wolves. In fact Anita slept with almost every were there was.
They popped up in Harry Potter and J.K Rowling took the unusual step of making one a fairly major character and a sympathetic one at that. I was genuinely sad when that one died in the major battle at the end of the series.
The werewolf was also in the Twilight series. Jacob completed the love triangle between Bella and Edward. It was particularly complicated with Edward being a vampire and werewolves and vampires being historical enemies.
They appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Willow's boyfriend Oz being one for a few seasons. Angel also had a liaison with a female werewolf in his series, and it was particularly amusing in the episode Smile Time when she quite literally tore the stuffing out of him.
Both vampires and werewolves have appeared in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Jacqueline Carey's Agent of Hel series as well as Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate where the main character wound up married to one. Carriger brought up the interesting idea of making all male werewolves serve in the military at some point over the long lives.
One of the best portrayals of werewolves in TV was in the British version of Being Human. The show featured a vampire living with a werewolf and a ghost and we saw what I felt were genuine effects of turning once a month.
Suggested reading and viewing list:
Little Red Riding Hood (fairytale - probably first appeared in written form sometime during the 17th century, most likely in France)
The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter (1979, part of The Bloody Chamber collection)
Discworld series by Terry Pratchett (1983 - present, generally in a book featuring the Ankh Morpork Watch as one of the members Angua is a werewolf)
Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton (as with the vampire recommendation, stop after the first few before she turns into a nymphomaniac)
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (werewolves first appear in the 2nd book Fool Moon, but pop in and out from then on).
The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris (again the werewolves come in in the second book).
The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.
Agent of Hel by Jacqueline Carey.
The Wolf Man (1931)
I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957 worth it for the curiosity value of seeing a young Michael Landon in the main role. I think footage of it may have been used in Michael Jackson's Thriller film clip)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Teen Wolf (1985)
Red Riding Hood (2011)
Dark Shadows (1968)
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
Angel (1999 - 2004)
Being Human (UK version 2008 - 2013)
True Blood (2008 -2014)
Teen Wolf (2011 - now)
Sunday, October 12, 2014
I read a bit of what is commonly referred to as urban fantasy these days (years ago it was contemporary fantasy) and my tastes also commonly overlap into what is known as paranormal fiction, although my paranormal is generally heavy on the paranormal and quite light on the romance.
I was watching Teen Wolf the other day (I actually do like the show, it's a lot better than many have given it credit for, especially since season 3, I have rarely ever seen a show click in the way it did after 2 fairly so so seasons) and I started to realise that urban fantasy has drifted from the page and onto the screen in a big way over the last 15 - 20 years.
Teen Wolf is, as the title suggests, mostly about werewolves, and it bears about as much resemblance to the teen comedy that inspired the current show as Buffy the Vampire Slayer the movie did to the TV show that bore the same name.
This got me wondering about the staples of urban fantasy and how they've evolved over the years from the stars of books that you didn't want to admit you read to horror movies that you didn't want to admit you'd actually watched to mainstream TV shows that you're actually kind of proud you do watch.
If I'm going to look at these types of creatures then I need to start somewhere and that's with the one that in many people's eyes seemed to start it all; the vampire.
NOTE: these views are entirely my own and probably won't be exhaustive as well as being fairly coloured by personal opinion.
The most famous vampire is probably a Transylvanian nobleman who may or may not have been related to the real Vlad Tepes, a 15th century rule from the country of Wallachia who was rather notorious for his penchant of impaling his enemies, so much so that history knows him as Vlad the Impaler.
I am of course speaking about Count Dracula, the name has become synonymous with vampires in general.
Contrary to popular opinion Bram Stoker's 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula was not the first appearance of the blood sucking creatures in modern fiction.
That honour goes to a work published in 1819. The Vampyre by John Polidori. The author was a friend and personal physician of Lord Byron and present at Lake Geneva when Byron suggested that each of his guests write a ghost story after reading from Fantasmagoria - a French collection of German horror tales. One of the guests; the fiancee of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, wrote the beginnings of what would become Frankenstein, and Polidori came up with The Vampyre.
The theme continued in penny dreadfuls, the best known being Varney the Vampire in 1847. I have to admit I've never been able to take a vampire called Varney seriously. It keeps making me think of Reg Varney, the British comedian who made his name by playing laddish bus driver Stan Butler in British classic comedy On the Buses, although I have to admit if someone told me that Stan's morose brother-in-law Arthur Rudge was in fact a vampire I'd probably believe them. It explains a lot about Arthur.
It was however Stoker's highly successful novel that captured public imagination and set most of what is accepted about vampires, even now over 100 years after it's publication, in place.
Vampires continued to be popular, especially in film, right up until the 1950's. There was the German cinema classic Nosferatu in 1922, but the most popular films were American and made in the 1930's starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
Lugosi's portrayal, complete with cape and accent tended to be how people viewed vampires for years afterwards. Sesame Street's counting vampire; The Count, is clearly based on Lugosi's Dracula.
The other actor that became identified with the character was British actor Christopher Lee. Lee played Dracula in a number of films for Hammer Horror between 1958 and 1973.
In the 60's and 70's TV started to take over the job of keeping the vampire legend alive. A search for a vampire was the basis for the pilot of 70's TV horror show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Vampires were also featured in the show Dark Shadows. By that time vampire films were also being rerun and watched regularly by modern audiences as well.
Vampires were always popular fodder for horror novels and even Stephen King had a go at it in Salem's Lot (1975). George R.R Martin (best known for the A Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, adapted by HBO for it's hit TV series Game of Thrones) wrote an excellent vampire novel; Fevre Dream in 1982. Vampires probably jumped back into the public consciousness in a big way when Anne Rice released Interview with a Vampire in 1994. Her vampire books, featuring the hedonistic, androgynous French vampire Lestat gave people a different look at the creatures. It added to films like The Hunger (1983), The Lost Boys (1987) and 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer in taking an alternative view of the vampire.
Laurell K. Hamilton just managed to get a jump on Anne Rice with her Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, the first book Guilty Pleasures came out in 1993. The first few books of this series weren't too bad at all, but bit by bit the books seem to become more of an excuse for Anita to sleep with as many characters as possible and the sex became more important than the story. Anita's world was the first time I can remember seeing vampires portrayed as accepted, if not well liked, members of society openly, rather than knowledge of their existence being hidden away from the general public. This was a tack that Kim Harrison took with her The Hollows series and Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampires Mysteries, starring the part fae mindreader Sookie Stackhouse and was later filmed by HBO as True Blood, also took with their entries into the urban fantasy sub genre.
Mercedes Lackey preceded them with her short lived Diana Tregarde series, which the author cut short, for among other reasons, a lack of sales. While the Diana Tregarde books did feature vampires, they were essentially about the title character who was a witch, and vampires were in that series hidden away and their existence was kept secret.
Things changed, certainly for me, and probably for vampires in general when Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy put the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the WB Network in 1997. Whedon had written the original film, but maintained that it went through significant changes before it reached the big screen. The show was more what he had always intended to create with the film.
The show was initially about Buffy Summers, who like Abraham van Helsing and Marvel Comics half vampire Blade and even Hamilton's Anita Blake, was a vampire hunter, or in the mythology of the show a Slayer. However when they introduced the character of Angel, a vampire with a soul, they changed the dynamic of the show and how many consumers saw vampires. The appearance of the character Spike in the 2nd season of the show altered it further. Vampires suddenly became romantic leads with depth and not just creepy super powered blood suckers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer spawned spin off Angel and probably was responsible for the highly regarded, but unfortunately short lived Moonlighting.
In 2005 another game changer hit the market. Twilight. Vampires that don't burst into flames if they go into the sun, but instead sparkle. While the value of the books and the resultant films can be argued ad infinitum, their impact can't. Stephenie Meyer tried to do something that was different and she succeeded, although given the ridicule the idea has received I doubt anyone else will do it.
Vampires are starting to wane a little, although they're still quite popular in fiction, and they'll never go away entirely, but since the publication of Dracula in 1897 they've gone through quite a few changes and they'll no doubt go through a few more before the world is done with them, if ever.
The following list is by no means exhaustive and is as I said at the start largely coloured by personal opinion:
Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Salem's Lot by Stephen King.
Fevre Dream by George R.R Martin.
Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice.
Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton.
The Hollows by Kim Harrison.
The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris.
The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks.
Morganville Vampires by Rachel Caine.
The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.
Dracula (Bela Lugosi - 1931)
Dracula (Christopher Lee - 1958)
The Hunger (1983)
The Lost Boys (1987)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Interview with a Vampire (1994)
Let the Right One In (2008)
Dark Shadows (1966 - 71)
Forever Knight (1992 - 96)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
Angel (1999 -2004)
Being Human - UK version (2008 -13)
True Blood (2008 - 14)
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Occasionally I encounter a concept which to me simply screams out to be made into a blockbuster movie. Two of the concepts that have stayed with me the longest are George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books (one of them was actually made into a film, although it wasn't that well received. I may do more on that in another post one day) and the other is Peter O'Donnell's former criminal mastermind, turned part time spy; Modesty Blaise.
For those that aren't aware or have never heard of Modesty she began in this way.
Peter O'Donnell was a successful writer of comic strips for daily newspapers. He'd written an adaptation of the James Bond adventure Dr No (this was the Ian Fleming novel, not the movie version that opened the long running franchise. I believe the Dr No of the title was the villain's pet monkey in the book, not the villain himself), written long running adventure serials Garth and Romeo Brown (the latter began O'Donnell's association with artist Jim Holdaway, who also drew Modesty Blaise until his death in 1970). In 1963 he was asked to come up with something new and that something new was Modesty Blaise. By this stage Peter O'Donnell had a good 7 or so years of solid work behind him.
The writer actually drew on personal experience to create Modesty. He remembered an encounter that his army unit had experienced with a half wild child when they were stationed in the Middle East in 1943/44. That brief encounter was what gave him the idea for Modesty Blaise and became part of her origin really.
Modesty Blaise used to appear in a daily newspaper here; The Sun (it's the Herald Sun these days), but I never really read it. I wasn't a big fan of what I referred to as the 'talkie strips'. I preferred the funny ones like Hagar the Horrible or Snake Tales. Part of the problem for me with strips like Modesty Blaise was that they were a continuing story and told in little bite sized pieces, so if you missed a few or even one you then missed part of the story and could get hopelessly confused. We never had the paper delivered, so I had to rely on Dad remembering to bring it home from work.
My first proper exposure to Modesty Blaise came when I was about 13, and I picked up a cheap paperback collection with two complete adventures in it. As a bonus it contained her origin story and I think that was what hooked me.
Modesty's story begins in the latter stages of WW II, somewhere on the border between Greece and Turkey. She's estimated to be anywhere from 4 - 6 years old. The hand that she's clung to for a lifetime of horror and fear goes cold and she's left on her own in the world. It was never explained or revealed exactly who that hand belonged to. It may have been a female relative (mother, aunt, sister, cousin), a friend or neighbour, possibly even a kindly stranger who took care of the orphaned war child.
Modesty survives for the next 7 - 9 years by doing what she can to get by. She roams all over Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. She forages for food, begs, picks up menial labour (herding goats or sheep), steals if she has to and wanders from refugee camp to refugee camp.
One day when she's 13 and in a camp in Persia (modern day Iran) she sees a gang of kids about her age rob an old man of his food ration. Without even knowing why she's doing it, Modesty fights the kids and retrieves the ration which she gives back to the old man.
The two of them form a friendship. The old man's name is Lob and before the war he was a professor in Hungary (I don't know if it was ever revealed what subject he taught, but I have a feeling it was philosophy). Modesty and Lob leave the camp together.
That first night on the road as they prepare for sleep and Modesty calmly and unselfconsciously disrobes in front of him he christens her Modesty and chuckles as he does so. Prior to that the war child did not have a name.
Lob teaches his young protege how to read and write, she takes her surname of Blaise from one of the stories Lob teaches her. Blaise was the name of Merlin's tutor. He also gives her a personal philosophy. As Modesty grows and matures Lob realises that she can't just keep wandering around with him, she has to make a life for herself somewhere, so they decide to head for Tangier. Unfortunately Lob doesn't make it. He dies on the way. Modesty buries him and grieves briefly then goes to Tangier on her own.
In Tangier Modesty became a cigarette girl in a casino owned by a local mob boss. In short order the ambitious girl moved up the ranks becoming a croupier and the girlfriend of the boss. With Modesty by his side he increased his own smallish holdings and when he was killed by rivals, Modesty stepped in to take the reins.
At the tender age of 21 Modesty was running a global crime organisation known as The Network. On a trip to Thailand to inspect her organisations holdings there she spotted a British mercenary by the name of Willie Garvin in a Muay Thai boxing match. She thought he would make useful muscle. He was cooling his heels in a Thai jail when Modesty came looking for him and to the dazed and confused young Englishman she was a saviour and from that day on he called her Princess and woe betide anyone who didn't show her the correct respect.
Willie proved to be more than just muscle, he was despite the rough exterior, intelligent, resourceful and charming. Before long he was Modesty's right hand man and The Network's 2IC. It should be noted here that Modesty and Willie's relationship is strictly platonic and should never be interpreted as anything else. If anything they're more brother and sister than girlfriend and boyfriend.
Once the two have made enough they quit their life of crime and retire to England at relatively young ages (I don't know that their ages are ever stated, but I always see Modesty as in her late 20's and Willie in his mid to late 30's) to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Modesty had gained British citizenship some years earlier by marrying and divorcing an Englishman in Beirut. She gets herself a penthouse and enjoys her passions of gemstone collecting and philanthropy. Willie achieves his lifelong dream of owning and running a pub in the Midlands.
It's too good to last. Before long they're bored by lives that aren't filled with adventure and danger, so when British Secret Service official Sir Gerald Tarrant asks for some off the book assistance the duo are ripe for the picking. Tarrant didn't really want Willie, but as Modesty explains early on, they're a package deal. You don't get one without the other.
That's where the stories really start.
The cinematic potential was realised as early as the mid 60's. British Lion Films announced that they had a film written, however it was never made.
A film called Modesty Blaise was released in 1966. The rights were acquired by Mim Scala and the idea was to cast Barbara Steele as Modesty (I haven't ever seen Steele act, but she did have the right look) and Michael Caine as Willie (oh why didn't this happen?). However Scala sold the rights to Joseph Losey and that's where things went wrong.
Initially Losey made the right moves, he hired O'Donnell to write the screenplay and cast Terrence Stamp as Willie. Stamp, while he had dark hair, had the presence and rough edges needed for the street smart Willie Garvin, for some reason they made him wear this horrible blonde wig in the film. Couldn't they have just dyed his hair? O'Donnell's screen play was extensively rewritten, to the extent that O'Donnell later remarked that only one of his original lines survived (he later adapted it into a novel and continued to write Modesty Blaise novels that performed well critically and commercially for some years after). Then they cast Monica Vitti.
This isn't a slur on the actress, but she simply wasn't right for Modesty. Modesty Blaise is a slender, dark haired woman with Mediterranean (Greek) features and colouring. Monica Vitti was a curvy, blonde, fair skinned Italian.
The film itself was very campy, and is regarded as a camp classic these days. It even included a musical number and a lot of it was played for laughs.
The cardinal sin among many fans was having Modesty and Willie's relationship turned into a romantic one. They actually kissed. This is so against canon that fans couldn't accept it. It was moderately successful, but not what anyone had hoped for and it looked like the end for Modesty as far as films or even small screen was concerned.
In 1982 American TV network ABC made a one-hour pilot for a planned series called Modesty Blaise.
Although both characters had O'Donnell's back stories they had American accents and operated out of Los Angeles. They were more like PI's, than spies. The plot sounded like the plots of plenty of American 80's, 90's and even 00's and beyond hero for hire shows (The A-Team, MacGyver, Burn Notice, etc...).
Despite relatively decent reviews and doing well enough with test audiences the pilot wasn't picked up and the series never eventuated.
That may have been it, but for a scene in the Quentin Tarantino 1994 classic Pulp Fiction. When John Travolta's unflappable, heroin addicted hit man Vinnie Vega is surprised in the bathroom by on the run boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) and shot to death he was reading a Modesty Blaise comic collection at the time. People picked up on that and it turned out that the book was actually Tarantino's and he was a fan.
In an effort to keep him happy and on the off chance that he may actually want to make a Modesty Blaise film at some point, Miramax bought the rights.
Their option was running out by the early 2000's, so they hired Tarantino devotee Scott Spiegel to direct a direct to video production called My Name is Modesty.
My Name is Modesty came out in 2003 and while it's lack of production values are clearly on display I think it gets a bad rap.
It's a prequel. It's largely Modesty's origin, and it was designed as background for Tarantino to come in and make the real film, the big budget, blockbuster. By the time something happened with the property Tarantino was busy working on Kill Bill and then Inglourious Bastards.
The start of it was an updated version of what Peter O'Donnell experienced in the Middle East during WW II with the feral girl. This time it was a group of British soldiers in the Balkans who encountered the half wild child.
The story is set during Modesty's time in Tangier, running her boyfriend's casino. The casino is overrun by a gang of criminals and Modesty plays their leader (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, now known for his work as Jaime Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones. Interestingly enough he'd make quite a good Willie Garvin, although at 44 he's getting a bit old) for the right to let some of her people go. If he wins she gives him some of her story and if she wins he lets a hostage go.
So this way viewers see Modesty's story, which does largely follow O'Donnell's idea. She meets Lob in a refugee camp in Iran. He's a professor of philosophy I think, but he's not as old as he was in the strip. In addition to reading, writing and philosophy he also teaches Modesty how to fight, which was not something the original Lob could ever have done, nor did he need to. Modesty could fight for herself thank you very much! He became collateral damage in a terrorist attack in Algiers and then Modesty made it to Tangier and the casino and wound up where she was in the film.
Fans didn't really like it. Plenty jumped on Alexandra Staden as Modesty, saying she didn't look right, but I thought she did a good job, especially when you consider that in the film she's possibly in her late teens, so would look and act younger than the Modesty in her 20's does in the strip and the books. The real problem for most of them seemed to be that this was a prequel so therefore no Willie. Willie has a huge fan base out there, he's possibly more popular than Modesty herself.
After this third attempt Peter O'Donnell had become completely disillusioned with the film and TV industry's attempts to turn his creation into one of theirs and he requested that no further attempts be made to film Modesty Blaise.
Peter O'Donnell died in 2010, and I assume his literary estate passed to his family and it remains to be seen whether or not they'll honour his wishes in regards to filming. I still think if done right it would make a cracking film.
I first thought about it's cinematic potential in the late 80's. I was watching a Bond film and I started to wonder if there was a female equivalent who could be successful with film audiences and then I remembered Modesty Blaise.
I followed possible cinematic developments with interest and it may have been why I wasn't that down on My Name is Modesty, of course it did also tell the story that originally interested me in the character.
I have to admit that I suck at fantasy casting, although I did get the role of Galen right in The Hunger Games when I fantasised about it being filmed after reading the 3rd book and reviewing it as if it were a new film release.
For years I had issues with Willie. I just couldn't find a blonde British actor of the right age who worked for me. Now it's Modesty. Over the years I've thought of people like Angelina Jolie and Eliza Dushku, even Morena Baccarin. Now I come up blank, although despite it being rather obvious, and her not being quite right physically I think Scarlett Johansson could have a pretty good run at it after her turn as The Black Widow. If Marvel/Disney won't give her a film of her own, maybe whoever makes Modesty Blaise would.
Willie Garvin in recent times seems to be coming out of the woodwork. At one time I thought Daniel Craig, but he's far too identified with Bond now. There's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who I mentioned earlier and the other two standouts for me are: Phillip Winchester (he plays Michael Stonebridge in the TV show Strike Back, mind you if and when Daniel Craig chucks it in I think he'd make a great Bond) and Charlie Hunnam. Both Winchester and Hunnam are in their early 30's (Winchester is 33 and Hunnam 34).
I'm pretty sure eyebrows rose at the the naming of Charlie Hunnam. Despite being best known for playing the American bikie club leader Jax Teller on AMC's Sons of Anarchy, Hunnam is actually British. If you cut the hair and shave off the facial hair he would make a good Willie. Better than Winchester, who due to his height tends to stand out and he's a little clean cut, British public school boy to successfully sell Willie.
I don't know a lot about directing, but I can see three possibilities there. Quentin Tarantino, as he was the reason fuss started again in the 90's, plus he knows and is familiar with the material. I also think he has the right touch for it. He's probably cooled on it since he was originally attached to the concept, and that sort of thing may leave a bit of a bad taste in his mouth after his hissy fit about the Bond reboot Casino Royale, which he claimed was his idea.
Speaking of Casino Royale, I have to name Martin Campbell. If we can forget about Green Lantern, the Kiwi director has a very good action pedigree, having also directed Goldeneye and the two Antonio Banderas/Catherine Zeta Jones (another possibility for Modesty in days gone by) Zorro films.
My third choice would be Joss Whedon. Joss likes to work with strong female characters and while he's never said it, I think he'd be a Modesty Blaise fan. However he likes to have a lot of creative control and may not want to work to canon. He has however worked with 3 of my picks (Morena Baccarin at 35 a little older than I'd like, Eliza Dushku, also outside my ideal age range now and Scarlett Johansson) in the past successfully. He may be too busy with the ever expanding Avengers franchise, though.
Now if someone would just listen to me and make this happen. I think we could have the next long running, big action franchise on our hands.