Writing about writing: 4

The art of adaptation, part 1

Writing about writing: 4
Zorro dances with Catwoman watched by Sir Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre - a blend of themes that would influence the writing you're about to read!

The story so far: My new novel in progress, Playing Zorro, centres around how the "masked man" is the perfect story for the queer community to relate to, and how the queer community are the perfect people to bring every side of the story to life. (As always, here and everywhere in my work, the word Queer is no slur, but a badge of Pride). This blog is about my progress, so that you can join me on the journey, critique my technique, and I can work your reactions into its creation.

Today I want to explore the art and craft of adapting a root story into all kinds of new forms; what makes a story ripe for adaptation into a shape that can be representative or relatable to this group or that; what makes so many of this kind of story so relatable to me as part of the queer community; why the queer community have found ourselves so well able to express ourselves through stories like these - and why I chose a story like Zorro when it was my turn.

First, let me say again what it is that makes Zorro - who's already proved so adaptable to almost every medium, from movies to musicals to magazines - so perfectly adaptable to a story as queer centric as mine: The mask. Queer coding - the subtle and not-so-subtle painting of characters anything less than perfectly masculine or perfectly feminine as sinister villains - and queer baiting - the stripping away of traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine qualities from characters meant only to be hapless comic relief - abounds in the superhero stories inspired by Zorro (Batman & Robin, the Shadow, and the Avengers to name but a few - see previous blog entries). The more subtle theme that Zorro also gave these heroes though, is the reverse-disguise concept. When a hero wears a mask, we usually assume that they're disguising their true self; when in fact it often turns out that they were not actually living life with true meaning, true purpose, until after they took on their new, masked, identity. The mask enabled them to be in private what they could not be in public. In the shadow of the mask, they discovered a previously unknown side of themselves. Thus it is when he is Batman that he is truly being himself, and when he is with his civilian friends and is forced to hide that he is Batman, that he is pretending. The mask is his true face. The feelings of someone who spends a good chunk of their life in the closet, who watches a story develop in that way, I think would be obvious to anyone with any empathy. Zorro, of course, as most copied originals do, of course said it best (it my not so humble opinion). His antagonists, Captain Ramon and Pedro Gonzalez, must keep their reputation and hide their corruption by pretending to be "more of a man" than Zorro, though they know in themselves that they are not; Don Diego, the hidden hero himself, to protect his family name and the safety of their home, must pretend to be "less of a man" than Zorro, when he knows full well, and ultimately reveals, what he truly is. Even before the sinister queer coding in the villains of the old black & white movies and radio serials; and despite the comical queer baiting of the anti-hero Bunny Wigglesworth in the colourful 1980's parody The Gay Blade, Zorro was already the hero of the queer - not just because he fought for the downtrodden and the underdog, but because he did it as much with music as with muscle; as much with brains as with brawn; he didn't dash his enemies against the rocks, he danced rings around them. While heroes of antiquity clothed themselves in a lion's mane or a dragon's skin, like Beowulf or Hercules, our new hero wore the mantle of the Fox. And as he continued to be infinitely adaptable to every entertainment medium, things came full circle. One of Johnston McCulley's influences as Zorro's creator, whether he said it himself or not, must have been Robin Hood and Maid Marian; they are so much the same that it could not have been otherwise; and it's probably no coincidence (though I have no smoking-gun sources) that when Walt Disney came to finally adapt Robin Hood's story for their cartoon collection, Robin and Marian were drawn as a fox and a vixen.

When superhero movies became a thing again in the 1990's, we were treated to the sumptuous production The Mask of Zorro, which gave closure to Johnston McCulley's original saga and brought things even more full circle, by merging its ending with the story of the ill-fated Latino bandit Joaquin Murieta, the semi-historical figure who first inspired McCulley to create his handsome highwayman. Enter, next, Isabel Allende: born in Peru, raised in Chile and Venezuela, now making a living as a renowned novelist in California. Having seen the new movie, she proceeded to be influenced and inspired in her own new creative works: firstly Daughter of Fortune, whose fictional Chilean-born gold-rush adventurer Joaquin Andieta, pursued through the story by Eliza, the heroine of the title, cannot but have been inspired by the real (albeit romanticised) Murieta also. This was followed a few years later by Zorro (an imaginary biography); for the first time, Johnston McCulley's original novel, The Curse of Capistrano, was given its "prequel" and Zorro at last had his fully fleshed out "origin story". And I, a queer who had been hero-worshipping Zorro since before I even knew I was queer, finally got a Zorro story not with queer-coding, queer-baiting, or subtly-symbolic relatable content, but with actual queer representation. If not actual homosexuality, at least gender nonconformity. Chief Gray Wolf, warrior leader of the native tribe who attack the hacienda of Alejandro de la Vega, is wounded in the battle and, when treated, revealed to have been born physically female. "She" is taken to be taught how to live as a "civilised woman", until Alejandro falls in love and they have a son, Diego. Left to raise him and educate him while Alejandro then spends most of his life working away from home, "Regina" once again goes back to "her" former life, entrusting Diego and his foster-brother Bernardo to their grandmother, White owl, where Diego has a vision of a fox - a zorro - that will shape his life. Though they each grow up to love women, Diego and Bernardo's loving bond is more than friendship, more than fraternity - they are twin souls. As they're forced to go on the run as teenagers after a violent attack on their parents' home, they travel with their third friend, Isabel, and her companion, Juliana. Isabel is determined not to be like Juliana, who for all her good heart, lives for music, marriage and money, as stereotypical "ladies" do. Isabel, by contrast, struggles and schemes alongside Diego and Bernardo in their quest to protect Juliana and avenge both their families; by the end, SPOILER ALERT, she even takes on the mantle of Zorro herself alongside Diego. Juliana, meanwhile, tired of men trying to prove how "manly" they are to win her heart, SPOILER ALERT AGAIN, instead falls for the effete and flamboyant pirate, Jean Lafitte. On their way around Europe, they encounter the historical romantic author, George Sand, who falls in love (albeit briefly) with Diego, and who deserves a paragraph at least, even if that part of the novel is short and this entry is already longer than I planned.

George Sand was the pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, a contemporary and companion of fellow writer Victor Hugo, whose fame was far outshone by Sand in their day, even if he is more widely known now; so fond of wearing men's clothes and visiting men's clubs, that Victor Hugo said:

“George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female. I entertain a high regard for all my colleagues, but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.”

And:

"In this country whose law is to complete the French Revolution and begin that of the equality of the sexes, being a part of the equality of men, a great woman was needed. It was necessary to prove that a woman could have all the manly gifts without losing any of her angelic qualities, be strong without ceasing to be tender ... George Sand proved it."

Sand is also referred to in Virginia Woolf's book-length essay A Room of One's Own along with George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë (Currer Bell) as "all victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man." (And let's not forget this is Virginia Woolf, author of probably the most famous gender bending literary character of them all, the infamous Orlando).

Throughout her life of affairs with numerous famous men of her day, including the composer Chopin, she kept up an intimate friendship with actress Marie Dorval, which led to widespread but unconfirmed rumours of a romantic affair with her too. Poet and playwright Alfred de Vigny referred to her as "Sappho", a classical figure whose homoerotic poetry written on the Greek isle of Lesbos is what led to Sapphic and Lesbian being used as terms for gay love between women.

Given everything else about her portrayal of men and women in her novel, I can't help but feel what a deliberate choice of historical cameo character this was for Isabel Allende. It brings us neatly to fin de siecle France, where we will find, surprisingly, the next two queer-relatable plot elements I chose to weave into my story of queer actors playing Zorro. This entry grew as I wrote it, to the point where it's met the typical fate of fantasy story adaptations, to be split into two parts. How can a Dutch painter and an Italian opera be woven into the plot of a queer-representing Zorro novel? Find out next time.

(Or if you're reading this later on, search this site for "Writing About Writing: 5")

Two more side notes about Isabel Allende's Zorro before I go. Firstly, in Johnston McCulley's The Curse of Capistrano, Zorro's band of allies call themselves The Avengers, the name later taken for Marvel Comics' central superhero team. Fittingly, Allende relates how he was given his new identity by a secret society of crimefighters, La Justicia - loosely translated, The Justice League. And, providing a perfect link between this and the next entry, her novel was adapted by The Gipsy Kings for the stage, as Zorro the Musical - musical theatre still today being unfairly regarded, by some, as the "gayest" form of entertainment. Obviously, I don't consider that as bad a thing as they do!

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Stephen Stevie Cole
Stephen Stevie Cole
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