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Show vs. Book: Ragtime

America at the start of the 20th century was a crazy time that involved a fair amount of ragtime music, vaudeville and racism — lots and lots of racism. All that is portrayed in the story of Ragtime, which follows the collision of an upper class family from New Rochelle, a family of immigrants and a family of lower class African-Americans.

Side stories along the way detail the atrocities and everyday happenings the nation faced at the time, including the murder trial of Evelyn Nesbitt’s husband, the richness and oddities of JP Morgan and Henry Ford and the up-and-coming magic of Harry Houdini.

But the story truly takes off when Mother — the mother of the upper class family — finds an African American baby in her yard and takes it in. Soon, the child’s mother, Sarah, follows and stays in Mother’s home with her family until she can handle taking care of her baby. While staying with the family, Sarah’s ex-lover, Coalhouse, visits everyday in an attempt to win Sarah back and spend time with his son. Coalhouse is a well-known African-American, ragtime pianist whose car is then trashed and vandalized by the city’s firefighters. It’s enough for Coalhouse to completely erupt and damage the lives and relationships around him until his world spirals and crumbles, leaving all other nearby players to pick up the pieces.

There are too many characters and subplots in the book to detail here, but suffice to say the musical does a wonderful job of zeroing in on the most important and exciting parts of the story and bringing them to life. The novel’s beginning is bogged down by the story of Evelyn Nesbitt, which becomes irrelevant by the end. The novel also includes a lot of details about Morgan, Ford and Houdini. While interesting and helpful in setting the tone of the time, they also don’t do much to move the story along. The musical smartly cuts a lot of this and instead focuses on the Coalhouse storyline, which is the most heartbreaking and also the most socially-conscious.

Because of the visual aspect of the show — the sets, the silhouettes — the story’s symbolism also becomes much more apparent than in the book. The musical, for instance, makes a clear distinction between the immigrants, the upper class white people and the lower class black people. The silhouettes, which are only mentioned in the book as an art form, are used throughout the show and acknowledge the show’s theme: that color and race should not be the most important thing about a person.

Ragtime, the novel, was enjoyable, until I saw the show and saw how much more focused it was in its storytelling — and the incredible music didn’t hurt either.

Get Ragtime in paperback for $10.

Or on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Show vs. Book: Hamilton

Before having seen the critically-acclaimed musical Hamilton, I knew as much about Alexander Hamilton as I imagine many other Americans know — he’s the guy on the $10 bill, right? Was he a president? I think so? Well, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t a president. Spoiler alert: he was a founding father who was shot and killed at the age of 49 by then-Vice President Aaron Burr. But he is a legacy, who I finally started to care about thanks to lyrical genius and creator of the new hit musical Lin Manuel Miranda.

The show is based on the Ron Chernow biography entitled Alexander Hamilton, a 700+ page behemoth. Yes, it’s a monster of a book, but a fascinating one nonetheless. It takes the reader quickly through his young life as an illegitimate child born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. His intelligence and ability to write and speak eloquently was enough to get his fellow islanders to pay for him to go to school in the United States. His rise to the top from a bleak childhood is a classic rags to riches story — one that Lin Manuel Miranda equated with that of a hip hop star. Hence; the hip hop musical version of Hamilton’s life, which includes lines like “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Hamilton, the show, lasts three hours, which is fairly long by today’s standards. It’s amazing and astonishing to learn about Hamilton’s life: his rise to the top, his love for his wife (and sister-in-law), his sex scandal, his kinship with George Washington and the relationship with his frenemy Aaron Burr. Reading the book, however, filled in several blanks. For instance, the show highlights Hamilton’s oldest son, but doesn’t make clear that he had a total of eight children, plus additional orphans he and his wife, Eliza, took in. Nor does it include that one of Hamilton’s daughters had a mental breakdown after her brother (Hamilton’s son) died. There’s also a large chunk of the book that focuses on the time during which John Adams served as president, but the ongoing feud between Hamilton and Adams is left out of the show, with the exception of a single lyric. Upon further research, I learned a rap about Adams was written but had been cut — probably for time.

Instead the musical focuses less on Hamilton’s family and political feud with Adams and emphasizes his relationship with Burr. Of course, this makes sense. After all, it’s a Broadway musical, and the show needs to lead up to the big deadly duel finale. But in reality, Burr wasn’t as big a figure in Hamilton’s life as some of the other men of that time. Sure, Hamilton and Burr ran in the same circles. Sure, toward the end of Hamilton’s life, the two hated each other — hey, they didn’t duel for nothing — but, based on the book, their lives didn’t entirely revolve around each other like the show makes it seem.

The show is amazing. Alexander Hamilton is an amazing figure. After seeing the show, you’ll feel hungry to learn more about Hamilton, and for that reason, I highly recommend you not throw away your shot and make it a point to see the show and also read more about the guy who happens to have his face on those $10 bills of yours.

Get Alexander Hamilton in paperback for $14.96.

Or on your Kindle for $15.99.

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Miniseries vs. Book: The Casual Vacancy

Upon finally getting around to reading The Casual Vacancy (aka the first book J.K. Rowling wrote after the Harry Potter series ended), I had so many thoughts and feelings. Primarily: this book is a lot better than I expected it to be, based on what I’d heard and the criticism I’d read. Also: I can’t wait to see how this is adapted for the screen in the BBC miniseries of the same name.

The story revolves around the residents of a small British village called Pagford. Barry Fairbrother, a member of the village’s council, is a friend to everyone and a general do-gooder. But when he suddenly, tragically dies, the casual vacancy on the council becomes a not-so-casual vacancy for the rest of town.

With each section of the book, more and more characters unravel as Howard and Shirley Mollison’s son, Miles, prepares to run for Fairbrother’s seat — as well as Simon Price and Colin Wall. But each person running has their own secrets — secrets which are subsequently spilled online, posted anonymously by their very own children, who happen to despise them.

There are far too many characters to name, too many relationships to get into and too many domino-effect casualties to mention. But I enjoyed it. As she did in the Harry Potter novels, Rowling continued her theme of children vs. adults (and the children generally winning). Plus, the interconnectedness of the characters reminded me of other stories that stem from the British mainland (Love Actually, anyone?). In the end, the best characters were crushed.

A lot was changed for the TV adaptation. Those who disliked the book will likely tell you the series was far superior. Those who were fans of the book will tell you the series was awful. I’m here to tell you the series wasn’t awful but it was far less grim than the novel.

The novel is dark and twisty, much like the end of the Harry Potter series. I thought each character was an awful person, and the end was truly tragic and morbid. That, I believe, is the reason that producers made the series less severe. Of the two deaths at the end of the novel, only one dies in the show. I suppose all that death would have been too much for the average viewer.

Most of the other changes were due to time restrictions, I’m sure. The series was three hours, but certainly could have used a fourth. I was upset that one of the book’s characters was left out entirely and that some of the big “meeting” and “party” scenes were combined. The series also added extra relationships between characters. For example, Barry Fairbrother was an uncle to some of the kids in the show and a half-brother to another character. These relationships were never established in the book.

On some level, both the series and novel may seem as though they have no “point.” But it seems to me that any vacancy is anything but casual, and that’s what should keep readers and viewers on their toes.

Get The Casual Vacancy in paperback for $14.23.

Or get it on your Kindle for $8.99.

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