The books of ‘Lost’ and TV-inspired book clubs
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Critics habitually lambaste TV for dumbing down American society: And though some may find that point hard to refute, a handful of noteworthy shows present evidence to the contrary, as literary classics, carefully placed in episodes, have created positive outcomes.
Literary references in film and TV are nothing new. In fact, it is long thought that Gene Roddenberry modeled the original “Star Trek” TV series on Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels.”
‘Lost’ and ‘Mad Men,’ two of TV’s most highly regarded shows, not only have given books a higher profile by prominently featuring works of literature in their storylines, but they also have spawned numerous virtual book clubs. Members are mulling over and dissecting heavyweight reads such as ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Catch 22’ for clues to the plot or insight into a particular character.
There’s no hidden agenda or mission to raise the literary IQ of viewers, at least not over at ABC, where ‘Lost’ executive producers and writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse insist they are not trying to force literature down people’s throats.
‘It’s really more about the fact that we’ve been influenced by literature in the way we’ve shaped the show, and it’s a nod to that process,’ said Lindelof, who is also co-creator. ‘We pick the books with a great deal of meticulous thought and specificity and talk about what the thematic implications of picking a certain book are, why we’re using it in the scene and what we want the audience to deduce from that choice.’
More from ‘Lost’ and ‘Mad Men’ after the jump
Early in the show’s first season, for example, they had anti-hero Sawyer reading “Watership Down” by Richard Adams.
‘It was sort of an obscure book, but thematically it was talking about all the same things that were happening to our character on the island except with rabbits,’ Lindelof said.
‘We grew up reading a lot of the same authors, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut,” Cuse said. ‘In fact, King’s ‘The Stand’ was a blueprint for the show because it was this very long, character-oriented book that hung on a high-concept premise that the entire nation had been infected with this super-flu, and it was the equivalent of people crashing on this mysterious island. Both based on incredibly intricate and involved character dynamics.’
Is there one book that has had the most influence on the show?
‘To say there is only one is unfair,’ said Lindelof, ‘but we keep coming back to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ thematically. That was a book that both Carlton and I remember very specifically as children. It was a gateway drug to sci-fi and fantasy in many ways.’
Lindelof said he also read a lot of Piers Anthony as a kid and is an expert on ‘The Wizard of Oz.’
Cuse, known to be the ‘Narnia’ scholar on the show, notes Flannery O’Connor as his greatest influence. “We have a lot of religious themes and sudden and striking violence and she was the master at that. I love her work.’
Reading these titles may not turn viewers into literati but it can alter their reading habits. Case in point: Last July, when the Season 2 premiere of ‘Mad Men’ featured its leading man, Don Draper, reading Frank O’Hara’s ‘Meditation in an Emergency,’ the book of verse shot to No. 1 on Google’s ‘Hot Trends’ list for that day. It had fans scrambling for copies of the then-out-of-stock book.
Another episode shows one of Don’s many conquests thumbing through ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ giving viewers a glimpse into the dynamic of Don Draper’s complex world. The popularity of the Emmy Award-winning series has created newfound interest in writers of that generation such as Richard Yates and John Cheever.
Whatever the reason my be, these shows have multitudes of followers returning to the classics on their own terms and for their own reasons, whether it’s to further understand the plot, the motives of a certain character or the place and time. And if images of a debonair Don Draper reciting Frank O’Hara’s poetry and ‘Lost’s’ bad boy Sawyer taking in “Watership Down” pique just a little curiosity in the classics, then that’s progress, right?
— Liesl Bradner
ABC’s ‘Lost’ photo credit: Mario Perez/ABC