Günter Grass and the free speech moment

A travel ban is still censorship.

Over the past few days, a "free speech moment" has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League.  Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the "free speech moment" has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism.  Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author.  In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here.  The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship.  Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event.  A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of "work". English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a "chilling effect" on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These "free speech moments" are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem.  But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

Robert Sharp is head of campaigns & communications at English PEN

Silenced? Günter Grass Photo: Getty Images
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How A Series Of Unfortunate Events went from a children’s book to a postmodern masterpiece

On Friday the Thirteenth, 13 years since the film adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s series (of 13 books) was released, eight episodes dropped on Netflix. How did we get here?

I’m sorry to say that the article you are about to read is extremely unpleasant. It concerns an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children, sadly brought to public attention by a morally reprehensible (a phrase which here means, “having little or no regard for the traumatic effect their work might have on an unsuspecting audience”) streaming service. Yes, it is my sad duty to inform you that A Series of Unfortunate Events has finally come to Netflix, and the story of the Baudelaire orphans once again haunts our screens.

On Friday 13 January, 13 years since the film adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s series (of 13 books) hit cinemas, Netflix released eight episodes of their TV adaptation. Critics are hailing it as a success, with many commenting that it triumphs where the film adaptation failed. So how did we get here?

The early 2000s were dominated by a single book-to-film franchise: the Harry Potter series. Back then, it was less clear whether Harry Potter was a singular phenomenon or the beginning of an industry-changing trend, and movie studios were extremely keen to replicate the franchise’s financial success: lots of children’s books were wracked for their potential to become blockbuster hits. For Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, this started before his books even existed.

“The books were optioned for the movies before they were published,” he told IGN back in 2004. “I honestly didn’t think anything was going to happen with these books and I certainly didn’t think anything was going to happen in terms of a movie.”

So what happened with the 2004 Brad Silberling film? “I was really involved in the beginning and then I wasn’t involved by the time they were actually filming,” said Handler, regarding his removal from the scriptwriting process. As he revealed in rambling, Snicket-ish style, the development of the film went into “crisis” as the original director Barry Sonnenfeld either quit or was fired, “depending on who you ask”, and that afterwards, neither he nor the film company felt confident that he could continue as scriptwriter. In the end, Handler was “disappointed” that “very little of what I wrote is in the film.”

The film was, of course, intended to be the first of a franchise (the clue is really in the word “series”), but, like The Golden Compass and The Seeker, the story never gained enough momentum – or box office revenue – to continue.

Over a decade later, Netflix approached Handler about a new adaptation – one that he had more involvement in, and that would be more formally indebted to the structure of the book series. Handler told Variety, “Netflix approached me and said, ‘We think episodic television might be the better way to do this and we can structure it in the following way.’ That made a lot of sense to me, so that was attractive to me.”

They also got Sonnenfeld back as director, who is more blunt about their motiviations for returning to the project, telling the Los Angeles Times, “I think, for both Daniel and myself, in many ways it was profound and total revenge. It’s been a great finishing of unfinished business.” Then Handler had the idea of getting the actor Neil Patrick Harris on board: “I saw him, I don’t know, a few years ago, perform It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore as the opening of the Tonys. It’s such a beautiful tribute to musical theater while mocking it with some of the cheapest jokes imaginable. I thought, ‘This is exactly what we want to do. This would be perfect.’”

The episodic format allows for Unfortunate’s combination of predictability (the children invariably find an unsuitable guardian, before Count Olaf infiltrates their new home in disguise, dispensing with their carers and threatening to take them in under this new persona) and unpredictability (plot details hinge on deals on limes, statues who are actually people, misplaced commas and animals with misnomers). Sonnenfeld seems to instinctively understand the look and feel of the Unfortunate world. And Harris’s performance is chaotic and brilliant, by turns sincere and ironic, and the cast here (which includes Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby and Catherine O’Hara) tops the film (even if that did have Meryl Streep).

The finished product is far more faithful to the Snicket series, which is defined by Snicket’s dense voice. The books were thick with literary allusions (including but not limited to Dante, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Orwell and JD Salinger), and this series includes discussions of the themes and metaphors of Herman Melville, Haruki Murakami and F Scott Fitzgerald. But they are most frequently self-referential: Snicket constantly draws attention to his writing process.

Where the 2004 film merely nodded to Snicket’s presence with cameos from Jude Law, the Netflix programme fully engages with the postmodern ideas of metanarrative that make the original books so memorable. Patrick Warburton plays Lemony Snicket with a raised eyebrow, framing each episode with woeful warnings to switch off the TV, interjecting with plot spoilers and esoteric definitions. There is a whole sequence devoted to explaining, and then demonstrating, the concept of dramatic irony. Another scene sees Snicket step in to clarify that what we are watching is a flashback, “a word which here means ‘taken place during the events of the last episode, shortly after the Baudelaire fire, and during the Baudelaire children’s unfortunate stay with the Poe family’”.

There are hints at the concerns of “television executives”, and Snicket sometimes physically grabs the camera and pulls it away from horrifying events on screen. Aunt Josephine implores the children to close their eyes, “as if we’re watching some on-screen entertainment that’s too scary for our age!”, while Count Olaf has lines like “As an actor, I think live theatre is a much more powerful medium than, say, streaming television” and “In all honesty I prefer long-form television to the movies; it’s so much convenient to consume entertainment from the comforts of your own home.”

These nods to the Netflix format are simply much funnier than Jude Law bashing away at a typewriter, which is how the film tries to capture Snicket’s voice.

There are also sly winks to the voracious Unfortunate reader. Nods to sugar bowls, harpoon guns, Very Fresh Dill, and “the world’s most threatening fungus” will have increased significance for fans of the book series, as will seemingly innocuous phrases like, “I didn’t realise this was a sad occasion,” and “your parents wanted to raise you in a quiet world”.

All this and more contributes to Netflix’s success – but it also might be a question of timing. A Series of Unfortunate Events are books for children plagued by a sense that the world really is relentlessly terrible. “When you’re a child,” says Handler, “if you begin to sense that the entire world is a strange performative sham, you don’t lose that sense when you’re an adult.” Perhaps the world has never felt more like a strange performative sham than in the last year, and Unfortunate’s combination of incompetent bureaucracies, dishonest press, apathetic adults and a tyrannical narcissistic villain who absurdly triumphs again and again seems to hit the spot.

But how close was this version to Handler’s dream adaptation? On the topic of a sequel to the feature film, he told the AV Club back in 2005:

“I have this fantasy that the second movie would begin with a brief statement by all of the young actors who had played the children in the first movie, explaining how it had ruined their lives, so we would catch up with Emily Browning drinking heavily in the back of a burlesque bar, and maybe Liam Aiken would be living underneath a bridge, and then instead of the twins who played Sunny, we would just try to find the oldest woman in the world, and get an interview with her sitting in a trailer park.”

So. Close enough?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.