Hollywood's rubbish Tube geography in Thor 2 is an unnecessary distraction

Londoners know the Tube map off by heart, so why do scriptwriters test their patience with needless mistakes?

The recently released film Thor: The Dark World is a huge fantasy epic spanning nine intergalactic realms, following the story of an alien creature with god-like powers fighting to save the universe from the powers of darkness. But what really killed the film’s gritty realism for me was the poor Tube geography.

Londoners are not known for their willingness to talk whilst on public transport, or their politeness, but it’s an unspoken point of pride that when asked by a tourist that they will give the quickest and most accurate directions. The London Underground is so central to the city that even if you’re not a native (I emigrated from Leicester a few years ago), Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map will become ingrained into your mind. So when Thor gets on the Tube at Charing Cross and is told by a fellow passenger he is three stops from Greenwich, it’s intensely frustrating.

Why couldn’t they have just fixed the script? Surely the actor who they employed for just that one line was a local who would know? Unfortunately for Thor, the correct route isn’t quite so simple. He’d have to leave the Tube station, hop on the national rail train from Charing Cross mainline station, and change at London Bridge. And even then to get to Greenwich Park, where shit was going down, it might be quicker to go to Maze Hill station, one stop after Greenwich.

Or how about taking the short walk to Embankment, taking the District to Monument, changing to Bank and taking the DLR to Cutty Sark? Or there’s even the number 53 bus - though if he takes this latter option, the odds of him turning up just in the nick of time are going to be significantly reduced.

Thor 2 isn’t alone though in getting London wrong. Last year’s Bond film, Skyfall, had Bond board a train at Temple station that aficionados (that’s how I’m choosing to refer to train spotters) will be able to tell you was actually a deep-level Jubilee line train rather than the sort used on the District and Circle lines. And this isn’t even to mention the fact that in Bond’s world, the District line apparently serves the Spitalfields (EDIT: Smithfields) area.

Similarly, the cerebral thriller Fast & Furious 6 at one point has a fight in the tunnels at Aldwych station only to emerge in what Vin Diesel’s character later refers to as Waterloo station - though this is perhaps forgivable in comparison to the film’s utterly bizarre street race sequence above ground. In this case, they hold a loud party literally next to the Foreign Office (how did they get a permit for that?) before racing along a bizarre route up Whitehall, skipping Trafalgar Square, emerging at Piccadilly Circus from the wrong direction before, umm, somehow heading north up Whitehall again. Though I guess this is a film that also tries to pass off a barely disguised Lambeth Bridge as Moscow (some onion domes have been added to buildings in post-production), and Senate House as Interpol HQ.

Perhaps the worst London geography fail I’ve seen, though, is in the 2009 Bollywood film London Dreams. At the start of the film a boy called Arjun and his uncle come to London in search of stardom. When they arrive at Heathrow, Arjun runs away... and manages to run all the way to Shad Thames. Just over 20 miles away. Impressive.

Okay, so London geography errors are pretty common - but why do they persist? It’s such a trivial thing, why can’t filmmakers get them right?

In the case of the Tube, the reason is practical. The two most common filming locations on the Underground are the disused station at Aldwych (seen in Fast & Furious 6), which used to be on a branch of the Piccadilly line until it closed in 1994, and the similarly disused Jubilee line platforms at Charing Cross (used for Skyfall and Thor 2), which were used until the line was extended to Stratford via Westminster in 1999. It’s much easier to film on some closed track than upset thousands of commuters.

Now, am I kicking up a fuss over something essentially trivial? Well, yes - but what I don’t understand is how millions of dollars can be spent on making a giant spaceship appear to hover over the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, yet for some reason the budget doesn’t extend to fixing a few rogue signposts in the a Tube station.

And given how London is home to six million people - many of whom presumably like to watch films - can’t a little more care be taken? This can’t be unique to London either - I imagine residents of New York, Los Angeles and many other cities must find this maddening. Am I the only person who finds rubbish geography distracting?

If you want to find me to argue, I’ll be on platform 12 at Clapham Junction. I’ll be the guy with the notebook and the anorak.

Thor in Greenwich, which is not three stops from Charing Cross. (Image: Marvel)
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era