Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Beginnings: Under The Mountain

Spoiler Alert: Ricky dies!

For a thirty-one year old book and a 29 year old TV show, that would not be much of a shock to peers of my generation. However, as a kiwi kid coming of age in the early to mid 80s, this was the first embodiment of death I had encountered.

I knew of the concept of death as a child - dead pets and ageing relatives created teaching opportunities for my parents. The scene is only mere seconds long, but it is the image of teenage Ricky floating face down at the edge of Rangitoto Island after being attacked by the Wilburforces that still lingers with me even three decades on. 

For me, the TV show came first, then the book. When I read the book, it took me a few attempts to finish it, to get past Ricky's death. I liked Ricky - he was cute, funny, and sunny, which was perhaps a lingering concept from the TV show carrying over into my mental image of him in the book. I had come up against my first realization that bad things happen to good people.

Looking back now, I realize the story carries quite the gravitas, with concepts of self-belief, trust, family, as well as death. It is a very clever children's story, introducing weighty concepts without sugar-coating. It is spec that has re-appropriated the darkness of fairy tales, and as an adult I very much appreciate the pragmatic approach it brought to my world view. This culture of pragmatism/realism is something very kiwi, and reflects in our spec - a sense of isolation because of our distance from the rest of the world informs our self-sufficiency.

Even so, as a seven year I was scared silly. The oozing skin, menacing bark and stiff-arm movements of the Wilburforces were as creepy as any Doctor Who alien - perhaps more so, because they had New Zealand accents and they prowled familiar territory.  I did not visit Auckland until 5 years after the show, and at that time I remember being slightly dubious of the looming volcanoes.

I also had my own "stone". A perfect white, round specimen I picked up from a beach, which I kept as a souvenir for many years. Sometimes I would squeeze it in my hand to make it as hot as possible. I was Rachel. I had red hair. I wanted to save the world. I wanted to bring back Ricky.

Before I saw the movie remake earlier this year, I reintroduced myself to the TV show(available on TVNZ DVD through most major retailers) for a compare and contrast. The Wilburforces were as creepy as ever; Johnathon King's Wilburforces continued that ugly menace. The TV show suffered from early 80s low budget, hokey special effects, while the sets were quite magnificent (specifically the tunnels); the movie upped the game with CGI effects.

Where the original TV show has it all over the movie is in the characterisation and sticking faithfully to the book. Sam Neill's Mister Jones is angrier and more distant than Roy Leywood's kindly old man, though we have to remember that the 80s were a different time - our modern world is cognisant of Stranger Danger, and would not let adolescents go off and spend time at the house of a mysterious old man.

Rachel and Theo are older in the movie than in the TV series, and this ties into the Stranger Danger concept - making the modern twins older means they have more coping mechanisms for dealing with risk.

I don't like what they did with modern Rachel. In the original she was the equal in power of her brother, yet in the movie her power was her "belief" in Theo who got to do all the whizz bang magic to save their butts at the end. Modern Rachel was no shrinking violet, but 80s Rachel was a fusion of her emotions and power. I believe this may be a trickle down effect of some writers in the late 70s/early 80s having a better grasp on, or being less removed from recent movements in, second wave feminism. There are still problems with the depiction of Growing Up Girl in the 80s (eg: expectations of femininity, gender binary, agency to sexuality), but 80s Rachel was far better depiction of my adolescence than modern Rachel relying on her brother to finish the job off.

And Ricky. I liked what they did with Ricky in the movie - they made him slightly younger, more cynical, a little emo, and gave him a girlfriend. He was very much the modern, urban kiwi teenager, right down to the crappy car. But he wasn not killed off!

What's the difference between children of today and my peers of the 80s? We weren't fully aware of Stranger Danger but we were privy to heavy concepts like death, yet the new version of UtM posits that it's completely the opposite. I believe that does a disservice to today's children. They are not stupid. Not all popular culture is plastic and disposable - introducing concepts like death in a careful way through our popular culture can be a useful tool.

My preference for the original Under the Mountain is possibly informed by sentimentality. Today's children would probably laugh at the bad special effects, the sometimes wooden acting, earnestness and simplicity of the original TV series. This is not a yearning for "the good old days" of children's spec. For me, stories like Under the Mountain were just the beginning, a leaping off point to bigger specfic, and it has informed my own writing. It was a good start and now that I'm shaking off my cultural cringe - an ongoing process as I get older, and learn more about New Zealand spec - I see what an excellent example of Our Stories it is.

I would still highly recommend the book to any child of about seven years and upwards.

The image that disturbed the seven year old me can be seen at 2:57 in this clip.

This post is part of New Zealand SpecFic Blogging Week, September 13th to 19th 2010. Introduce yourself to more great New Zealand specfic and writers.


  1. I spoke to Gee earlier this year, and you're actually wrong about there being a sort of innocence about older men showing an interest in preteen kids - Gee was told by his publisher that he needed to write in that prologue to make Mr. Jones' intentions clear, rather than just having him bring the twins into his house.

    And his wife has yet to forgive him for killing Ricky!

  2. Hey, thanks for that Marie, that's really helpful :) I'm wondering if the "intentions" thing didn't come through clear enough on the TV show. Always worthwhile discussing.