The Double Edged Sword of Audiobooks

Bloggified by Jake on Monday, April 13, 2009

When I was a kid in the early 80's, the music video became the must-have accessory for every band with a single. My mother would look at us as we watched the daily half-hour video show we got from a station in Cleveland (we didn't get MTV until 1985) and lament how much better music was before videos. In her day, she'd explain, you listened to music and each song had a special meaning for you. You created your own thoughts and images for every song you heard. Now, artists were doing that for you, forcing the images they wanted you to associate with their songs into your mind.

She's correct. Once you see a video for a song, it's nigh impossible to disassociate that image from the tune. In some cases, it can be an iconic vision, like Michael Jackson turning into a zombie and dancing to "Thriller," a scene so inseparable from the song that the dance has become a wedding standard.

But for every song like the Beastie Boys "Sabotage," that was raised from "Hey, this song is pretty good" to "Holy fucking shit, you guys, you have to watch this!" because of a video vision that perfectly complemented the song, there are many more "Separate Ways"es where a mishmash of images played over a solid Journey song helped cement one of the hottest bands of the time as complete dorks who would be the butts of jokes for decades to come.

An audiobook is much like a music video in that sense. If done well, it can bring the book to life in a way you may not have imagined in reading the book yourself. Two such examples are the Jeeves and Wooster books read by Alexander Spencer and the Harry Potter books read by Jim Dale. Both create a variety of voices for a rich cast of characters. In Dale's case, he performed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 different voices over the course of the the seven Potter books, including more than 150 in Deathly Hallows.

Even if you admit many of Dale's voices are similar--there are about ten Scottish accents in varying pitches--the variety of characters and the way he melds them together is masterful. He owes this in no small part to his vocal range. Readers without this range are best served not stretching for the stars, but simply reading the book rather than "performing" it. John Ritter's engaging reading of Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl is a prime example. Ritter softens his voice when reading Stargirl's dialogue, but otherwise reads the book as John Ritter, not as the cast of characters.

A few weeks ago, I was told to read the Percy Jackson series. I checked out the audiobooks from the library and bulled my way through all four volumes. Not having read the books first, listening was the only impression I've gotten of the series and I have to say it isn't a positive one. Incidentally, if you haven't read the books and keep reading from this point forward, I don't want to hear any complaints that I spoiled a four year old book for you.

The series is about Perseus Jackson, the son of a mortal woman and the Greek god Poseidon. He goes to a camp where other half-blood children of mortals and gods learn to control their powers, train to be Spartan warriors, and go on quests like Hercules, Perseus, and other heroes of the myths did thousands of years ago. The comparisons to the Harry Potter series are unavoidable both on the large scale--Percy is a loser in the outside world who comes to find he is "the chosen one" who will defeat the slumbering evil lord who was killed but is regaining power to return from the dead--and the small--the camp is separated by cabins for each god much like the four houses of Hogwarts, Percy's father leaves a gift for his son with the camp's head counselor that proves to be an invaluable, legendary artifact.

Unfortunately, when signed to do the audiobook, Jesse Bernstein and/or the producers clearly had Jim Dale's performances in mind. What they didn't have was the talent to pull it off.

Bernstein's voice is quite good when doing dialogue of young men. His young women are acceptable, but his older men come off sounding like a fifteen year old student playing an adult in a school play:


Things get worse as he's called upon to play characters that clearly are outside his abilities, so he resorts to cliched, cartoonish voices. For example, war god Ares is a growling biker:


Antaeus, a wrestler who fought Heracles in the original mythology, seems inspired by "Macho Man" Randy Savage:


Most uncomfortable of all, I wonder whether it was Bernstein or the producers who decided all Asian characters should be performed in pidgin English, be they Annabeth's Chinese stepmother in the third book:


Or Ethan Nakamura, whose has a Western first name and, because the premise of the books is that the Greek gods live in the center of Western culture wherever it may move, I assume must be from America:


But the most grating voice could be Luke, the traitorous half-blood who joins the titan Chronos. When we first meet him, he has a surfer dude tone that makes you assume he's going to be an unimportant supporting character (since it would be far too annoying to keep listening to or to take seriously for five books), but reveals himself to be a major player in the denouement:


Later, the strain of his evil makes Luke weaker and it's reflected in his slower, more labored speaking:


But most ridiculously is that Luke gives over his body to Chronos so the titan lord may rise again. So when he first addresses his enemies, he sounds like Keanu Reeves.


The upshot is that everyone I've talked to who has read the Percy Jackson books loves them, but while I can acknowledge much I like about the story and the blending of mythology with modern day, it's impossible for me to separate the voice of Percy's cyclops half-brother Tyson

from the words I find written on the page.

1 sarcastic replies:

BFH said...

Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener is brilliant as an audiobook, since the main character is an author who reads stories on NPR, and his phone calls with a sick fan drive the plot. The audiobook is the perfect medium for the story.

Megan and I were given the World War Z audiobook for Christmas, and I think it works well since the story is a collection of reports from different characters, and the audiobook is different actors playing each one.

I would imagine any narrative portrayed from the first person or as diary entries are perfectly suited for audiobook.

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