Monday, September 10, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 100: 6 Angry Mares

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

I have been looking at that cover image for more than a minute, trying to figure out Dash's legs.

Also, review #100!  Woo!  Let's celebrate by, um... staring silently at our computer monitors as we read on.  Below, my review of Jelly's 6 Angry Mares.

Impressions before reading:  I've never seen Twelve Angry Men, though I'm familiar enough with the highlights.  That, and it's been on my to-watch list for ages.  I like the simplicity of this piece's premise: the main six, all stuck in a jury room together.  I'm hoping for some good characterizations out of this one--I suspect that's what's going to make or break the story.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Following the trial of a zebra accused of casting an irreversible curse, the six ponies of the jury retire to deliberate.

Thoughts after reading:  Although it's tagged a crossover, that doesn't really capture what's going on in this story.  6 Angry Mares is essentially Twelve Angry Men, as performed by the ponies.  Although they have hooves instead of hands and do "evil enchantress" dances, these ponies are unambiguously not the six main characters from FiM.  Instead, they're some sort of amalgam of those ponies and the major players from the movie (and apparently, teleplay).

For me, this didn't make for a particularly good fit.  Frankly, I found myself wondering why this story was written in the first place.  If you aren't going to use the Pinkie and Fluttershy from the show, then why use them at all?  Why not use ponies whose backgrounds aren't already a matter of canon?  Why deliberately run roughshod over both character background and characterization for the sake of matching the inspiration for your plot more closely?

The author clearly made an effort to meld the two, borrowing liberally from Pinkie's early dialogue in Bridle Gossip to paint her as a frothing (and apparently, very sweaty) bigot and making Twilight the by-the-books taskmaster of the group, but it was never a particularly convincing meld.  Large chunks of dialogue were obviously lifted straight from Twelve Angry Men (this coming from someone who's never actually seen it, mind you), and a lot of it was frankly unconvincing coming from the mouths of the ponies.  Just having "juror #1" say "darling" every few sentences doesn't make her a convincing Rarity, and when she starts doing things like threatening (with apparent sincerity, mind you) to sew Pinkie's lips shut if she continues to spout Klan-esque anti-zebra-isms, I can only wonder what the purpose of such a literal translation of the source material into the MLP universe is.

This might not have been an unpardonable problem in another story, but sadly my pre-reading supposition proved to be all too correct: characterization is everything here.  The entirety of the story is just the ponies sitting in the jury room, debating the trial and the decision they face.  Now, there's nothing wrong with that; indeed, examining a high-stakes social scenario in-depth can be downright fascinating.  But it means that the unblinking light of the narrative is focused unrelentingly on the nuances of the characters, and when those characters are poorly executed... well, it's not good.

I will grant that the story construction is nigh-perfect on a technical front, and that my complaints regarding the writing itself are minor at best (although I suppose it was another nod to the source material, I really wish the narrative had stopped referring to the ponies by jury number and started using their names at some point).  And stripped of any connection to Equestria, the scenario is certainly interesting.  But that's just the problem: stripped of any connection to Equestria, this is at best a slightly modified retelling of Twelve Angry Men.  Everything about this that makes it a fanfic, as opposed to a retelling, weakens the story by bringing in disparate elements that ill fit one another.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

Although I tried very hard not to compare this story to The Best Night Ever while reading and reviewing it (and while in principle, I believe it's unfair to do so), I think a certain, limited comparison between the two is relevant in retrospect.  Both are fairly literal crossovers of films which don't necessarily blend smoothly with MLP.  The reason The Best Night Ever worked so well was because despite this, the author wasn't afraid to scrap, add, or re-imagine major elements from the ground up when the narrative demanded it, and allowed his characters to speak and act in ways which closely matched their, well, characters.  6 Angry Mares, unfortunately, shoehorned its cast into ill-fitting roles, and was often nothing more than a literal retelling of the film it was inspired by.  Sadly, this turned out to be a very typical example of the pitfalls of writing "X, but with ponies."

Recommendation:  If the thrill of seeing ponies reenacting Twelve Angry Men is something you seek, by all means give this a go--as I said above, the actual writing's quite unobjectionable.  But if you're looking for anything other than that--a story which in some way meshes with MLP, for example--I'd look elsewhere.

Next time:  Rest Stop, by John Perry

15 comments:

  1. I will never understand why people write fics like this one (and its even more derivative brethren). I'd be bored out of my skull telling a story that's already been told and lifting dialogue verbatim from it. Surely there are a thousand better ways to spend your time?

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  2. Let's just get this out of the way now: YOU HAVEN'T SEEN 12 ANGRY MEN?!! GO! WATCH NOW!

    Ahem. Sorry 'bout that. Characterization's already a big issue for me even when writers are trying. Maybe I'm just hard to please 'cause she's my favorite, but Pinkie's almost always written horribly. And what's with Rarity saying "darling" so much in fics (not just this one)? There's no way she says it that much in the show! Then again, I didn't think they said "pony" all that much until I saw jhaller2's video...

    I am a bit interested in reading dialogue from a racist Pinkie, even if it is out of character, but I'm a weird guy and that's not to say that'd make it good. It's a shame too, 'cause I loved the source material and think that a crossover could work very well. Do you think the story might've worked better had it been approached more as a comedy? Making both the crime and punishment less serious would fit with the pies-as-ammo nature of the show. It would be pretty funny to have Pinkie question Twilight's methods, especially if the whole thing ended in a mistrial

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  3. I did try reading this one. It was before I made the conscious choice to always give a story a fair shake and let the author reach out to me. Because of that, I didn't get far before I just quit.

    That said, it does raise an interesting point in relation to another experience I had this week. I don't watch that many films, so the few I do watch tend to be highly recommended. In the last three weeks I've watched two films that correspond very closely to my feelings about a lot of MLP fiction.

    The Collector is a slash fic about some guy who likes to collect one victim in this special box and kills everyone else through crazy traps that appear out of nowhere, and by particularly gruesome torture. That's literally it. There is no explanation for his presence. There is no explanation for the traps appearing out of nowhere. There is no explanation for the one guy in a box. "But it's a slasher," they say, as if that excuses the absurd laziness of the premise. I was there when Nightmare on Elm Street kicked off. THAT had a premise. Halloween, had a premise. This leaves me to assume that 'slasher' means 'I don't have enough talent to write an actual story'. Sound familiar?

    I can excuse MLP writers because they don't make claims or expect to profit from it. They're having fun, and that's just fine by me, I don't have to enjoy it. The creators of this film expect to make money off it. For shame!

    was about three friends who end up trapped on a ski lift as night tried to freeze them to death. 30 minutes in and I couldn't empathise with the pitifully characterised, soulless main cast, and I was bored well before the 'main event' started. The pacing was absolutely dire. There was little to no foreshadowing. There was no tension. It was an idea that someone had that did not justify a whole film.

    And that's usually my biggest complaint about fics. I had to admit, though, if talentless hacks can make money off films like this, it makes me want to re-examine my feelings about MLP authors turning out superficial and unexplored ideas as stories. Of course, it won't change my opinions in the long run. I'm very much with Chris, insofar as judging work by the highest standards usually works out best for everyone, but it might teach me to be a little more lenient.

    Well, maybe not. I'm already very kid-gloves when it comes to the authors. So really, I'm just whining that however you feel, the film industry does worse and expects you to pay for it.

    -Scott

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    1. 2nd film was Frozen, but I don't know what went wrong with the HTML tags...

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    2. I wish I could've liked A Nightmare on Elm Street more. It was an interesting idea, but the music completely undermined all the tension in the film. I personally would've gone with some tone clusters

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    3. "The Collector is a slash fic about some guy who likes to collect one victim in this special box and kills everyone else through crazy traps that appear out of nowhere, and by particularly gruesome torture. That's literally it. There is no explanation for his presence. There is no explanation for the traps appearing out of nowhere. There is no explanation for the one guy in a box. "But it's a slasher," they say, as if that excuses the absurd laziness of the premise."

      Um...

      So this is a slasher slash fic? Because I kind of want to read it now.

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  4. I may have read silently, but that didn't stop me from cringing at your descriptions of Pinkie's mischaracterization. I really have to wonder, not so much why someone would write this, but why people enjoy it, and apparently in large numbers.

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  5. Thanks for the review!

    As for why authors "write stories like this," there are undoubtedly many answers -- in my case, it is because I have a few friends who urged me to write it despite my own misgivings concerning the story. I certainly never expected this to be a 6-Star story in the first place (since I knew this was pretty much a retelling, or a "fusion," of 12 Angry Men), but it was fun for me to write and therefore I hoped it would be a bit fun to read, too. Not everybody is angling to write a masterwork of fiction -- I had some spare time, and I used it while I could. [That said, I actually had planned on deviating from 12 Angry Men in a number of ways (in fact, I came awfully close to having the case in fact result in a Hung Jury), but ultimately I have so much respect for the script of 12 Angry Men that I felt I could not in good conscience not include all of the superb themes that were included in the original. I apologize that this was not to your liking.]

    As for the characterizations, while I do agree I felt I had to shoehorn to make some of them fit (especially since I was trying to fit about 12 characters into 6 characters), I also feel people don't really give these characters a fair shake. If you actually go back and watch (or read the script to) Bridle Gossip, for example, Pinkie Pie really does come off as a bigot. Take away her confetti and party balloons and she seems especially shallow. Rainbow Dash also has a bullying personality when she is suspicious about something (in fact, in the very first episode, she confronts Twilight about "knowing too much" about Nightmare Moon, and her first reaction to things disagreeable to her is often to "put 'em up."). And I just went and checked -- Rarity only says "darling" three times in the entire story (once per Act, in fact), as opposed to every other line. And finally, in this universe, the Mane 6 have clearly never met each other, meaning (i) they are not bound by any ties of friendship nor is it clear if they have learned great lessons in friendship, and (ii) they are clearly going to be far more irritable than one can expect when confronted with ponies who disagree with them on such an important issue (i.e., is this zebra guilty, and if so, should we really let her be banished from Equestria?). One entire premise of 12 Angry Men is that while people are good people on the whole, sticking them in a room to argue over something big can highlight their "darker" side. I think you went into this story expecting the personalities to match the Mane 6 precisely, but even if I were to write this again from scratch and to not follow the script of 12 Angry Men, I absolutely do not think the characters would (or should) completely match the characters as we see them on the show. The nature of people you think you know well definitely changes when something big is on the line.

    In any case, I had expected a 1-2 Star Rating from you all along (especially given your previous commentary on how you do not like "X with ponies"), but nevertheless, I thank you for taking the time to read the story and write up your review on it.

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    1. You are, of course, very welcome for the review--and I'm glad you haven't taken my opinion on the story personally (I always breath a little sigh of relief knowing that I haven't offended an author after writing something negative about their story). I can well understand how having friends driving you on can lead you to a product you have misgivings concerning, and I'm quite familiar with the desire to faithfully recreate something you love. After seeing the first of the Peter Jackson LotR movies, I began working on an unabridged movie treatment of the books (because someone needed to "do it right"). Good idea? Not really--for starters, the first movie would have been about eight hours long, had I ever finished writing the script. But I understand wanting to stay true to something you love.

      I do want to speak to a few of the points you made--not because I want to "prove you wrong" or any such, but hopefully to make a little clearer why the story didn't really work for me.

      "If you actually go back and watch (or read the script to) Bridle Gossip, for example, Pinkie Pie really does come off as a bigot. Take away her confetti and party balloons and she seems especially shallow. Rainbow Dash also has a bullying personality when she is suspicious about something."

      My problems didn't stem from Dash being a bully and Pinkie being anti-zebra specifically, but from the fact that their dialogue and specific attitudes were so at odds with what is seen in the show. When Pinkie has a line like "Us ponies… we don’t mean anything to zebras. We’re just… there. Things to them. There to be cursed. There to be killed. They don’t care!" delivered completely seriously... it's completely out of keeping with the tone of the original character. I understand that she has lines like "she'll gobble you up in a big tasty stew" in the episode, but the tone (the "balloons and confetti," if you will) is completely different from what you have here. Frankly, I would barely have been surprised if your Pinkie had dropped the n-word into her rant a few times, and that's obviously a world removed from show-Pinkie (even allowing for censors).

      "I just went and checked -- Rarity only says "darling" three times in the entire story"

      I meant that as an example of the kinds of nods which you gave to the characters in their dialogue, rather than a criticism, but I'll cop to not actually checking how many times you used that specific word. My apologies there.

      "And finally, in this universe, the Mane 6 have clearly never met each other..."

      This was part of my larger issue with characterization, actually. Why completely rewrite the backstory of the ponies? If the story you were trying to tell couldn't be told using ponies who already knew each other, why use the main six at all? Why not use OCs, or background ponies? What, specifically, did this story gain by being about Twilight and co., rather than Twinklehooves and her fellow jurors?

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    2. (I guess I let this reply run too long--Blogger's making me break it up)

      "I think you went into this story expecting the personalities to match the Mane 6 precisely, but... The nature of people you think you know well definitely changes when something big is on the line."

      I get what you're saying, but if that was what you were going for then I really think you should have spent some time establishing the initial characterizations before having them crack and warp under pressure. Otherwise, the reader can be forgiven for assuming that you've simply misinterpreted the character, rather than tried to offer a study of how personalities change in high-pressure situations. That kind of tone-setting may not have been relevant in Twelve Angry Men, but that's because those characters didn't have pre-established personalities. That's one of the hurdles to writing canon characters successfully in a fanfic: portraying them in a manner consistent with canon, even when tackling subject matter or behavior which falls outside the bounds of "canon."

      Again, I'm not trying to argue with you, or tell you that anything in your comment is wrong. I just want to make sure I haven't misrepresented myself, and that I've been clear in my criticisms. For what it's worth, the writing itself was quite good, and I certainly didn't HATE this story or anything. Also, it's always nice to see a fellow two-spaces-after-the-period-er.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment--I really do appreciate you offering your thoughts here.

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  6. I suppose I can add one last response that might clear a few things up:

    1.) I used the Mane 6 instead of other background ponies specifically because I knew from the get-go I would not be using the names of characters throughout the story. Part of the allure of 12 Angry Men (in my opinion) is that you are never told any of the names of those involved (except for at the very end), and you have to rely on your own memory to sort out who is who.

    As such I relied on juror numbers, small descriptions of who was talking, and most importantly, the dialogue itself to help readers remember who was who. (As a note, this is undoubtedly why, for example, I used "darling" three times throughout the story. Unlike other authors, I had the unusual task of telling the reader who was talking without being able to fall on the phrase "Rarity said." I like to think I was fairly successful in separating out "who was who" even without using names, though it seems this was more annoying for you than it was interesting!)

    If one of the characters had been Lyra, for example, I tend to think I would have had a difficult time writing her dialogue in such a way that the reader could figure out "who was talking" unless I gave her some sort of very clear linguistic tic, or something similar. And then I would not only have to do that for Lyra, but presumably every other background pony I chose to include.

    2.) As it happens, I actually like the fact that I used the Mane 6, because I think this is a fair (AND unfair) representation of what the Mane 6 might be like had they never met. [As a complete side-note, I had originally intended to make this ultra-clear by describing Rarity's Cutie Mark as a "Needle and Thread," but in the end I ended up cutting the scene where her Cutie Mark would have been relevant from the story entirely to save on space and to keep the reader's attention.]

    For example, Rainbow Dash would probably still be friends with Glinda (bully), she would continue being suspicious of ponies and not believe their stories (already evidenced in the show), and she would probably let success get to her head (if she was mad to be outshined by Mare-do-Well, she would certainly be furious to be outshined as a Wonderbolt in a jury room by a shy nobody who claims she can't even fly sometimes). Pinkie Pie similarly might have her "fun" moments, but in a room of ponies who are not listening to her warnings (nor who are not willing to play along with her antics), I tend to think she would get very bitter very quickly (ala "Party of One"). I agree I went a BIT overboard with Pinkie, but as you have probably guessed, that is because I think the racial confrontation in 12 Angry Men is one of the most powerful scenes in cinema, and I could not in good conscience cut that scene from this retelling -- though you are undoubtedly correct that I could have at least softened the tone. To make it "believable" I tried to use as much direct dialogue as possible from "Bridle Gossip," but I suppose that only counts for so much.

    In short, though, by using the Mane 6 I hoped to underscore how much better off the Mane 6 are as friends than as ponies arguing in a jury room (a theme perhaps not quite present in 12 Angry Men).

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  7. >Next time: Rest Stop, by John Perry

    ...Oh, heck. My heart just about froze when I read that.

    Let me just say this: Rest Stop is far from my best work and I realize there's lots of problems with it, so I'm prepared for the worst. I'll offer my own thoughts on it after you tear it a new one (which you rightfully should). :)

    Anyway, as for this review: See, this is why crossovers are so hard to get right, because the author is caught in the trap of trying to appeal to the expectations of two overlapping, though different, fanbases and certain expectations of both have to be met, even if those expectations can conflict with each other. It's why stories like The Best Night Ever are especially worthy of praise, because they manage to rise to these challenges and provide a satisfactory story that will satisfy fans of both works while still working as a stand-alone story.

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  8. While the fic can be viewed as "How would Bridle Gossip go down if the Mane 6 were never the Elements of Harmony?" And then base it on the plot of 12 Angry Men, I do agree that I definitely prefer the Mane 6 to be who they are canonically, unless the difference is plot related.

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