"Polaris" and "He": thoughts on handling difficult protagonists
I've been re-listening to the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast archives recently, because it's awesome and I currently need a lot of undemanding familiar distraction.
It's actually an excellent fit for this mood, because it has the advantages of literature (some very skillful prose); talkshows (entertaining banter which doesn't mind if you can't catch every word); and non-fiction, in that although the show has an arc and direction, it's not actually a dramatic narrative, which means no deliberate playing on my emotions.
Anyway, this week I've heard both Polaris and He. Both of these are, to me, interesting concepts and narratives with some strong passages, but hampered by the explicitly racist viewpoints of the protagonists. Given Lovecraft's known attitudes, and the lack of any obvious counternarrative or in-story contradiction of the protagonist's thoughts, there's no way to separate protagonist-racism, author-attitude, and story-reality.
It's unfortunate, because in both cases there are comprehensible reasons why the narrator in question could feel a strong personal prejudice in character, without it reflecting an author's views.
Polaris' narrator believes their entire civilisation was destroyed by what they considered inhuman barbarians (and there's no particular reason to question that description, except that it apparently covers Inuit, Eskimos and other polar cultures).
He's (His???) narrator is lonely and despairing in a city he hates and apportions much of the blame to the poor, oppressed immigrants fighting to get by; partly because they're competitors, partly because his dream of life in an elegant and artistic city in no way matches the harsh reality, and one of the main identifiable differences is the large number of non-whites and poor people he ends up living amongst, so he attributes the shortfall to their presence. I'm sure there's more in-depth analysis you could do there.
The thought which struck me as I was listening to Polaris, and then seemed to apply to He as well, is that I still think you could do an interesting adaptation of both which avoided this uncomfortable aspect. Film, comic, audiobook, doesn't matter. What you would need to do, essentially, is to thoroughly flesh out who these protagonists are and where they're coming from.
In He, I think you could keep it relatively sympathetic. The wilder claims of the narrator - that the immigrants don't have dreams, for example - could be dismissed by an adapted text as the wild hyperbole of temporary emotion, the same kind that has us mentally condemning crowds on the train when we're exhausted and just want to get home. I don't actually hate those people, whatever I might mutter under my breath. His views are clearly not factual anyway, but given the right context it can feel like an indication of the strength of the narrator's alienation, rather than a specific prejudice, and I feel like it could be used to good effect.
Similarly, I think you could present the claims that New York is 'dead' as a reflection of his despair at the shattering of his illusions about the big city and its life, rather than it coming across as a loathing for immigrants who have supposedly devoured it. And the core of He is a demonstration of that - the supposed true, beautiful, historical heart of the city is shown to have always been a lie; the city was stolen from Natives, the one genuine persistance through the centuries is this monstrous murderous sorcerer who he thought was a kindred spirit, and his magic window demonstrates unquestionable that the only true constant in the universe is change.
The horrible future vision, meanwhile, could be certainly eerie and alien, but the actual people should either be genuinely and clearly inhuman, or else carefully presented as merely foreign, so that the narrator's reaction once again clearly marks his own mindset and mental state. His distress, in the latter case, could be ascribed again to the realisation that everything familiar and dear to him will pass away, to be replaced by an unrecognisable culture he would find alien and terrifying.
Polaris' narrator, alas, I don't think can be treated so kindly, because of the Inutos and their real-world parallel.
I think the way to handle this one is to make our narrator clearly unreliable, and show that their beloved culture is not anything like as noble and pure as they claim, nor their opponents (and particularly, the real-life Inuit) so dreadful. The Polarians can be made cold, contemptuous, cruel, arrogant - their city might be filled with mistreated slaves or beasts, they might actually be servants of some Mythos being, they might seem inhuman themselves. In fact, making them abnormally tall and gaunt would help to counter the 'squat...' description of the Inutos. None of this seems to contract anything in the actual text, so I think it's viable.
The Inutos, meanwhile, could be presented as anything from simply ordinary raiders attacking a not-particularly-nice civilisation, to no worse than the Polarians, to actually the heroes of the piece. And of course, in the final section where the real Eskimos are touched on, there is a great opportunity to silently naysay the narrator's attitudes by depicting normal, kindly, loving people going about perfectly reasonable business.
Nothing particularly important here, just some musings I thought I'd share.