Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: An illuminating look into the author, part 2

More revelations and other assorted awesomeness uncovered while reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien:

Revelation 1: With Barad-dur crashing around them following the destruction of the ring, Tolkien had originally planned to have Frodo and Sam fighting with the last Nazgul on an island of rock surrounded by the fire of the erupting Mount Doom, prior to their rescue by Gandalf's eagle ... in other words, a little more dramatic than the way things turned out (and perhaps melodramatic, which is why Tolkien ditched the Nazgul bit).

Revelation 2: Tolkien had planned to write a final chapter to the Lord of the Rings, a coda of sorts, tying up many of the loose ends by having Sam read out of an enormous book to his children and answering all their questions about what happened to everybody. I would have liked to have seen this myself, but I can see why he ditched it: Stories work best when you show, and don't tell.

Other interesting bits...

I knew that Tolkien read chapters of the Lord of the Rings as he wrote them to his colleagues, a close-knit circle who called themselves The Inklings. But it's cool to hear their feedback. For example, well before its completion Charles Williams said of LOTR, "The great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking." This is something that the intellectually challenged detractors of LOTR who attack the work for its "lack of gore and battle scenes" (and I have heard this criticism a few times, believe it or not) cannot seem to grasp.

We also know from reading the foreward to The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien "detested allegory in all its forms." But anyone reading the tale knows that its far more than just an adventure story. Tolkien himself used the term "applicability" to readers who wanted to draw parallels between the book and contemporary events in Tolkien's time, such as the World Wars.

For example, take the One Ring itself. Many have speculated that it represents atomic power, or more broadly the advent of scientific reason and the subsequent driving out of magic. But I had never heard Tolkien himself weigh in on its symbolism until I read a letter in which Tolkien admits that he had much more in mind with the One Ring than a mere artifact of a forgotten age:

Of course, Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in Truth ... And one finds, even in imperfect human 'literature,' that the better and more consistent an allegory is the more easy it can be read 'just as a story'; and the better and more closely woven a story is the more easy can those so minded find allegory in it. But the two start out from opposite ends. You can make the Ring into an allegory of our time, if you like: an allegory of the invevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all power magical or mechanical does always so work. You cannot write a story about an apparently simple magic ring without that bursting in, if you really take the ring seriously...

I'm only a quarter of the way through this book and its loaded with gems like these. Much more to come.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Letters of JRR Tolkien: An illuminating look into the author

I recieved a few blissful days off from work this Christmas, and in addition to lots of time with the family I spent a few free hours digging into The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. I'll admit to not having read any dedicated collections of letters in the past, preferring to read works of fiction or traditional non-fiction, with occasional forays into biographies and literary criticism.

But being a personal favorite author of mine, I made an exception for Tolkien. And so far (just 90 pages into a roughly 500 page book), I'm glad that I did.

Tolkien was old-school in every sense of the phrase, and one of his and his contemporaries' endearing traits was the act of letter writing. While I'm sure that personal correspondence has increased with the advent of computers and e-mail, there's just something special about the process of setting pen to paper and writing an honest letter, a piece of paper that you can hold in your hand and read. Paper letters seem simultaneously more formal and more personal (if that's possible), and are certainly more tangible than an e-mail that arrives nearly instantaneously when you click "send," can be just as easily deleted. In fact, I wonder how much e-mail correspondence will ultimately survive.

But back to the matter at hand. Tolkien was particularly voluminous as a letter-writer (at least according to the dust jacket of this book), and left a huge paper trail following his death in 1973, a trail which often leads to illuminating revelations about the man.

Take this letter he wrote to his son, Christopher, in the latter days of World War II (dated May 6, 1944). This was a trying time for Tolkien, who was not only teaching a full courseload at Oxford and spending his few remaining free hours trying to write the Lord of the Rings, but was also subject to constant worry about his son who was in the Royal Air Force helping wage a campaign to defeat Nazi Germany.

Tolkien begins the letter sympathizing with the deplorable camp conditions through which Christopher was suffering (the elder Tolkien himself being a WW I veteran with similar experiences), but then ties it into one of the prevailing themes of the Lord of the Rings:

Your service is, of course, as anybody with any intelligence and ears and eyes knows, a very bad one, living on the repute of a few gallant men, and you are probably in a particularly bad corner of it. But all Big Things planned in a big way feel like that to the toad under the harrow, though on a general view they do function and do their job. An ultimately evil job. For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.

In other words, evil means are often (unfortunately) needed to defeat evil, to the detriment of both the victor and of mankind in general. In this case, Tolkien was referring to how the common soldiers--the Tommies--get ground up in the gears of war, which are set in motion by politicians and madmen.

Later in the same letter Tolkien describes some of his writing process to Christopher:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir...

This for me was a fun bit of magic, a glimpse at the divine spark of invention that comes of inspired writing. Actually reading about how a characer like Faramir more or less strode, fully formed like a real person, onto the rough pages of The Lord of the Rings, was inexpressably rewarding. Revelations like this and the one above have made Letters a truly illuminating read.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

An about-face on Blade Runner, 25 years too late

Although I still don't own a copy (a lapse that I hope to rectify this Christmas), director Ridley Scott on December 18 released what he finally considers to be his definitive version of one of my favorite films--the science fiction classic Blade Runner, The Final Cut .

As I mentioned in a previous post, Blade Runner was neither a critical nor a commercial success upon its release in 1982. In fact, the critics more or less savaged it. According to the definitive history of the film, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon, it was as if "many of the nation's critics had somehow been offended by the subtlety and care that had gone into this picture."

Among the critics, one Southern newspaper slammed Blade Runner for being "like science fiction pornography--all sensation and no heart." The LA Times warned audiences to not "...let the words blade runner confuse you into expecting a super high-speed chase film. Blade crawler might be more like it." A New York Times critic called Blade Runner "muddled ... gruesome ... a mess." Roger Ebert himself said that "The movie's weakness... is that it allows the special-effects technology to overwhelm its story." There were positive reviews, too, of course, but they were in the minority.

But bad press couldn't keep Blade Runner down. Only with the passage of years, through positive word of mouth, appreciative SF magazine articles, and repeated viewings on videotape (and later, DVD) by a vocal fanbase, did the genius of this film shine through the dark cloud created by its poor critical reception.

Now, 25 years after its release, the critics are all back on board, rank and file, like sheep. I subscribe to the Sunday Boston Globe, and I could barely stifle my laughter this morning when I glanced at a Globe table that compiles national reviews of new film and DVD releases. Every major reviewer in the table--The Globe, Time, Entertainment Weekly, the LA Times, Variety, and more--listed Blade Runner, The Final Cut, as "recommended." Don't believe me? Go ahead and do a Google search--you'll find that there's tremendous praise for Blade Runner from nearly every quarter.

Talk about an about-face. Now that the overwhelming consensus of fans and SF literati have rightly recast Blade Runner in its proper light--as arguably the most influential and best SF film ever made--the critics have hopped back on board.

Alas, it's 25 years too late. The majority of the critics didn't "get" this movie then, and frankly I doubt they get it now. But it's a lot safer to give it their critical stamp of approval now that the tide has turned.

Shortsighted then, and cowardly now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Road Warrior: Introspection and action make for one great film

Part 8 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Picking up where Mad Max left off, 1981's The Road Warrior continues the story of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a spiritually shattered ex-patrolman wandering the post-apocalyptic Australian roadways. In Mad Max, Max's wife and child were killed by a murderous gang of bikers, and while he exacted revenge, Max crossed a metaphorical boundary at the conclusion of that film, abandoning the rule of law and order for revenge and barbarism.

As The Road Warrior begins we find Max living a solitary, nomadic life, scavenging for gas and food and avoiding all contact with the scattered, dying remnants of the civilized world:

In the roar of an engine he lost everything, and became a shell of a man, a burned-out, desolate man, haunted by the demons of his past. A man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.

But events unfold that soon thrust Max back into human contact. Always low on gas, he discovers a fuel depot protected by a group of survivors under siege by a small army of savage looters, led by the massive, iron-masked Humungous. While his initial foray into the depot is driven purely by greed, Max is ultimately forced to make a choice between selfishness--getting his gas and fleeing--and altruism--helping the survivors break through the Humungous' encircling gang and escape to a better life elsewhere.

Max strikes a bargain to bring a tanker capable of hauling the gas out of the compound, in exchange for his own share of the fuel. The leader of the survivors, Papagallo, accepts, but later forces Max to confront his past and his very reason for existence. He challenges Max when the latter spurns companionship and chooses to leave with his car and his gas after fulfilling the bargain, rather than joining the band heading for the coast and a fresh start. "You think you're the only one that's suffered? We've all been through it in here. But we haven't given up," Papagallo says. "We're still human beings. But you--you're out there with the garbage. You're nothing."

This element to me is what makes the Mad Max series of films so great--the character arc along which Max evolves over the course of the trilogy. From fresh-faced, youthful innocence at the start of Mad Max, Max is tempted by the high-speed dance with death on the roadways and begins to develop a calloused, world-weary exterior. Personal tragedy at the end of that film results in soul-shattering grief and the loss of his humanity. He responds with animal rage, and after exacting revenge flees into the wasteland where leads a self-centered, indifferent life.

But events in The Road Warrior lead him to an epiphany about his place in the world, knowledge that there are still good things worth fighting for, and rekindle his desire to help restore order and peace. Max, bloodied and broken in body but not spirit after surviving a failed solo escape attempt, returns to drive the tanker out of the depot, helping save the survivors and spring them to freedom.

I'd also be grossly remiss not to mention the action sequences in The Road Warrior. These are tremendous, perhaps unparalleled in all of cinema. Where Mad Max had raw, high-speed collisions and chases, The Road Warrior "turns it up to eleven." The cars here truly look like pieced together vehicles from an apocalyptic world, modified with roll cages and turret-mounted crossbows. Humungus and his gang look and act far more savage and cruel than the bikers of Mad Max. Many wear shoulder pads, leather, and chains, and sport face paint and mohawks.

The end of the film offers an epic road battle that involves an armed tractor-trailer against a swarm of cars, motorcycles, and trucks, and a nasty head-on collision that trumps even the death of the Toecutter in Mad Max. Although he remains a loner at films' end, unwilling (and perhaps unable) to fully rejoin society, Max has taken the first step on a long road back from the brink.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Hobbit prayers are (somewhat) answered

I sincerely doubt that anyone from New Line Cinema reads The Silver Key, but lo and behold, barely a week after my post Holding out hope for The Hobbit, New Line and director Peter Jackson have made amends, and come to terms for the latter to produce The Hobbit.

From the ABC News Web site:

"Director Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios have agreed to make two movies based on JRR Tolkien's book The Hobbit, ending months of legal wrangling.

Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, co-chairmen and co-CEOs of New Line, says Jackson -- the director of the smash hit Lord of the Rings series -- and producer Fran Walsh will both executive produce a Hobbit movie and a sequel, but no decision has been made about who will direct the films.

MGM chairman Harry Sloan, who has been credited by all parties for bringing about the deal, says Jackson found it "impossible" to direct the film and meet proposed release dates in 2010 and 2011 due to other projects on which he is now working.

"He can't get it scheduled and he doesn't want the fans to have to wait for the next two movies," Mr Sloan said.

He says the studios might postpone the films if Jackson changed his mind.

Jackson's representative could not be reached for comment.

Jackson, Walsh and the studios will share approval "on all major creative elements" and will start considering screenwriters and directors in January.

The movies will be made simultaneously in New Zealand, starting in 2009.

Industry experts estimated the films will each cost $US150 million ($174 million) to $US200 million to make, based in part on the $US400 million cost of the first three Rings films and inflation."

You can read the complete story here:

While I'm obviously thrilled that a live action version of The Hobbit will finally be brought to the screen, two things about this story concern me:

1. Jackson will be executive producing, but not directing, the film. I know nothing about filmmaking, but I'm guessing that, as an executive producer, Jackson will have far less hands-on movie making in this film than he did with The Lord of the Rings. I'm sure he and New Line will find someone quite competent for the job, but nevertheless I find it troubling.

2. A "sequel"? To The Hobbit? I hope this means that they are planning to break the action of Tolkien's book into two parts, and not reinvent some new tale for the sequel. It sounds that way from the above story, but I'm not 100% sure about that. An unrelated sequel could prove disastrous, I fear. All credit due to Jackson, co-scriptwriter Fran Walsh, and crew, but what made The Lord of the Rings films great was that they were based off of a timeless tale, one of the best novels in English (and world) history written by the incomparable Tolkien. Here's hoping that the sequel is indeed either the second half of The Hobbit novel, or at the least heavily draws upon source material from Unfinished Tales or other Tolkien-written canon.

In summary, however, this is awesome news. 2010 can't come soon enough!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Song of Ice and Fire--Tremendous series is losing steam

I first picked up A Game of Thrones, the first book in author George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, somewhere around 1999. At the time, it was all the chatter on fantasy message boards everywhere. Based on the gushing praise and glowing reviews it was recieving from every quarter of fantasy fandom, I decided to give it a read.

I was not disappointed. In fact, it's safe to say that I was hooked.

At the time, I considered A Game of Thrones and its sequel, A Clash of Kings, to be the best fantasy I had read to that point since The Lord of the Rings. That's high praise indeed, given the pedestal on which I place professor Tolkien's unparalled tale.

While just about every fantasy series these days gets compared to LOTR, trying to draw analogies between A Song of Ice and Fire and the former does not work. Frankly, it's nothing like Tolkien’s trilogy. A Song of Ice and Fire is written in a very modern style, is loaded with graphic, intense battle sequences, scheming kings and noble (and not-so-noble) families, backstabbing, political maneuvering, and treachery galore. There's no fat hobbits, no wistful elves, and no poetry. It's been compared to the historic War of the Roses, and I think that's a very apt parallel.

So what makes it such a great series? Sharp, engaging writing, fully fleshed-out, three dimensional characters, and unpredictable, entertaining, edge-of-your seat plotting for starters. Unlike 99% of traditional fantasy, Martin does not pick favorites and spare them the sword. Anyone, and I mean anyone, is as capable of meeting the Reaper as the next character. Nor is there any obvious sacrificial “red shirts” a. la. Star Trek.

A Song of Ice and Fire is also quite graphic and breaks from the PG-13 level of sex and violence that's the norm in most popular fantasy series (e.g., Dragonlance, Shannara, The Belgariad, etc). This series is NOT for the faint of heart. There’s sadism, murder, cruelties piled upon undeserving characters, heartbreaking betrayals, and worse.

And as great as A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings were, I thought Martin one-upped himself with A Storm of Swords. I won't reveal any spoilers here, but there's a scene in that book ("The Red Wedding") that leaves your mouth hanging open in shock. Once you read it, you realize that Martin has demolished the common conceptions of the traditional epic, multi-book fantasy that chokes the fantasy sections of bookstores these days. It opened a window and allowed some sorely needed fresh air into a genre that many (myself included) felt had grown repetitive and stale. In short, circa 2000, Martin was on top of the world and could do no wrong.

But then something happened. A Storm of Swords came out in 2000, which made sense as its preceeding two novels were spaced just two years apart (A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, and A Clash of Kings came out in 1998). But it took until 2005, five long years, until Martin released A Feast for Crows.

While it proved to be an excruciatingly long wait, the justification seemed reasonable--Crows was shaping up to be very long, longer in fact than the phonebook-sized (900-odd page) A Storm of Swords, and Martin needed extra time to write it. In fact, he ultimately decided to break it up into two books, the second tentatively titled A Dance with Dragons, and release both within a short time frame.

When A Feast for Crows finally came out in 2005, I did something I rarely do--I purchased the hardcover within a few days of its release, so strong was my anticipation. But troublingly, A Feast for Crows (to me at least) marked the first misstep for A Song of Ice and Fire. Already a complex tale with a large cast of characters, and with action occurring simultaneously in multiple areas of Westeros, A Feast for Crows failed to advance the action nearly as much as its predecessors. Mind you, this is a 700-page tome, and while, like the other books in the series, its very well-written, in hindsight, not a heck of a lot occurred between its covers.

By way of comparison, the hardbound The Lord of the Rings I have sitting on my bookshelf checks in at a slim 1,008 pages--all three "books" (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) combined. To put that in perspective, A Storm of Swords, alone, is nearly as long as LOTR!

While I've never read Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, that series is much maligned for its massive books that seem to accomplish less with every sequel (of which there are 1o books or so, I believe). In fact, the series has gone on for so long that Jordan unfortunately passed away from a rare disease before he was able to complete it.

Unfortunately, comparisons between The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire suddenly don't seem too far-fetched. It's now been more than two years since A Feast for Crows, and there's still no Dance from Martin. And this this is a book that was supposedly (mostly) already written, as it was supposed to consist of material and characters that Martin had to pare away from Crows.

So where does this leave A Song of Ice and Fire? Hopefully just on temporary hold. Hopefully. I don't want to sound like I'm whining as I firmly believe that Martin is a very talented author. If he truly needs this much time to write these novels, so be it. But there are consequences.

In my own case, my passion for A Song of Ice and Fire has cooled. I've actually forgotten many of the plotlines and characters and anticipate having to again re-read large sections of the last four novels to remember what was going on. Martin has said that A Song of Ice and Fire will wrap up in seven books, but at this pace we can expect to see it concluded in 2018 or thereabouts. By that time it wouldn't surprise me to find that many readers have moved on or fallen off the bandwagon.

My lesson? In the future I will likely refrain from reading a series until it's been completed. I still highly recommend the series, but I'll now add a firm "caveat emptor" to potential readers of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Friday, December 14, 2007

My Name Is Bruce--has anyone seen this trailer?

I'm not sure how I let this one slip under the radar, but if you know the name of Bruce Campbell (and if you don't, I hereby revoke your geek license), check out this YouTube clip:

Bruce Campbell, playing Bruce Campbell the actor, called on to defend a town from a monster by people who think he's really Ash from the Evil Dead series? I'm so there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

One wild ride: Mad Max is postapocalypic fun, with a message

Part 7 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

I am the Night Rider--I'm a fuel-injected suicide machine. I am a rocker, I am a roller, I am an out-of-controller.

The raving, lunatic speech of the Night Rider which punctuates Mad Max's manic introductory car chase gives us only a glimpse of the savage violence and carnage to come in this underrated action classic.

Despite its cult status, Mad Max is a film that seems to garner little attention these days, even among sci-fi/action aficionados. Maybe it's its age (1979) or its low-tech effects, or it could simply be that it's been overshadowed by its sequel, the brilliant The Road Warrior, which most consider a superior film.

While that may be true, Mad Max has always had a soft spot in my heart for a number of reasons. These include:

The unexplained wasteland. We're left to our own devices to figure out what has brought about the collapse of society in Mad Max (although this is revealed in a later film). As I've said in other movie reviews, I'm fond of fims that don't spoon-feed every detail. The human mind has a wonderful ability to speculate and fill in the gaps, and by not explaining the wasteland or the rise of the savage, roving gangs which threaten to overwhelm the last vestiges of society, director George Miller forces us to think of why--and how--it all occurred.

The decay of order. Miller placed several smart, deliberate shots in Mad Max and its sequels, which convey not only atmosphere but meaning. The rusting, weed-grown Hall of Justice is one example, as it presents an overt symbol of the decay of law and order in this apocalyptic land. A stop sign conspicuously placed in the center of the shot could mean that justice stops here at its gate.

The sergeant, a giant, bald, moustached man curiously named Fifi, is one of the few bastions of order and the rule of law, but it's obvious he's fighting a losing battle, and his rallying cry ("We're going to give them back their heroes!") rings hollow.

The morality of the road, and the allure of violence. Even before the murder of his wife and child and the vigilantism it inspires, Max (played by Mel Gibson) is already feeling uneasy. Why? It's not police work or the pursuit of justice that motivates Max, it's the allure of the road, the high-speed chases, and the everyday dance with death: "It's that rat circus out there, I'm beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal crazy," Max says to Fifi. "Only I've got a bronze badge to say I'm one of the good guys."

By the end of the film the facade of law and order is completely stripped away. It's noteworthy that, while pursuing Johnny the Boy in his last act of vigilantism in the film, Max passes right by a sign declaring "Stop--Prohibited Area." This act symbolizes his final casting off of civilized behavior and a passage into barbarity.

Car porn. While I don't know a damned thing about how cars operate, even I get excited by the talk of "the last of the V-8s," nitrous, and screaming, supercharged engines with blowers.

Jim Goose. I don't know whether actor Steve Bisley ever did anything before or after Mad Max, but I thought his portrayal of the cocksure and stylish but dedicated officer Jim Goose was perfect.

Bubba Zanetti. Another memorable bit role from Mad Max, Zanetti almost defies description with his need to perform every act with an exaggerated sense of style, all the way down to his intense, measured speech. Memorable Zanetti line: When a kid asks him what happened to the car that he and his gang members demolished, he answers cryptically, "Perhaps it was a result of anxiety." I'm not sure what this means exactly, but it's pretty cool.

Electrifying car chases and crashes. Miller's car pursuits and crashes are filmed with a high style that captures the speed of the cars and motorcycles and the violence of their collisions. The head-on collison between the Toecutter and a semi is a thing of beauty. And watch closely for the names of the roads on the white sign at the beginning of the film ("Anarchy" and "Bedlam"), which capture the spirit of what goes on in the two-lane highways of Mad Max. These effects of course all done without CGI, and despite the advances in effects-driven technology I still prefer low-tech effects. Done right, as is the case in Mad Max and The Road Warrior, they are more believable than CGI.

Cool imagery. Although Mad Max was filmed on a very low budget ($300,000 in Australian currency, according to Wikipedia), it's helped considerably by the sparse Australian landscape in which it was shot. Combined with Miller's use of the driver's eye and the wheels's eye view of the roads, Mad Max is a memorable visual experience.

Characterization/humanization of the evil biker gang: While it would be easy to cast the biker gang as a group of mindless thugs, Miller offers in their portrayal a few glimpses of lost humanity (twisted though it may be). For example, Nightrider's line after he loses a game of high-speed "chicken" with Max: "There will be nothing left--it's all gone"--could simply mean the loss of his nerve. But it carries deeper undertones, as if he were weeping for the collapse of society and the loss of civilization.

Likewise, the Toecutter, the cycle gang's murdering leader, displays a surprising depth of emotion when he demands to be left alone to mourn with the Nightrider's coffin. And his insistence on indoctrinating the maddening and pretentious Johnny the Boy into the ways of the gang displays at some level his need for organization and family, institutions which are hopelessly fractured and in danger of total collapse in the dystopic future of Mad Max.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Holding out hope for The Hobbit

Fantasy fans have much to be thankful for these days, especially films-wise. Currently we have on the big screen adaptions of the classic poem Beowulf, part 1 of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy (The Golden Compass), and in May 2008 we'll be treated to a second installment in the "Chronicles of Narnia series," Prince Caspian. Hollywood has finally figured out that fantasy sells and that there's a wealth of rich novels and classic stories in this oft-overlooked genre worthy of adaptation.

But while thinking about the breadth of fantasy choices currently available to theater-goers the other day, I realized I remained largely indifferent to the current crop of fantasy flicks, and without exactly knowing why. But then the reason struck me--the one fantasy novel I truly want to see made into a film remains an unfulfilled hope, and a distant one at that. Unscripted and non-green lighted, even if production began tomorrow its release would likely be 3-4 years away--a very long wait even in a best-case scenario.

That novel, of course, is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

Given the tremendous critical and commerical success of the Peter Jackson-directed The Lord of the Rings, I expected to see Jackson and New Line Cinema ink a deal to start filming its prequel, The Hobbit, no later than 2004, when The Lord of the Rings' four-year run was finally coming to a close. But problems arose that put The Hobbit on ice.

The biggest of these was a very public blowup between Jackson and New Line, the studio which financed and produced the trilogy. Jackson sued New Line over some money he felt he was due from the studio, which reportedly refused to turn over its financial reports in a prompt manner, leading to a fine. Studio execs in turn labelled Jackson as greedy.

Could New Line go ahead and sign up someone besides Jackson to direct The Hobbit? Of course they could, and in fact, for a while they apparently were looking, even offering the job to Sam Raimi of Spiderman fame. But let's be honest--with a director other than Jackson at the helm, we'd very likely see a decline in quality from the very high standards established by The Lord of the Rings films. While not perfect, Jackson's version of Tolkien's timeless tale delivered a far greater film experience than I ever dared hope, due in very large part (I believe) to Jackson's passion, vision, and style.

To put it another way--we know what we've got in Jackson, and it's very, very good. Could another director pull off a comparable or even better job with The Hobbit as Jackson did with The Lord of The Rings? Perhaps--but given the height the bar has been set, the likelihood is slim, and the odds are that such a film would be worse. That's a risk I wouldn't want to see taken with such a valuable and beloved commodity.

There's reportedly been other problems with the adaption itself. While on the surface Tolkien's sprawling three-volume The Lord of the Rings trilogy seems far more daunting to bring to the screen than the straightforward, 300-page tale of The Hobbit, a closer examination reveals that the inverse may actually be true. The biggest obstacle to adapting The Hobbit is that its action mainly concerns the journeys of a hobbit (obviously) and a troupe of 12 dwarves. Whereas The Lord of the Rings has strong human or semi-human male and female leads, played by recognizable (and attractive) actors like Viggo Mortenson, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, and Orlando Bloom, the same can't be said for The Hobbit.

While that fact doesn't concern me at all, I can certainly empathize with studio executives sweating out the risk of pouring 150+ million dollars into a film whose success depends upon our belief in and attachment to a cast consisting mainly of stocky little men and little to no star power. Big names do put butts in seats. I don't anticipate that fact hurting The Hobbit, a beloved best-seller, but the fact remains that it is a less traditional tale The Lord of the Rings, and far less human-centric.

Those problems aside, I still hold out hope that one day The Hobbit will be brought to the screen. We do have the animated version by Rankin-Bass (which I like, admittedly, despite some obvious glaring problems), but that's a far cry from the live-action, big-budget production that I--and millions of other fans--would like to see.

How awesome is the potential of this film? Just thinking of the Battle of the Five Armies on film is enough to give me goosebumps. Thorin falling to the bodyguard of Bolg, only to have his body plucked from battle by Beorn in bear-shape--how awe-inspiring would that be? I want to see The Lonely Mountain, and hope that it's the same grey, sharp, mist-shrouded peak that I've seen in my mind's eye countless times while reading The Hobbit. I want to see Smaug on film, a "real" dragon depicted with the best effects CGI can muster. I want to see Mirkwood forest, and the spiders, and the wood elves. I want to hear riddles in the dark.

But most of all, I want to return to the Hobbiton lovingly crafted by Jackson in his films. I want to hear and see the dwarves drinking ale and singing of gold and the King Under the Mountain at night in the firelight of Bilbo's hobbit-hole at Bag-End.

Until then, I'll still be taking my daughter to see Prince Caspian, but with a bit of a hollow, uncompleted feeling.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Ender's Game: A review

Although I'm not a big science fiction fan, I've heard some good things over the years about Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and recently I found the audio version on the shelf of my local public library. Today I finished listening to it on my commute home from work and was not disappointed (sidebar: Audio books rule. Turn off your radio). Published in 1985 in novel form, it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the two highest prizes awarded in the field of science fiction.

I don't read books for the "surprise" factor, which is probably why I have no interest in mysteries. But even so, it's always nice when an author can spring something on you from left field that you never expected. Suffice to say that Card in Ender's Game scored a looping left hand that made it past my guard and into my face. I won't spoil the surprise, but it comes near the end of the book and for me, at least, it was a doozy.

Ender's Game tells the story of Ender Wiggin, a six-year-old who is drafted into military service to help save the world from "the buggers," an aggressive insect-humanoid race from deep space. Humans have twice beaten back the buggers in massive interplanetary wars, the last a hundred years before Ender's time, but a massive third invasion is feared, and the perfect military mind is needed to beat the buggers once and for all. Time is running out.

Enter Ender. While all the children selected for battle school are the best of the best, Ender shows the most promise of all. Accordingly, he receives intense scrutiny and constant, behind-the-scenes survelliance by military commanders desperate to find mankind's savior. Ender is pushed constantly to excel, and has to not only learn tactics, science, mathematics, and military strategy at an accelerated pace, but also is asked to assume command of older, often hostile boys. The training is ultra-intense and nearly breaks him, but against the odds--and despite the fact "the game" is rigged against him by the adults--he succeeds, and surpasses all expectations.

Card's novel explores mankind's predilection for violence, which he portrays as a dark seed within us all that must be controlled. He's simultaneously critical of the brutal methods and conformity inherent in military training, while acknowledging the great heights to which it can elevate its soldiers and commanders.

Card also explores the themes of lost innocence and the morality (if there can ever be such a thing) of fighting a "just" war. From Ender's Game:

The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can't kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing or no one will ever save you.

It's a frightening view of life, and I'm still never sure whether Card truly believes it himself. Ender is a fundamentally good person, but when push comes to shove he must strike hard and kill his opponent, and he never fails to do so.

Ender's Game isn't without some flaws (in my opinion, at least), and on my five-star rating scale I'd give it a solid four. In a few places it stretched my imagination too far. The worst offender was the extreme level of maturity and intelligence demonstrated not only by Ender, but his brother and sister and the other students in the battle school. Card made a point of stating that battle school students are the best of the best, but when a six-year-old can perform complex mathematics and demonstrate perfect tactics in high-stress simulated battles, all while isolated from friendship and essentially ripped from the arms of his family, it strains credibility.

Likewise, when Ender's siblings, 15-year-old Peter and 12-year-old Valentine, use "the nets" (aka. the internet) to launch sucessful careers as political commentators and influential newspaper columnists, I found it a bit hard to swallow. Although the book takes place in 2135, these are just humans, after all, and children at that.

Card also lets Ender off the hook at times. Although he never fails to provoke our sympathy, Ender is at times so manipulated by the military intelligentsia that his actions cannot be judged as moral or immoral--they're simply not his fault, and it's an easy out. Even the villains--the military minds behind the battle school--can't be blamed, as their actions are influenced by the omnipresent, existential, life-or-death war with the buggers.

Nevertheless, Ender's Game was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking read and I highly recommend it.