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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Unforgiven: A cold-blooded killer of a movie

Part 6 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

If you take a look at my top 10 list of favorite movies, you'll notice that my taste very rarely coincides with the Academy awards voters or the critics at the American Film Institute (AFI). To put it bluntly, you won't see Conan the Barbarian or Excalibur cracking many reviewers' top 10 lists.

Unforgiven is an exception to that rule.The western to end all westerns, director and starring man Clint Eastwood in 1992 delivered what I consider to be the finest film ever made in this particular genre. It won Best Picture and Best Director honors that year, among other awards, and at last check it sits at no. 68 at the AFI's best "100 Years...100 Movies" list.

I can't say I've seen every western, or even the majority, but I have watched a lot of good ones--The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (along with just about every other Eastwood western), The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, and others I've forgotten--and for my money Unforgiven is the best.

Unlike Europe, America is too young a country to have knights on horseback as its heroes, but in the westerns Americans had their own paragons of virtue, men like John Wayne or Shane. Prior to Unforgiven, these westerns were one of the last refuges of the myth of the white-hatted hero, where virtuous sheriffs battled black-hatted cow thieves or masked train-robbers. Morality is simple in these films--there are lawmen and bandits, and you know who to root for and who would win in the end.

While some cracks in this facade first appeared in the spaghetti westerns of the late 1960s and 70s (with their shades of grey characters and bloody gun battles), Unforgiven shattered the myth of the knight-as-cowboy completely and forevermore.

Eastwood portrays William Munny, an aging gunfighter who is living a sad, squalid life as a pig farmer trying to raise two young children. He's recently buried his wife and is living out his days trying to get by as best as he can. When some drunken powpokes rough up some whores and cut up one of the unfortunate woman's faces, and the other prostitutes put a modest bounty on the cowpokes' heads, Munny decides to take up his guns once more.

Watching Eastwood try to regain his old form with a gun or to ride a horse is borderline comical. But when it comes time to pull the trigger, we realize that it's not his skill with a gun that makes Munny a different breed--it's his cold-blooded approach to killing. Although he admits to being drunk on whiskey much of the time during his days as a killer, Munny holds no illusions about death. He is the meanest, most dangerous man walking because he is able to look death coldly in the face, recognizing it for what it is:

It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man. You take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have.

Just like Eastwood is no hero, neither are the men evil whom he and his companions seek to kill. Their leader, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman in a remarkable role) isn't very likeable but is three-dimensional, a man who's trying his best to build a house in which he can retire. Another of the cowpokes asks for forgiveness and offers to give up his best horses to the women. Despite their deeds, it's hard to feel hate for these men. But Munny pulls the trigger with no remorse.

"Guess he had it coming, huh?" asks one of Munny's companions, a braggart who nicknames himself The Scofield Kid, but later drops his act and vows to leave gunfighting forever when he finds that killing isn't what the legends make it up to be. "We all have it coming, kid," Munny replies.

My favorite parts of this movie are watching the dark legend of Munny's past unfold itself from Eastwood's craggy, weathered features. Men and women, young and old, stand in awe of his legend. In disbelief they spill it out, using names and places that mean nothing to us, the viewer, but speak of murderous deeds:

My guess is you're call yourself Mr. William Munny...the same one who shot Charlie Pepper up in Lake County. You're the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train up in Missouri.

He said how you was really William Munny out of Missouri ...and Little Bill said, 'the same William Munny that dynamited the rock island in Pacific in '69, killing women and children and all?' And Ned said you done a lot worse than that. He said that you were more cold-blooded than William Bonny, and how if he hurt Ned again that you was coming to kill him, like you killed a U.S. Marshall in '70.

One of my favorite scenes in all of cinema occurs at the end when Munny, vengeful and looking like the grim reaper himself, rides into town on a pale horse and enters Greeley's saloon to avenge his slain friend Ned (Morgan Freeman):

Who's the fellow owns this shithole? You, fat man. Speak up.

You'd be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.

That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.

What comes next is killing. It's not prosaic, no guns are shot from hands, there's no accompanying glory and spectacle. It's bloody revenge, the real myth of the cowboy laid plain and bare.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Gates of Fire: What 300 should have been

Do you want to know why ancient Sparta had the most feared warriors of their (and possibly any) era? Look no further than Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. It’s the semi-historic account of the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans and their allies sacrificed their lives in a narrow defile ("The Hot Gates") between the cliffs and sea to stall the 2-million man army of Persia. All were wiped out, but not before slaughtering thousands of Persians, holding the pass for three days, and inspiring the rest of Greece through their example to unite and defeat the invaders.

Far more than just the tale of a single battle, Gates of Fire examines the mindset of this society of proud warriors. It demonstrates their brutal methods of training and how they governed themselves, in the process painting a vivid picture of day-to-day life in bronze-age Greece.

Soldiers' fear in battle is greatly underrated by the mass of writers and historians, and plays a significant part in the outcome of a battle. Most battles are not won by wiping out the other side or inflicting huge numbers of casualities, but rather by breaking the other side's morale and causing rout or retreat. Historian John Keegan explains this oft-overlooked truth in his wonderful examination of combat, The Face of Battle.

Pressfield in Gates of Fire offers a very convincing explanation of how the Spartans managed to control their fear in battle. The Spartans were raised from birth with a rigorous--borderline torturous--training regimen, that honed not only their combat skills to a fine edge, but also allowed men to accomplish great acts of sacrifice and valor.

Pressfield also creates a cast of memorable characters. These include:
  • Xeones, the narrator, a non-Spartan who starts his life as a slave but gradually becomes a respected squire, fighting alongside the Spartans and acquitting himself with great glory in the heart of battle;
  • Dienekes, the platoon leader, a scarred veteran and natural leader, a salt-of-the earth soldier yet also wise and fearless;

  • Alexandros, a young Spartan who loves not battle but the strains of music, a singer and poet who fights not for glory but out of duty and pride;

  • Leonidas, the Spartans' king, 60 years old but still a fearless figher, a man who sleeps beneath the stars and enters combat in the front lines, scorning any advantage of his station; and

  • Polynikes, a physical specimen and greatest of Sparta's warriors, haughty and merciless, demanding to the point of sadism, who undergoes a transformation and eventually embraces the humanity and valor of Alexandros and Xeones with tears in his eyes.

Pressfield writes so well, at times you feel like you’re in the shield wall, amid the hot, straining press of men ready to clash with spear and sword, tooth and nail, against the enemy. The ending is quite poignant, as Pressfield leaves the reader with a simple, utilitarian (i.e., Spartan) line carved on a plain monument that marks the battlefield at Thermopylae:

Tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie

Gates of Fire was what I hoped to see adapted to the silver screen instead of Frank Miller's 300. It tells a much better story than Miller's graphic novel, and also paints a much more realistic picture of what the events of the battle must have been like. I wish 300 had cut out a lot of the extraneous nonsense that in some places reduced it to the level of silliness (War rhinos? An ogre? Please).

And yes, I've heard all the justification for 300's over-the-top elements ("it was told from the perspective of an old soldier who embellished the tale, yada-yada"), but it still didn't make it any less ridiculous in my eyes. The story of Thermopylae should not need any fantastic elements to make it more "exciting" or to put butts in movie seats. Its bare facts: 300 men who knowingly commit themselves to death in defense of their country--are more than enough.

Monday, November 19, 2007

In which I argue the reasons why Conan the Barbarian crushes other films, drives them before it

Part 5 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Director John Milius' Conan the Barbarian is a significant departure from the character created by author Robert E. Howard. Its events bear little to no resemblance to any of Howard's stories, and in fact, other than borrowing some of Howard's names, places, and gods, it may as well be an entity unto itself. I note this because I know that many in Howard fandom despise the film for these reasons, and for spreading the myth that the lumbering, fallible Conan of the film is one and the same with Howard's creation.

Nevertheless, Conan the Barbarian resides firmly in my top 10 list of all-time favorite films. While the fantasy film genre is pretty weak overall (witness turkeys like The Beastmaster, visually appealing but empty films like Legend, the recent King Arthur, Troy, etc.), Conan the Barbarian rises to the top of this heap, just below The Lord of the Rings, because of its well-crafted visuals, its attention to detail, its nice casting choices and amazing score, and most of all for its single-minded adherence to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. This latter element in particular makes for a a rich viewing experience and makes Conan the Barbarian worth returning to again and again.

The following is a list of what I just plain like about this film:

The score. There's not much more I can add to the praise that's been heaped on Conan the Barbarian's exceptional soundtrack, except that I'll take it one step further and say that composer Basil Poledouris put together the best score for any film, ever. Lest you disagree, I present The Anvil of Crom:

Arnold Schwarzenegger. I know he gets criticism from a lot of corners for his sparse, halting lines, occasional foolish, un-Conan-like behavior, and (at times) awkwardness swinging a blade, but has anyone ever looked or sounded more the part? Schwarzenegger's thick Austrian accent, smoldering eyes, and massive physique make him look every inch the barbarian, and while he's not the most gifted actor he exudes an undeniable charisma.

A giant f-ing snake. Directors, if you're reading this: You can make your film better by a degree of five simply by adding a giant, man-eating snake.

The opening sequence. Darkness. Fire. A forge. Glowing embers. Molten metal. A bearded viking of a blacksmith pounding on an anvil with a big hammer. A glowing sword plunged into a snowbank. Classic.

Max Von Sydow. This legendary German actor has only a bit part as King Osric, but he plays it with conviction, and seated on a throne and clad in fur utters one of film's most memorable lines: "There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father's love for his child."

Sven-Ole Thorsen. What's not to like about a jacked 6-5 bodybuilder who plays a warrior named Thorgrim, and wields a massive war hammer capable of knocking over stone columns?

This exchange: (General): "Conan, what is best in life?" (Conan): "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women." Words to live by.

The riddle of steel. I've watched this film a dozen times and I still haven't settled on a satisfying answer to the riddle. Conan's father starts the film by stating, "The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan, you must learn its discipline. For no one in this world can you trust--not men, not women, not beasts, but this (points to sword) you can trust."

This theory (steel is mightier than the flesh) seems straightforward enough, except that, later in the film, arch-enemy Thulsa Doom seems to undermine this lesson when he demonstrates to Conan the superiority of flesh over steel, as exemplified by his rabid followers who obey his commands even unto death. "What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength of your body, the desire in your heart," says Doom.

Later Conan's father's sword is shattered by Conan's own vengeful hand, which seems to reaffirm Doom's statement. But then, Conan beheads Doom with the broken blade--before casting it away. So is the riddle of steel the combination of steel and flesh, impassioned by the purity of vengeance, which drives men to singleminded deeds and great heights? At the end--like Conan himself--I'm left contemplative, hand upon chin. If you have any ideas, please post them here.

And finally, Friedrich Nietzsche. Conan the Barbarian opens with the modified Nietzsche quote, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." And with a laser focus, Milius sets out to prove the truth of this statement over the next two hours. There's no compromises, no equivocation, no fussing around with morality. Just a mighty-thewed barbarian kindled by the bright flame of vengeance.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Broken Sword: A masterpiece from the fantasy forge

Poul Anderson is an author who seems to be largely ignored and unappreciated these days, save for those who are true fans of the fantasy and science fiction genres. Even in those circles he's known primarily as a science fiction author, and for good reason--Anderson was a voluminous SF writer (I say voluminous because he wrote a metric ton of it, and I don't have an accurate number) with much fewer fantasy/historic fantasy titles to his credit.

But Anderson was also an avid fantasy fan. He helped found the Society for Creative Anachronism, and according to Wikipedia was also a member of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (can I get a membership, please?). He was also a truly great fantasy writer, perhaps best known for Three Hearts and Three Lions, a book which serves as the inspiration for a pair of classic Dungeons and Dragons icons: The paladin character class, and the green-skinned regenerating troll, D&D founder/author Gary Gygax admits. Anderson also wrote some awesome Nordic-flavored fantasy, including Hrolf Kraki's Saga and War of the Gods, books to which I'll devote some blogspace at a later time.

But for my money, Anderson's best work of fantasy was The Broken Sword, published in 1954. If you haven't read this slim, 200-page classic of epic fantasy, rush out to your local used book store or purchase a copy on Ebay and do so now. It's a kick in the pants of "fat fantasy," a welcome relief from the bloated tomes choking the fantasy section of book stores these days.

The Broken Sword combines Norse mythology, inexorable tragic fate, faerie races vs. encroaching humanity, and Christianity vs. Paganism in a quick-moving, bloodthirsty saga. The basic plot is as follows: Imric, an elf chiefain, steals away the child Skafloc from his parents, Orm and Aelfrida. Imric replaces Skafloc with a changeling, Valgard, identical in appearnce to Skafloc but born from Imric and a she-troll. Skafloc grows up among the elves as a child of the light, while Valgard, feeling like he's an outcast, turns to the dark.

Meanwhile, an old witch with a grudge (Orm burned her home and slew her sons in a raid during his younger days) swears to continue the feud against Orm and his family. She enlists Valgard as a tool for her revenge, and Valgard slays Orm and his siblings. The witch also tells Valgard about his true troll heritage, and Valgard leaves to join the trolls' ranks, taking Orm's daughters/Skafloc's sisters, Freda and Asgerd, as tokens for the troll king.

Still unaware that Orm is his father or Freda and Asgerd are his sisters, Skafloc leads a raid against the trolls to test their strength, and winds up rescuing Freda and Asgerd. In a familiar tragic device, Skafloc and his sister, Freda, fall in love, which guarantees that their unnatural relationship will end in disaster.

Later the pair escape near death from the invading troll armies, and Skafloc learns that he is fated to free the land from their scourge, and recover and reforge the broken sword--a weapon of great power, but also cursed with an evil sentience that will ultimately spell doom for its wielder.

You can imagine the havoc that ensues when Skafloc learns his true identity, that his father and siblings were slain by his traitorous twin "brother," and that he's been sleeping with his sister. Skafloc's quest to reforge the sword, his internal turmoil and agonies, and the final epic battle are amazing and a joy to read.

There's also a lot more going on under the surface of The Broken Sword than mere plot. The reforged evil sword is a terrible weapon that represents military technology, like atomic power or gunpowder, that are as much a blessing as a curse. And once reforged (or conceived by scientists) the cat is forever out of the bag. At one point Imric decides to take it and cast it into the sea, but realizes that even this drastic measure cannot undo fate: "I do not think that will do much good though. The will of the Norns stands not to be altered, and the sword has not wreaked its last harm." There's shades of the Excalibur myth here, albeit much darker and more sinister.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the sword's properties--smelted iron--are anathema to the trolls, elves, and other races of Faerie. The broken sword can thus be viewed as the power of the one god--referred to by Anderson as "The White Christ"--driving out the many gods of the old pagan religions. This theme runs throughout the book.

Interestingly, Anderson paints a bleak picture of mankind in general. Men, while physically weaker than trolls and elves, will rule in the end, not because they are inherently superior, but because of their lust for science and the power it brings. And they care not for the consequences: "'All men are born fey,' said Skafloc, and there the matter stood."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Hail to The Cimmerian

Blogs are a funny business. There's millions of them all over the Web, each an expression of their author's particular interests. Given their sheer number, it's amazing that any of them even get discovered, let alone read. While I can't speak for everyone, I feel confident speculating that the best a typical blogger can hope is for someone to stumble across their site during a misguided Google search, and dwell for 30 seconds or a minute before moving on. Comments are hoped for but never expected. Yet blog authors slog on, unsung, mostly writing for an audience of one.

But recently (and miraculously) one of the Web's most respected fantasy blog sites, The Cimmerian, picked up on The Silver Key and wrote a very flattering review. You can read the post here.

Thanks to author Leo Grin for his very kind words, and as I briefly mentioned in a recent post about Robert E. Howard, please go check out The Cimmerian. The insight of its authors are amazing and, despite its name, it covers an impressive breadth of material, much more than just Howard and his works. For example, a recent post by Steve Tompkins, "An Irish Bard at King Hrothgar's Court", starts out with a preview of the new Beowulf film, but then launches into an erudite study of the history of the Beowulf poem and its recent translation by Seamus Heaney. It's the kind of high-quality article you'd expect to read in a literary journal, frankly. (Yes, that is a sucking up sound you're hearing, but frankly, it's true. They do great work over there).

In conclusion, I started The Silver Key as a sounding board for my own thoughts, but it's nice to know that someone out there is reading. And thanks again to The Cimmerian for the acknowledgement.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Heavy metal fantasy: The wonderful music of Blind Guardian

As a life-long heavy metal fan who writes a blog that celebrates all things fantastic, it was only a matter of time before I got to the subject of Blind Guardian. About all you need to know about this wonderful, semi-obscure German metal band is that they wrote an entire album about J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion ("Nightfall in Middle Earth").

Need I say more? I mean, look at the picture I've embedded--that's a Blind Guardian album cover, and it looks like it could have been plucked off the cover of a Robert Jordan novel.

I've always been drawn to heavy metal for its power and grandeur. Narrowing that down further, I prefer bands with a clean, epic sound and soaring vocals. Even more specifically, I prefer those metal bands whose subject matter covers the fantastic, be it dark magic and the occult (Black Sabbath), medieval/ancient history (Iron Maiden), or sci-fi (Judas Priest and The Sentinel, Electric Eye, etc).

Blind Guardian fulfills all those requirements. To get an idea of what they like to sing about, all you need to do is view some of their song titles, of which I've included several in the below list. Note that Blind Guardian doesn't just make oblique or occasional references to Tolkien, King Arthur, Dragonlance, etc., like other bands have done (Led Zeppelin's mentions of "The Dark Lord" and "Gollum" from Ramble On spring to mind), they write songs--nay, entire albums--about fantasy, without a hint of satire:

  • The soulforged

  • Born in a mourning hall

  • Lord of the Rings

  • Mordred's song

  • Skalds and shadows

  • The Bard's song

  • The curse of Feanor

  • Noldor

  • By the Gates of Moria

  • Gandalf's rebirth

  • A past and future secret

  • Valhalla

I'm not making this stuff up, folks. These guys are hard-core fantasy fans. Their music may as well be the soundtrack of a Dungeons and Dragons game. In fact, I've seriously considered incorporating some of their lyrics/subject matter into that D&D campaign I'm hoping to someday get off the ground.

In a lesser band's hands, the combination of long hair, electric guitars, and some German dude yelling "Mordor--dark land under Sauron's spell" could be embarrassing. But Blind Guardian is able to pull off this material successfully and with a straight face because a) They're passionate and obviously well-versed in the material; and b) They're damned talented.

Don't believe me? Check out this clip of one of their acoustic numbers, "The Bard's Song," from Youtube. I don't think you'll be disappointed:

The bard's songs do indeed remain alive and well in the capable hands of Blind Guardian.

To read more about Blind Guardian, go to their Web site:

Thursday, November 8, 2007

By Crom, Robert E. Howard could write

“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars…”

…and thus begins "The Phoenix on the Sword," the first published tale of Conan of Cimmeria.

The first thing that strikes you about Robert E. Howard (who took his own life at 30 years of age) is, Damn, can this man write. It's hard not to spout the cliches when describing his writing: Howard’s prose indeed burns like coals, and yes, his words do leap off the page. Is it literature? No. But if your idea of fun is swordplay, colorful characters, clashing armies, wondrous lands, decadent civilizations, sanity-bending magic, monsters, and voluptuous women, then Howard’s your man. He was and is the reigning champion of the branch of fantasy known as swords and sorcery.

If your only exposure to Conan is the big, dumb brute of the film Conan the Barbarian (which I admittedly liked), get ready to meet a Conan you never knew. He’s smart, ruthless, ambitious, three-fourths savage, and just plain cool. And he’s a barbarian to the core, the walking embodiment of Howard’s philosophy:

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

You can feel this phrase at the heart of all of Howard's Conan stories, and it's what makes them so different than the mass of "fat fantasy" novels lining the shelves of bookstores today. Howard truly felt that, as a nation became more civilized, it grew correspondingly decadent and ultimately, corrupt. Men who fight and struggle to claim their kingdoms grow soft in times of peace and plenty until greed and sloth set in. Old kingdoms weaken through internal strife until they collapse from within or are invaded from without. Conan knew that tension as he simultaneously sought to rule the great kingdom of Aquilonia while experiencing the ever-constant pull of freedom and adventure, living life as a wild corsair on a ship or a raiding cossack on horseback.

In Howard's works and in the mind of the author himself, the howling "barbarians at the gates" were always waiting to pounce when kingdoms grew weak, and Conan himself was one of the horde. And maybe, Howard believed, rule by might and the axe was for the best. While at times that philosophy seems appealing to me, I can't say I agree with it. But there you have it.

Howard himself was a paradox: While he was a bit of an eccentric, attached to his mother, and wrote out of a small bedroom in his parents' home in Cross Plains, Texas, he nevertheless had no patience for academics and pacifists. He embraced rugged individualism and boxed and exercised himself into formidable shape. And he was a prolific, self-taught writer. Alas, his life ended far too soon, and we can only speculate on what works his prodigious talents may have eventually produced.

My first exposure to the barbarian came as a young boy of 10 or so through the old Conan the Barbarian comic book. While not a bad read, I didn't understand true greatness until I stumbled across a trove of back issues of The Savage Sword of Conan and Conan Saga. These magazines are loving adaptations of Howard's classic tales, and featured some amazing black and white artwork that captured the savage wonder of Hyboria, Howard's setting for the Conan stories. I still have my old back issues and I guard them jealously. One of these days I might even pull them out and read them again.

While great, the old black and white mags aren't as good as the classic Howard texts, and I was lucky to find the whole series of Conan paperbacks next. These helped start me on the path of becoming a lifetime reader and lover of fantasy. Of course, it wouldn't be until 15 years or so later that I realized even these books--published by Lancer and Ace--were in fact heavily modified (some would say mangled and bastardized) by editors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Many of the stories were in fact pastiches, or stories told by different authors than Howard, and thus, not "canon." Some were bad. Even so, overall I found the old Lancer and Ace editions to be great reads, at least at the time.

Howard's best stories are the following: "Red Nails," "The People of the Black Circle," "The Hour of the Dragon," "Beyond the Black River," "The Devil in Iron," 'The Queen of the Black Coast," and "The Jewels of Gwahlur." But hell, they’re all good. None are novels; Howard’s longest tale is "The Hour of the Dragon," which checks in at a slim 174 pages.

All of Howard’s stories first appeared in the 1930’s pulp magazine Weird Tales, noted for publishing not only sci-fi, fantasy, and horror between its lurid covers, but also H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories. While Howard had a loyal following in the magazine, it wasn’t until well after his death in 1936 that he and his tales gained widespread acclaim.

Just make sure that if you read Howard, look for the unedited and pastiche-free stories. Real, raw Howard in his own words is fortunately now available in a nicely illustrated collection by Del Rey, which I highly recommend.

Until then, think on this quote from "Queen of the Black Coast":

“In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle … Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

Postscript: There's a ton of cool Howard and Conan Web sites floating around the internet. Check out these:

Post-Postscript: If there is a god, and his name is Crom, he will let this movie be made:

Monday, October 29, 2007

A date with Dracula

I'm not much of a theatre-goer (and by theatre, I mean live stage perfor-mances), but a couple weeks ago an ad in the local newspaper caught my eye and Halloween-addled brain: The neighboring Amesbury playhouse was putting on a performance of Dracula.

With two young children it's rare these days for my wife and I to have the opportunity to get out. But this night my mother was available to babysit and we jumped at the chance. At first we debated the typical dinner and a movie ("Gone Baby Gone," or some other mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable fare), but then by chance I happened to recall the newspaper ad. We both decided that a date with the undead was preferable to Ben Affleck and decided on Dracula instead.

Dracula has always been one of my favorite novels. Many people shy away from it due to its age, and the greater accessibility of modern, popular horror writers (Stephen King and Dean Koontz come to mind), but if you've haven't read Dracula, you're missing out. It's a great story with a rich atmosphere and it still packs a scare. Author Bram Stoker could write, and his characters--Van Helsing, Jonathon Harker, and the unforgettable Count, among others--are truly great literary creations.

We had dinner and drinks as we waited for the show, and not until the play started did we realize that the waitstaff made up half the cast. That was probably the coolest element of the show--the small dimensons of the playhouse and the closeness of the actors made you feel like you were a part of it.

The show was enjoyable. It had its faults, including one actor and one actress with limited acting ability who didn't deliver their lines very well. The crew only changed sets once, using the same room for most of the show (a Victorian-style living room) and ending with Dracula's subterranean tomb. There was some issues with the sound, and at a few points I found myself straining to hear.

But the low points were outweighed by the good. The actors who played Van Helsing and Dracula were excellent, and Renfield was wonderfully manic and over-the-top. The lighting and music were suitably creepy. And in the coolest touch of all, Dracula emerged from the rear of the playhouse in the final act, striding amongst the crowd with his billowing black cape and protuding incisors and drawing screams of fright and excitement. Soon after he disappeared into his coffin, Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and Jonathan Harker also made their way through the crowd, pursuing the fleeing vampire with stakes and mallets.

Afterwards the cast came out into the crowd to chat and have a few drinks. The sight of some star-struck pre-teens asking for autographs did my heart good, as it was nice to see some respect paid to a troupe of actors performing for the sheer love of acting, and not the money. I spoke for a few minutes with Tom Seiler, a 60-something man who'd been acting for 33 years, as he told me, and congratulated him on his fine portrayal of Van Helsing. He encouraged me to come back again, and after my experience watching Dracula, I probably will.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A feast of flesh: Digesting Dawn of the Dead

Part 4 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

I still recall the first time I watched Dawn of the Dead. The violence and gore were shockingly graphic, and the dread I felt from the zombie hordes enveloping the earth was palpable. But it was the feeling of isolation and spiritual stagnation of the survivors in the mall that really made Dawn stand out for me, elevating it into something much more than traditional horror fare.

Made in 1978, Dawn of the Dead is the second in what has become director George Romero's zombie quadriology (is that an actual word?). The series started with the low-budget black and white 1968 Night of the Living Dead, then Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead (1985) and, most recently, Land of the Dead (2005).

Dawn of the Dead stands out above the rest of the series for several reasons. While Night is quite good, Dawn features a true full-blown zombie apocalypse in which mankind is overrun. While the zombie virus-as-pandemic first surfaced in Night, that film focused on a small group of survivors in a farmhouse, and, by the end of Night, the implication was that the outbreak was under control.

Not so in Dawn. In the first act, the world is plunged into chaos and we get to watch the disintegration of order as institutions crumble and populaces panic. Four survivors band together and manage to clear out a huge shopping mall, then "batten down the hatches" and attempt to live while death and destruction reigns outside.

While the four survivors (three men and a woman) have plenty of food and every material desire at their fingertips, their "bliss" proves very shallow and temporary.

In its second act, Dawn takes an introspective look at the human condition: While we may think death is at a comfortable distance, and that having money and all the "stuff" it buys will make us content, this is a lie. Ultimately, we as humans need something more. The zombies become a symbol of the ever-present disease and death that threatens to devour us, and ultimately will consume every man, woman, and child born. They are also a symbol of unbridled materialism, mindless "shoppers" drawn to the mall that you can find in any large or small-sized city across the United States, every day.

When a roving band of armed, militant bikers break into the mall in the final act of Dawn, all hell breaks loose. For sheer, unbridled fun and over-the-top gore, you can't beat the scene of bikers hacking and beheading zombies with machetes, bats, and axes, lobbing grenades and firing shotguns and pistols, and watching raiders get hauled screaming from their bikes and eviscerated and consumed alive. The scene of the guy who insists on using the blood pressure machine even as zombies converge on him and eat him is dark comedy at its best.

Despite the death and destruction, Dawn ends on a positive note as the last two survivors ultimately choose life, and a chance of salvation elsewhere. Whether or not they find it in their low-fuel helicopter is another story, but it's noteworthy that, even in the depths of despair, they make the choice to move on and live, despite the odds. When confronted with our own stark mortality, this is all we as mankind can do.

On a side note, Dawn was remade in 2004. Romero was not involved in the project. While the new Dawn is quite enjoyable, and perhaps even scarier than the original (the running zombies are shockingly unexpected and terrifying, and the opening sequence is amazing), it unfortunately loses much of the subtext and themes that made the 1978 version so great.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Turning back the "Pages": Remembering a great old bookstore

Back when I was a wee lad of about 9 or 10, I happened upon Pages Bookshop of Reading. Sandwiched between a pizza joint and an auto parts store in a run-down one-story building on the edge of the town common, Pages (known to me and my friends simply as "The Bookstore") soon became my favorite store/hangout, and a place that helped shape who I've become today.

It sounds corny, but Pages was a place of wonder for me. I still recall its creaky red floorboards and the smell of old books and newspapers that wafted out onto the street when you opened the front door. The place was dusty and dirty and, in addition to books and comics, contained some odd collectibles and old models stuffed into odd, cubby-like shelves on the walls.

But it was also stuffed full of the stuff of fantasy.

Back in the 80's when I discovered it, Pages had a prominent shelf of role playing games, including Dungeons and Dragons, Star Frontiers, Car Wars, Runequest, and more. It kept a supply of dice and a few racks of lead miniatures. I remember thumbing through issues of Dragon magazine that I couldn't afford and mentally recording variant rules, adventure scenarios, and monster ecologies to feed my game with cool ideas (this was in the pre-internet days, remember).

In the back of the store were a few towering rows of old hardcovers that no one ever seemed to buy, and whose inventory never seemed to change. But Pages also had a nice selection of paperback fantasy and sci-fi novels. I still have several on my bookshelf today. The bottom of each book was stamped with a letter code: A=50 cents, B=85 cents, C=half cover price. It was cheap, and I stocked up on lots of titles from authors like Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course, the inimitable Robert E. Howard.

Pages specialized in comic books and had it had a big collection of titles on the front racks, but even better were the seeming miles of long boxes stuffed with back issues. You could buy up old titles for 50, 60, or 75 cents, in most cases. I bought a bunch of old Captain Americas and Spidermans, Fantastic Fours, and other classic Marvel titles.

But my favorite memory was finding two old boxes full of back issues of Savage Sword of Conan. This was a great black and white magazine, featuring Howard's stories adapted for the comic medium but almost 100% true to their source material. The stories were raw, bloody, and not afraid to show female flesh, and illustrated by some terrific artists like John Buscema and Roy Thomas. Each issue was $1. Every week with my allowance I used to buy 2 or 3 issues, then stop off at Berson's pharmacy on the corner for a Pepsi and a candy bar. I relished the long walk home and the anticipation of reading SSOC with my feet propped up on my desk, drinking a cold soda and enjoying every page. Those wonderful black and white illustrations and Robert E. Howard's amazing yarns swept me up, and for a while I was part of another, much cooler world.

Just as sweet are the memories of the times my gang of my friends and I would walk to Pages on Saturday mornings. We'd browse for what seemed like hours, then head next door with our loot to Christy's Pizza. Christy's had small pay televisions, which (if I remember correctly) gave you a half-hour's worth of TV for 25 cents. I remember stuffing in coins and watching cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian and The Smurfs, eating pizza, and reading comics. Good times.

A few years ago the town demolished the old building that housed Pages and Christy's Pizza. Sadly, "The Bookstore" has been replaced by a decidedly prosaic bank.

Sigh, just what Reading needed.

I'll bet there's a lot of kids now, in Reading and elsewhere, that would have loved to have had a Pages in their neighborhood. I also believe (and I'm firmly up on my soapbox now) that most kids could benefit from having a local bookstore. In fact, I'm of the belief that a town just ain't a town without a place to buy, sell, and swap used books. While the trend now is giant chains, I find it hard to believe that any Barnes and Noble or Borders could pack into it as much cheap entertainment--or as much wonder--as Pages did.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

An adventure completed

Recently I had the fortune of finishing up Legends are Made, not Born, which marked my return as a Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master (DM) after some 17+ years since my last DMing experience. And what fun it was!

As you can read about in a previous post, the players in this module are effective "zero level" PCs, or normal townspeople who decide to become heroes by doing battle with an ogre that has kidnapped two townspeople. The PCs gathered information and purchased supplies in the town of Dundraville, then made their way to Skulltop Hillock, where the ogre lives. Sneaking in via a little-used back entrance, they battled their way through some cave denizens, including giant centipedes and a ghoul (the corpse of a long-dead warrior-king), before encountering the ogre Blogg.

After a PC sprang a log deadfall trap which awoke the drugged and sleeping ogre, an epic fight ensued. In the end, one PC was knocked out by the ogre's massive club, but Blogg was dead and the day was saved. Or was it?

The PCs soon found out from Blogg's sniveling captive hobgoblin servant Gurt that the "real master" had charmed Blogg and ordered him to capture the two townsfolk. The master--Suto Lore, a "power thrower," lives in the tunnels below Blogg's cave, said the terrified Gurt. The adventure was about to get a lot bigger and more sinister.

The PCs pushed ahead and made their way down a trapped ladder and a past a trapped hallway to Suto's quarters. There they found Suto's diary and uncovered a diabolic plan: Suto is seeking to locate the Codex Ilyium, a book of great and evil sorcerous power, but can only find it by summoning the demon Frogroth. Suto has created a demon summoning circle and is only a day away from his final preparations.

After battling Suto's enchanted broom(!), the PCs made their way to the temple. Alerted to the PCs presence after they set off a screaming shrieker, Suto prepared himself with a host of spells, including mage armor, obscuring mist, and levitate, and cast summon monster, summoning a fiendish spider to drop on the PCs as they entered the chamber.

Soon a pitched fight began. Suto was well-protected, and all the PCs could see of him was a billowing pillar of smoke. Several arrows were fired too low and went under the levitating wizard. Bec, the party's muscle-bound fighter, was bitten by the spider. Although the PCs slew the critter, it slowed them down enough for Suto to summon a small fire elemental from a brazier in the room. This thing proved nasty, as its blows inflicted both bludgeoning and fire damage.

Soon two PCs were down. Suto then cast hold person on Bec, who was frozen to the spot, and the fire elemental burned him alive (sorry Bec). Three PCs--half the party--were either dead or unconscious, and I was worried that my first time DMing in almost two decades would result in a TPK, or total party kill!

But the PCs proved both heroic and resourceful. Lord Casimir, a snobby son of a nobleman, bravely charged past the elemental and into the billowing smoke to thrust and cut wildly. Even though he was blinded by a glitterdust spell, he ran Suto through with a sword-thrust that had about a 1 in 20 chance of hitting. The few remaining PCs finally wore down the elemental with arrows and magic missiles, and the fight was over.

Truth be told (and if you're reading it here, players, its your bad), the PCs never found the "voice below" hinted at in Suto's diary, a small demon (a quasit) that was in league with Suto, and resided in the bottom of the pit in the summoning room. Of course, we didn't finish until 2:45 a.m. so everyone was tired at that point, including me, and I probably could have done a better job tipping the players off. Ah well, perhaps this could lead to another adventure...

Regardless, the PCs had defeated the evil wizard, rescued the two prisoners, and returned to Dundraville as heroes. The town welcomed them with cheers and kisses, and old Tarik one-arm, a retired fighter who lost his arm battling Blogg years ago, clapped them on the back over a cold ale at the Merry Riot Inn, and had this to say:

"As I've always said--legends are made, and not born, and you have taken the first step on a much larger journey, lads and ladies."

Overall, it was a fun night and a fine example as to why I love this game. The adventure--both the module itself, and my own--was complete.