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.