Monday, March 31, 2014

Musings on The Wheel of Time: A Deeply Flawed Masterpiece

I just finished reading* the final book of the massive Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.  I have a lot of thoughts about it, so I decided to work through some of them here on the blog for everyone to see.  I will do my best to keep things spoiler-free.

*Well, listening to.  Three cheers for audio books!

Way back in 1997, someone gave me the first two books in the series as a high school graduation present.  I had never heard of these books but after reading The Lord of the Rings as well as Terry Brooks' Heritage of Shannara series, I was eager to dive into another fantasy realm.  And when I checked the local library and saw that the series was already seven books long, I was excited to be able to read so much and pretty sure that the series was almost done.  After all, how much longer than seven books can a series get?  Apparently seven books and sixteen years longer.

I devoured the first seven books and it wasn't long after that that the eighth book came out.  But there was no end in sight and it was two more years before book nine was published.  When I finally read it, I kept coming across major supporting characters who I had completely forgotten, and there was still no telling how many more books the series would last.  It was then that I decided that I would not read another book of The Wheel of Time until the series was complete, and then I would go back to the beginning and read it from start to finish.

Over the years I began to lose interest, remembering more of the bad than the good.  I wasn't sure if I really wanted to read those thousands and thousands of pages, especially since I could just go to Wikipedia and read a synopsis on how it all ended.  It was looking more and more likely that my relationship with these books was over and done with.

But then I became a fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, which led me to read several of Brandon Sanderson's books.  I'm not sure when it was that it finally clicked with me that it was Sanderson who had been chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series after Jordan's death in 2007, but his involvement in the final three books gave me a new interest in the series.  And then I realized that the library had all fourteen novels available as audio books.  So late last summer, I began my trek through all fourteen books* and I was quickly reminded of why I liked the books so much when I was younger and why I stopped reading.

*There is a prequel novel that I have not read.  As of right now, I have no plans to read it.

Robert Jordan is amazing at world-building.  Each different country our heroes visit is unique.  The countries each have their own cultures, governments, way of speaking, style of clothing, and even worldviews.  The smaller countries live in fear of or have uneasy alliances with the larger ones.  Then there are the groups of people that are not tied to geography.  You have the pacifist, nomadic Tinkers, the militant, almost religious order of the Children of the Light, and the women who can use magic (called channeling) known as the Aes Sedai.  Each culture views the Aes Sedai differently.  Some give them high honor, others a wary respect, while others try to pretend they don't exist.  One nation believes they are dangerous creatures who need to be tamed while the Children of the Light see them as witches who must be eradicated.  Each new culture Jordan introduces brings a new facet to his world and added complexity.

The world is populated with fascinating characters, and Jordan is good at giving each of them a unique voice.  And each character's view on a given situation is perfectly natural, even when it is at odds with the others in the room.  We'll get a chapter from Mat's point of view, and it's perfectly reasonable when he looks at Egwene and thinks she's getting too full of herself.  And we empathize with Mat when he thinks someone should take her down a peg or two for her own good.  But then we get the chapter from Egwene's point of view, and everything she's doing becomes perfectly reasonable and Mat is just a wool-headed idiot.  And so we empathize with Egwene when she thinks someone needs to knock some sense into Mat.  Jordan even manages to get us to empathize with the villains as we root for them to be taken down.

The magic system really works and Jordan does a good job keeping to the rules and making things believable within the world he set up.And the idea that channeling is safe for women but will lead to insanity in men is an interesting change of pace.

And the story is huge, growing bigger and bigger with each book.  There are emotional highs and lows as the best and worst of humanity are on display.  And the climax is gigantic.  The final battle takes up most of the final book and does not disappoint.  The Wheel of Time has replaced The Lord of the Rings as the standard by which all other epic fantasy will be measured.

Unfortunately, it is also the poster child for epic fantasy bloat.  While the first three books focus almost exclusively on the four main characters of Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene, book four starts the trend of focusing more and more on supporting characters.  By book six, there are so many different point of view characters that it's impossible to keep them straight without close attention to detail.  Sure, most of these are not even a full chapter in length, but all too often they left me wondering, "How important is this person?  Should I recognize her?  Do I need to remember him for later?"*  And at times it feels like Jordan is getting so wrapped up in his subplots that he doesn't have time for some of the main characters.  This leads to whole books where one of the big four is barely there or even absent altogether.  By book eight it feels as if the big four are reduced to supporting characters.

*One of the downsides I've noticed from listening to audio books as opposed to reading with my eyes is that I find it more difficult to keep track of characters.  When I read, I not only have the sound of the character's name in my head, but I also get the visual reinforcement of the combination of letters on the page that make up the character's name.  It's also much easier to flip back a couple chapters to see if character X is the person they were talking to back at the inn or the person who tried to sell them apples.

While Jordan is good at world building and characterization, I find him wanting when it comes to story structure.  I am a firm believer that each book in a series must have a beginning, middle, and end.  This does not mean that every book must stand on its own.  It should, however, present a problem in the early chapters to our heroes, and by the end of the book the heroes either succeed in completing their task or fail decisively so that they have to try something else in the next book.*  It starts out well enough, but as the series progresses, definitive endings become more and more rare.  Sub-plots are given a handful of chapters then are abandoned until the next book where they are picked up again as if it was still the same book.  One book serves only to set up the next book.  Another book is little more than people from all around the world reacting to the events at the end of the previous book.  I found it maddening to reach the end of a 200,000-300,000 word book only to realize that nothing was accomplished and I'll have to wait for the next book to see any kind of forward momentum.  This led to many of the middle books having little to no identity in and of themselves.**  I wonder if Jordan would have been better served to follow the Terry Brooks model in The Heritage of Shannara.  In that series, Brooks has three main characters, but instead of cutting back and forth between the characters throughout the series, book one focuses on Par (and Coll), book two on Walker Boh, and book three on Wren.  It's not until the fourth and final book that Brooks starts liberally bouncing back and forth between his main characters.  Two plot-lines I think really would have benefited from this treatment are the search for the Bowl of Winds and the Perrin-Faile-Shaido plot-line.

*Here's what I'm talking about, looking at the six-book structure of The Lord of the Rings.
Book I - Frodo inherits the Ring.  After learning of its power and the danger he is in, he takes it to Elrond in Rivendell.
Book II - The Council of Elrond determine the Ring must be destroyed.  Frodo, along with the Fellowship, takes the Ring south.  The Fellowship is broken and Frodo sets out with only Sam as his companion.
Book III - The remnants of the Fellowship join with the people of Rohan and the Ents to defeat Saruman and his army.
Book IV - Frodo and Sam take Gollum as their guide.  He takes them to the borders of Mordor, but betrays them.  Frodo is stung and Sam takes the Ring.  Frodo lives!
Book V - The remaining members of the Fellowship rally forces to defend Minas Tirith.  They are successful.  They make a desperate assault on Mordor to try to buy as much time as possible for Frodo.
Book VI - Sam rescues Frodo and they journey into Mordor.  The Ring is destroyed.  Peace is restored in Gondor and the Shire.  Everyone says goodbye.

**It also doesn't help that the book titles don't often have much to say about what is in their respective books.  "The Shadow Rising" sounds great as a title, but it's not terribly indicative of what's actually in the pages of the book.  And "The Shadow Rising" would be just as appropriate a title for just about any of the other books.

From what I've read about his process, Robert Jordan was very much a discovery writer.  This means he did very little planning ahead but let the story develop as he wrote it.  This method of writing is perfectly acceptable, but it can be very dangerous for a long series like The Wheel of Time.  The author can get sidetracked going down narrative rabbit trails.  While it broadens the scope of the story, it can also just as easily cause the story to lose focus.  Too often I felt like a sub-plot wasn't adding anything to the larger narrative, nor did it seem like it was going anywhere.

While there are many great characters in the books, at times I felt that there were too many strong characters.  Everyone was squabbling for supremacy.  While I understand the very human nature to ask, "What do I get out of it?" and try to end up with the biggest piece of pie, I got frustrated with so many of the characters refusing to work together, especially with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

I may have more thoughts later, but it's getting late and this post is already long enough.  There are no beginnings or endings with the Wheel of Time, but this is an ending.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Musings on Christmas Songs

With the Christmas season upon us, it is impossible to go anywhere without being inundated with Christmas songs.  I have also noticed that different places will play a different selection of Christmas songs which got me thinking that most Christmas songs can be placed into one of four basic categories.

1 – Jesus Songs
These are the songs about Jesus and His birth.  This includes the classic Christmas carols like “Away in a Manger” or “Angels We Have Heard on High” as well as some of the more recent Christmas songs like “Mary, Did You Know?” or “Welcome to Our World.”  This category also includes religious Christmas songs that don’t mention Jesus directly, such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”

2 – Santa Claus Songs
These are songs about Santa Claus.  This includes songs that are directly about Santa like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” or “Hooray for Santy Claus” as well as the songs more tangentially related to Santa Clause like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”  This category also includes songs that are about Christmas-y characters like “Frosty the Snowman” or the songs from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  They may have nothing to do with Santa, but they are very similar in tone to the ones specifically about Santa.  When in doubt, if the song is aimed at kids, it belongs in this category.

[Edit: December 17
This category also includes songs that deal with magical occurrences during the Christmas season.]

3 – Christmas Season Songs
These are songs about celebrating the Christmas season.  This includes songs like “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Common themes of these songs include giving gifts, spending time with loved ones, and wishing good will to our fellow man.  This is also a bit of a catch-all category in that if the Christmas song in question doesn’t really fit with the other three then it goes in here.

4 – Winter Songs
These are songs that are considered Christmas songs but really have nothing to do with Christmas but are instead about the weather around Christmastime as experienced in the states north of the Mason-Dixon line.  This includes songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”  I go back and forth as to whether these songs really form a category all their own or if they are really a very large subset of the Christmas Season songs.

There are some songs that could be considered hybrids of two categories.  “The Christmas Shoes” mentions Jesus specifically, and is written from a Christian perspective, so that would put it in with the Jesus Songs, but the story of the song is about buying presents and showing goodwill to your fellow man, which puts it squarely in with the Christmas Season Songs.  “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is a fun one because the category it belongs in depends on whose perspective we’re using.  If we’re going by the perspective of the child singing the song, it’s a Santa Claus song since it’s about Mommy kissing the real Santa Claus and for some reason Daddy is nowhere to be found.  If, however, we look at it from the perspective of what’s really going on, it belongs in the Christmas Season category since it’s about a Christmas party where Daddy has dressed up as Santa Claus and is using the mistletoe as an excuse to snog Mommy (or vice versa).

Is there an important category that I’ve overlooked?  Are you wondering in which group a particular Christmas song belongs?  Comment away.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Musings on Characters: The Little Mermaid

I am currently in the middle of a two weekend run of The Little Mermaid Jr., a shortened version of the Broadway musical based on the Disney movie (loosely adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale).  The songs are loads of fun but I have come to realize that the Disney version of the story is filled with characters who are either lousy people or lousy at their jobs.

Spoilers for the five people out there who haven't seen the movie or are unfamiliar with the story.

Ariel is the worst Disney princess ever.  She is selfish, irresponsible, and has no regard for authority.  The second scene in both the movie and the show features a concert in which Ariel will make her big singing debut.  And yet, when the time comes for her big entrance, she is nowhere to be found.  She is too busy looking for human stuff to bother with trivial things like concerts (or rehearsals).  And it's not as if she made the choice not to go - she simply forgot.  This shows wanton disregard for Sebastian as her director, her sisters as her fellow performers, and all the merfolk who came to the concert hoping to hear her sing.  When she makes the selfish decision to become human, she does it without thinking about her family who just might worry about where she is when she suddenly disappears.  When King Triton makes rules about not venturing to the surface, he is doing so with good reason.  In the first minute of the movie three dolphins and a seagull are almost run over by a ship manned by sailors who are hauling a net full of fish onto the deck.  These are dangers Triton is trying to keep his people safe from, but every time he tries to enforce these rules on Ariel, she busts out with the "You're so unfair!" language.  And apparently the only qualification for being the love of her life is to be really handsome.

In the musical, Prince Eric's father is dead, and yet he is continually avoiding taking up the crown, much to the chagrin of his valet, Grimsby (who may be the only truly respectable person in the entire cast of characters).  Instead, Eric spends his time roaming the seas, actively thwarting Grimsby's attempts to provide the kingdom with a king, a queen, and a subsequent heir.

As bad as Ariel's decision is to trade her voice to become human, it is King Triton who makes the worst decision in the story.  He surrenders his power to the witch Ursula in order to save his daughter.  This is the WRONG decision.  As king, his first responsibility is to his kingdom and his subjects.  Delivering them into the hands of a power hungry woman who wants to dominate everything in the ocean is not in their best interests.  And it's not as if Ariel is his only child and heir; he has six other daughters, all of whom are older than Ariel, and therefore presumably higher up in the line of succession.

Triton is lucky Ursula was even worse than he was as ruler of the seas.  Sure she's really good when it comes to manipulating and conniving, but when she finally gets all the power she wants, her reign of terror lasts about five minutes before she loses control of her powers and is undone.

Sebastian is a terrible director.  Not only does he persist in crafting a concert around a singer who consistently misses rehearsal, but he is so incompetent that he starts the concert without knowing whether or not his star is even in the building.  Ariel's sisters are just as bad.  Could even one of them take the time to remind Ariel of when the concert is and then check in with her right before it all starts?

Even Chef Louis is a failure if he can't catch one simple hermit crab that is running around loose in his kitchen.

The more I think about the Disney version of the story, the more I prefer the original ending.  The Little Mermaid makes the bad decision to give up her voice to get legs to try and woo her prince.  But he ends up choosing someone else.  The Little Mermaid is doomed to die when the sun sets.  But her sisters show up at the last moment to give her an out: if she kills the prince, letting his blood spill on her feet, she will turn back into a mermaid.  But this time she makes the right decision and spares the prince and as a result dies.  It's tragic, especially since she dies directly as a result of making a good choice, but it shows that choices have consequences, while the Disney version has Ariel getting everything she wanted even though she consistently makes the wrong choice.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I went to a midnight showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and thoughts about the film have been rolling around in my head ever since.  I don't think I can call this a review of the film (though I did really like it and encourage everyone to go see it).  Instead it will be more musing on the process of adapting a work that has been much on my mind over the past several months.  There will be plenty of spoilers for both the movie and the book.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the text actually made it into the movie.  Peter Jackson gives us most of the "Good morning" scene from the first chapter of the book.  The movie trolls are very similar to those in the book.  We get the "Chip the glasses" song.  Half the riddles made it into the movie and all were unaltered from Tolkien's prose.  Bilbo loses his waistcoat buttons (though in a slightly different way).  The goblins call Orcrist and Glamdring "Biter" and "Beater."  And we even got Bilbo saying, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."  All of these gave me a thrill of happiness when I saw them.  (Though I was disappointed but not surprised that both the talking purse and the "Tra-la-la-lally" song did not make it into the movie.)

Of course the problem with Peter Jackson putting so much of the book into the film is that it makes for a really long running time.  There were many times that I felt I was watching the extended edition of the movie instead of the theatrical edit, especially in the first act.  Jackson opens with a fun scene of old Bilbo reminiscing about his past as he prepares for his eleventy-first birthday party.  While it was a fun treat seeing Ian Holm and Elijah Wood again, the scene went on far too long and added nothing to the narrative other than saying, "This is a prequel, not a sequel."  Then the Unexpected Party happens, and it also goes on longer than it needs to.  It never stopped being entertaining for me, but it could have covered the same narrative purpose and had the same emotional impact at half the length.  In the extended edition of Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo finally heads out on his journey about an hour into the film.  I wasn't paying attention to the running time, but it felt like at least 45 minutes until Bilbo finally leaves Bag End.  With so much narrative ground left to cover, I felt it was a misuse of the limited running time to give so much of it to the opening scenes that could have all been told more efficiently.  The longer edits should have been saved for the extended edition.

In many ways, the pacing felt more like Jackson's King Kong than the Lord of the Rings films.  In Lord of the Rings, there was so much story he had to tell that he was forced to be as efficient as possible.  So even though the movies were all really long, they never felt long because of the fast pace.  On the flip side, there was much less story to tell in King Kong, so he was able to fill it with all the extended action scenes he wanted.  While it never got dull and only the dinosaur stampede scene seemed gratuitous or overlong, the movie had a bloated feel that could have been alleviated by tightening up the scenes by shaving a minute here, two minutes there, to reduce the whole running time by half an hour.  The Hobbit could have used more fat trimming.

The idea of making Azog a major villain almost works for me.  In the books he plays a pivotal role in the Battle of Azanulbizar, and his son, Bolg, is the leader of the goblins in the Battle of Five Armies.  Conflating the two characters is something I don't have a problem with.  What I didn't like was him tracking them across Middle Earth.  It involves creating scenes that are nowhere to be found in the book, nor do they fit in alongside what is in the book.  (And the shot of him being held back by his minions in the Battle of Azanulbizar was so out of keeping of my vision of goblins that it completely threw me out of the movie.)  He is serving a similar role to that of Lurtz in Fellowship of the Ring.  Lurtz was not in the book, but was added to give more drama to the climax of Fellowship.  (And his death is one of the most satisfying decapitations I've seen.)  But Lurtz was inserted more organically.  There was already a group of orcs trying the find the fellowship and a showdown between Aragorn and an orc captain made a lot of sense.  But the showdown between Thorin and Azog was a forced attempt at turning a scene that ends in a deus ex machina (or eucatastrophe if you prefer) into a more satisfying climax.  If Thorin had defeated Azog I might have felt different, but as it stands, I felt like there wasn't much of an ending to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I think the biggest flaw of the film is its structure.  In my previous post I said I would end the first film with the battle with the spiders.  The reason I chose that as my climax is because it is the first time that Bilbo really takes charge and becomes both a leader and an action hero.  Also, it's the first point in the story that I felt was worthy of being the climax to a movie as being rescued by someone else doesn't make for a compelling climax.  After seeing the ending of the movie, I am more convinced that I was right.  They tried valiantly to make their climax work but too much of it just seemed forced.  And my big worry is that making Bilbo be more proactive here will give his battle with the spiders less of an impact.  And Thorin's "I didn't like you but now I do" speech was cheesy and too close to his powerful deathbed scene.  I'm afraid when that scene comes in the third movie it will have less of an impact because of the climax of this movie.

But the structure issues go beyond the misplaced climax.  There was an awful lot of setup in this movie, so much so that it felt less like a contained movie and more like part one of three.  The second scene in the film is a flashback to the destruction of Erebor by Smaug, which delays even longer our introduction to Martin Freeman as young Bilbo.  That could have been moved to later in the movie, doing what the animated film did and putting the flashback footage on top of the dwarves singing their song.  That could have been really powerful, would have given us more of that awesome song, and could have kept the beginning tighter and less information-logged.  And while it was cool that they incorporated the flashback to the Battle of Azanulbizar, it came so late in the film that I found myself wishing that they had moved it to another film.  After all, the three Lord of the Rings films all start with some kind of flashback, and I think the Battle of Azanulbizar could have made a wonderful opening flashback.  Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite of the Lord of the Rings movies largely because it has a tighter, more streamlined narrative.  I have a feeling An Unexpected Journey is going to be my least favorite of the Hobbit movies because it is too concerned with the movies that will come later.

A few random thoughts:
When Bilbo had trouble pulling the dagger soon to be known as Sting from the head of the warg, was I the only person to think, "Who so pulleth out this sword of this skull is righwise born king of Middle Earth"?
Why are all the goblins CG?
The chin bag on the Great Goblin is disgusting.
When they showed Thror succumbing to dragon sickness, I half expected him to start turning into a dragon (and becoming Smaug) much like Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader or Fafnir in Norse mythology.  (And possibly the dragon in Beowulf.)
Bilbo and a goblin fall down a crevasse.  The goblin suffers serious injury.  Bilbo is largely unharmed.  The dwarves are also unharmed by their large tumble (and getting squashed by the Great Goblin's body).  Mythbusters would like to have a word with you, Peter Jackson.
While the inclusion of the stone giants was cool, the sequence was overblown and added nothing to the narrative.  It is as useless and contrived a scene as the "Nobody tosses a dwarf" sequence in Fellowship.
I was hoping Glorfindel would make a cameo in Rivendell.  Oh well.  There's still hope he'll show up in the later movies.

I've spent much of this post bagging on the movie, but I really liked it and there were lots of things they did really well.  I think my favorite scene was the Riddles in the Dark scene.  It is the longest scene in the movie and yet I didn't want it to end.  Smeagol has never been cuter and Gollum never as nasty.  However, Bilbo's mercy scene would have been more powerful had not Gandalf practically told Bilbo, "Don't kill Gollum when you meet him," way back at the beginning of the film.  I also liked that they were able to keep things light, unafraid to occasionally go silly with the dwarves.  After all, Tolkien does that all through the book.  The dwarves' song is amazing and I liked that it wove a spell on Bilbo similar to how it happens in the book.  The scene of Radagast spying out Dol Guldur was well done and provided a nice contrast for the character, showing him in a more competent and less silly light.  Martin Freeman was excellent as Bilbo.  I was already a fan before this movie, and when I heard he had been cast as Bilbo I thought it was a fabulous choice, but I liked him even more than I was expecting.  I also liked how they played with the Took/Baggins dichotomy.  This is a big theme in the book, but I was unsure if it would get any lip service in the film since it's largely an internal conflict.  I'm glad they're doing something with it.  And while I have serious problems with the end of the film, I really liked the moment when Bilbo pledges to help the dwarves get their home back.  I am very pleased they only showed glimpses of Smaug, saving the big reveal for later.  (I'm hoping we don't get a full look at him until Bilbo has his conversation with Smaug.)  Smaug being covered up by the treasure was a nice visual touch.  And of course it is a visually sumptuous film.

That's just about everything I have to say right now.  I'm sure I'll have more to say once I see it a few more times, and my opinions are likely to change after more viewings allow me to better divorce the movie from the book, judging it on its own merits.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Musings on Tolkien: The Hobbit Trilogy and How I Would Do It

Peter Jackson announced that what was originally going to be two Hobbit movies would be expanded into a full-fledged trilogy because he had so much footage.  As of this writing, I haven't heard anything about how he plans to organize the material and structure his three movies.  But looking at all the material he wants to or might include in his movies, this is how I would structure the three films.

The first movie focuses largely on Bilbo.  He is in all but one or two scenes.  Movie one also lays the groundwork for the White Council storyline.  The climax is the fight with the spiders in Mirkwood and ends with Bilbo and the dwarves getting captured by the elves.

The bulk of the second movie covers the White Council storyline.  Gandalf and company expel the Necromancer from Mirkwood.  This is the big climax of the second film.  Meanwhile, Bilbo breaks the dwarves out of prison and they escape down the river in barrels.  There might have to be some contrived set pieces added to this sequence to flesh it out.  Plenty of time is spent in Lake-town, convincing the residents of Lake-town to help our band of adventurers.  This gives plenty of opportunity to introduce Bard the Bowman as a major character and offers ample screentime to Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town.  It ends with Bilbo and the dwarves heading off the the Lonely Mountain.

The third movie focuses on two major set pieces: Bilbo's conversation with Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies.  This allows for plenty of screentime to be devoted to the politics that lead up to the battle and Thorin's case of dragon fever.  The movie opens with a flashback to the battle of Azanulbizar.  The movie ends with Bilbo saying, "Thank goodness."

Possible titles for the three movies: The Fellowship of the Burglar, The Two Fortresses, and The Return of the King Under the Mountain.

The big problem I see with this structure is that movie two has very little of Bilbo.  However, the book states that Gandalf is "finishing up" his business with the Necromancer as Bilbo and the dwarves are floating down the river in and on barrels, so the chronology works pretty well.

Of course, if I was in charge, there wouldn't even be three movies.  I would try to do the whole thing in one movie, sticking to the material in the book and ignoring the material in the Appendices and other works.  Hopefully I could get the run time down to about two hours and get a PG rating.  After all, it's a children's book, which means it should be a children's movie.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Musings on Tolkien: The Hobbit Movie and How I Would Do It

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies are excellent, and it seemed like only a matter of time before he directed a movie version of The Hobbit.  However, there are some problems with the source material that make it difficult to just jump right into The Hobbit with the same vim and verve as the Lord of the Rings movies.  For one, the books are very different.  The Hobbit is a children's book; a faerie story with a light-hearted tone, plenty of humor, and songs that help carry the plot.  (You could even argue that The Hobbit is a musical in book form.)  The Lord of the Rings by contrast, is a much more serious and darker book with a more adult audience in mind and is considered the first modern fantasy novel.  By going back and doing The Hobbit second as a prequel, the difference in tone and content between the books causes a serious problem.  If Peter Jackson goes with the epic qualities of his Lord of the Rings movies, it can come across as a betrayal of the source material.  However, if he treats The Hobbit like the children's book it is, he'll end up with a movie that is out of step with the ones he's already made.  And that doesn't even take into account how Tolkien's concept of the One Ring changed: in The Hobbit it's just Bilbo's magic ring while in The Lord of the Rings it's the most powerful instrument of evil in Middle Earth.  These are problems that Peter Jackson is going to have to work out and I'm sure he'll do a fine job.  But this is how I would tackle the problem.


Sam Gamgee settles down in his armchair to smoke his evening pipe.  His children crowd around him.

ELANOR: Daddy!  Tell us a story!

SAM: Would you like to hear the story about how Mister Frodo and I journeyed to Mordor to destroy the Ring?

ROSE: You always tell us that one!

GOLDILOCKS: Tell us a different story!

SAM: Well, have I ever told you the story of how Old Mister Bilbo went on an adventure and found the Ring?

HAMFAST: No you haven't.

DAISY: Tell us that one, Daddy!

Sam picks up a large red book and opens it to the first pages.

SAM: (reading) In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...



Bilbo Baggins sits on the front porch of Bag End, blowing smoke rings.

This opening scene serves multiple purposes.  It ties The Hobbit in with The Lord of the Rings, establishing this as a prequel.  But since it is framed as Sam telling the story to his kids, it allows for The Hobbit to be more of a children's movie.  The book takes a very pro-Bilbo stance, treating the Thorin and Company as a bumbling band of misfits.  If Sam were narrating the movie, it would only make sense for him to build up Bilbo as one of the most famousest of hobbits and the only one with any real amount of common sense.  The narrator of The Hobbit has several good lines and making Sam the narrator would help get those lines into the movie.  And it could also provide a means to address some of the inconsistencies between the books as the children could interrupt Sam's story on several occasions, much like Fred Savage does in The Princess Bride.  Sam could then provide an explanation for the differences, he could essentially say, "Shut up.  I'm telling a story," or he could even say, "That's how Mister Bilbo wrote it and so that's how I'm telling it," which would be a sly way of shoving the blame back on Tolkien.  And I think Tolkien would approve of this approach because he was obsessed with framing narratives.  Of course I would have to restrain myself from inserting a scene right after the "Tra-la-la-lally" song in which one of the kids asks, "Is this a singing book?"

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Top 5 First Lines

It's been a while since I've done a top 5 list, so I decided to dust it off and give it another go.  These are my five favorite opening lines from the books and short stories that I've read.  I've probably forgotten something brilliant from Dr. Seuss or another semi-forgotten children's author, but these are the five that came most readily to mind.  In chronological order:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The Bible

Marley was dead: to begin with.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

William Shakespeare, later known as the Beard of Avon, was born in 1564, on April 21, 22, or 23, and all his life kept people guessing.
Twisted Tales from Shakespeare by Richard Armour

Feel free to psychoanalyze me in the comments section for what my choices say about my deepest fears or other nonsense.