Category Archives: Reading

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy Good?

 

Contestant: I’ll take Geek Controversies for $500, Alex.

Alex Trebek: A Smaug-sized question of cinematic taste to tongue-tie any dwarven fellowship of thirteen or less at one’s local ComicCon.

Contestant: Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good?

Alex Trebek: Yes, well done. You are now in the lead.

The Hobbit

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good? Now there’s a hobbit-hole-burner for the ages, and the deeper you’ve burrowed into the gentle slope of Bungo’s figurative Hill, the more fervent your opinion is likely to be. While it’s less fashionable to impinge on the honor of Jackson’s near-hallowed Lord of the Rings trilogy, a plurality of fans have been giving The Hobbit films the side-eye since the first installment premiered. For many, those side-eyes turned to full-fledged eye-rolls by the time the credits faded on the final film two years later.

I prefer to shift to a slightly different but closely related question: was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy a good adaptation? Note that this is different than asking if it’s a faithful adaptation; as many have observed, a faithful adaption would have been… well, much shorter, it’s safe to say. It seems clear to me that Jackson wasn’t so much interested in faithfully adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel as reimagining it as an epic precursor to Lord of the Rings. I doubt there will be many dissenters to that. After all, Tolkien didn’t have the later events clearly established in his mind when he wrote The Hobbit, so the two works aren’t quite as much of the same piece as Jackson might have preferred.

Despite that, were The Hobbit films a good adaptation?

And now we get to the part where there will be more dissention. Deciding whether the films are good adaptations requires you to decide a few things about the original novel. If you have come to the conclusion that Tolkien’s novel is an untouchable classic, one of the high water marks of English literature—nay, of all literature anywhere—then the films must by definition fall short, because even the most charitable reviewer must acknowledge that the films are merely good films, not the high water mark of cinema.

But I’m not sure the book is all that and a bag of lembas bread. (I bet you didn’t know it came in bags.) Don’t get me wrong; I love the book. I have very fond memories of it, going back to my Grade Five year when our teacher guided us through the story chapter by chapter. I’ve read it several times since, and enjoyed each successive re-read.

The thing is, like many books written a long time ago, I’m not sure this book is good by current (modern) standards. Which is certainly not a problem for the book itself, because it must be judged according to its context, and The Hobbit is revolutionary in context with everything that was going on contemporaneous with its release.

But Tolkien makes some rather strange literary choices. Some might go so far as to unkindly call them shortcuts.

Let’s cast an analytic eye to the book’s structure. Bilbo Baggins is the central figure, the eponymous character, the dominating point of view for most of the novel, to the point of eclipsing the other characters with him. You’ve got Gandalf (who disappears midway through and returns only for a cameo at the end), you’ve got Thorin Oakenshield, you’ve got Fili and Kili… and as for the rest of the company (there are 15 of them in total), they are hardly mentioned.

Peter Jackson rightly points out in the supplementary materials that while this can work in literary terms, it’s impossible in filmic terms.

Not to sound too much the Jackson apologist, but he really had no choice but to flesh out the other dwarves as fully as he could, constrained by the fact that the dwarves really aren’t important; they don’t contribute much, and they don’t exert influence on the plot. They seem to have been inserted by Tolkien to serve as a bit of poetry, a literary grace note.

Tolkien was a minimalist. If a character didn’t significantly further the story, he all but erased them from the narrative. Gandalf is important, but the moment he’s not, he’s off to Mirkwood and out of sight; Thorin is a tragic figure, slouching toward his eventual demise (and redemption); and Fili and Kili are likewise destined for death. Sure, there’s Elrond and Gollum and Beorn and Smaug. They serve their purpose and exeunt stage left.

The movie can’t get away with this, so perhaps it overcorrects. Jackson gives us a bustling Hobbiton full of memorable characters. All thirteen dwarves are painted larger than life and given distinctive traits, running gags, and backstories. The small role of Radagast is writ large. Galadriel joins the fun in Rivendell, perhaps unnecessarily—and Saruman, too. The Goblin King wrests the spotlight from our heroes for an extended musical sequence (in fairness, this probably hews closely to Tolkien’s intent). We get a resplendent and scene-stealing Thranduil. Oh look, there’s Legolas! And now an all-new elven maiden named Tauriel who gets an awful lot of screen time. There’s Azog and Bolg, footnotes in the book but major villains fighting for relevance and attention on the big screen. Once we get to Lake-town, whose denizens barely register on the page, we get a host of named characters who demand motivations and personalities on their own. Did I mention Sauron, glaring at us all the while? At last, Dain rides over the hill in undercooked (overcooked?) computer-generated glory.

The oddest of Tolkien’s literary choices/shortcuts is the fact that the entire climactic battle, around which Jackson created a whole movie of its own, is played out in a few pages of exposition, told to Bilbo after he is knocked out in the opening frame. This is the best example of Tolkien getting away with something that no author today could get away with. Some would charitably call it a quirk.

My thesis is basically that Jackson didn’t have a choice but to flesh this all out. I suppose he could have fleshed it out a bit less comprehensively, and delivered two films instead of three. Maybe Galadriel and Saruman stay on the sidelines. Maybe you don’t bother to show Gandalf’s investigation of Sauron. Maybe you resist the urge to bring back Legolas. Maybe you leave out Tauriel and just accept the fact that this movie has no women in it. Maybe Lake-town gets limited only to Bard. Perhaps the extra dwarves are reduced to window dressing.

I contend that several of these choices would have been very bad choices indeed, and every fan is going to pick and choose which of them were most and least essential. Essentially Jackson didn’t pick and choose; he expanded everything, leaving on stone unturned. I don’t think it’s in Jackson’s DNA to do things halfway, and I don’t really blame him for that. (Granted, others do.)

In short, Jackson turned Tolkien’s one-man play into a 50-man ensemble, thus entirely changing the character of the story. But my god, if The Hobbit had been filmed in the same manner it was written, it would almost certainly have been the most baffling film of the modern era.

So the movie is different than the book, a wildly different experience. Is it better? No. But if you’re dead-set on adapting a strange, nigh unadaptable story like The Hobbit, you could do a lot worse. Peter Jackson didn’t give us great movies, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he gave us serviceable ones that at least hold together and stay consistent with his previous work.

And if you can’t have greatness, consistency is a pretty good consolation prize.

Magical Realism: Where Fantasy and Literary Fiction Meet

When most people hear magical realism, they immediately think of Gabriel García Márquez and his book One Hundred Years of Solitude. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Márquez tells the story of the fictional town of Macondo and the generations of families that live there. It includes people coming back from the dead, a plague of insomnia, and thunderstorms of yellow flowers. If not Márquez, many know of contemporary writer Isabel Allende, arguably the most popular current writer of magical realism. But, some well-known books, authors, and movies also fit into the magical realism category – ones you might not expect. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami have all written magical realism. Movies like The Green Mile, Chocolat (as well as the book by the same name by Joanne Harris) and Big Fish (also a book by Daniel Wallace) can be grouped in the genre as well as the TV series The Leftovers on HBO. Books like Life of Pi, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Lovely Bones, and 11/22/63 can also fit into the genre of magical realism.

Then what is magical realism exactly? Is it fantasy? Literary fiction? The simple definition of magical realism is when a story is set in the real world, but the people in the world accept that some magical elements exist – when magical elements are a natural part of the world as we know it and are accepted as such. Stories in this genre may include retellings of fables and cultural myths to bring them back into contemporary social relevance, such as the book The Alchemist. Latin American writer Alejo Carpentier coined the phrase “lo real maravilloso” or “the marvelous real,” but Maggie Bowers is often credited as the originator of Latin American Realism, from which all magical realism stems.

When considering the definition, it becomes clear just how broad and inclusive magical realism really is. It’s also a genre that tends to overlap with other genres. Many books in the magical realism genre are also part of other genres, usually literary fiction and fantasy. There aren’t very many set rules as to what makes a book magical realism, but there are a few.

One of the rules or exclusions of magical realism is surrealism, a different genre that has more to do with psychology and the mind. Magical realism deals with the material, tangible world. Another widely accepted rule of magical realism is that the story takes place in the world as we know it, and the characters have the same needs and limitations as we do. This differs from fantasy where the setting is typically a far-away land and magic is wide-spread and known, and tends to be a power that comes from within. Magical realism simply adds a magical element into the story, such as a man with giant wings (“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez) or an epidemic makes an entire city go suddenly blind (Blindness by José Saramago).

Magical realism presents a very interesting opportunity for literary fiction and fantasy authors. Authors can enjoy a blending of both worlds by creating a playful and unorthodox story that sparks readers’ imaginations.

Recommended reading to examine magical realism in different cultures:

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  2. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
  3. Blindness by José Saramago
  4. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
  5. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

You Had Me at Nitrogen Pentoxide

A guest post by Jacqui Talbot

When I was ten, my uncle gave me a chemistry set, and with my first successful experiment, I was hooked.

There were a few less successful endeavors.

Like the time I decided to make a homemade stink bomb. Nothing too difficult. Just cut the heads off some matches and stick them in a bottle with some ammonia. Give it a swirl and then leave it for 3-4 days. Et voila! A perfect tool with which to prank my older siblings.

UntitledThat is, of course unless a certain person—who shall remain nameless—decided to alter the recipe for maximum stench, and then forgot about it, leaving the bottle in a kitchen cupboard for two weeks during one of the hottest summers on record. And if that nameless (and blameless) child’s stepmother happened upon said bottle, gave it a little shake, and then opened it…. You get the picture. I was grounded for a month and the kitchen was uninhabitable for almost that long.

And then there was the incident with that batch of super-charged homemade gunpowder. (I was trying to make my own fireworks and wound up losing the porch and my eyebrows in at the same time.)

The point is that I have two great loves in my life: chemistry and the written word.

Untitled2So, as you can imagine, when I discovered Alan Bradleys’ intrepid protagonist, Flavia de Luce, I was entranced. A beguiling cross between Pippi Longstocking and Sherlock Holmes, Flavia is an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry (specifically poisons) and a penchant for crime solving.

You can see why I love this kid.

She stars in seven novels, each one told in first person with some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read. To say that Bradley has a way with words is like saying Michelangelo was handy with a paintbrush. The way he crafts the language is mind-blowing. Here’s the first line of the fourth book in the series: I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS:

“Tendrils of raw fog floated up from the ice like agonized spirits departing their bodies. The cold air was a hazy, writhing mist.

Up and down the long gallery I flew, the silver blades of my skates making the sad scraping sound of a butcher’s knife being sharpened energetically on stone.”

*Sigh* See what I mean?

If Flavia sounds like a character you want to meet, I recommend starting with book one in the series, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE:

Untitled3Reading one of Bradley’s books is like diving into a soft bed covered in silk sheets and down comforters. It’s like a hot bubble bath after a long day’s work.

Just be careful when you dive in. Because when it comes to Flavia, you never know what lurks beneath.

But when it comes to memorable characters, that’s not really a bad thing, is it?

 

About the Author:
Jacqui Talbot is a book worm, devoted Whovian, and certified fantasy geek. When not pursuing her dream of becoming a full-time writer, she spends her time learning different languages (six and counting) and being a nuclear chemist. Her current projects include SPINNERS, a YA supernatural thriller set on the Choctaw Indian reservation where she grew up, and KARMA AND CHEMISTRY, a MG fantasy adventure featuring a twelve-year-old protagonist who uses science to battle dark magic. 

Pages of Inspiration: Books for Writers

The creative well runs dry. The heart is as desiccated and desolate as a dusty Old West street, because you’re certain your Work in Progress is utter cowflop. You shout into the endless black void, listening mournfully for a few spurious, uncertain echoes. Where can writers go when they need to pour some fire back into their souls? The same place that got us into writing in the first place: Books.

At various points in your life, you’ll encounter books that are like a blessed bowl of warm chicken soup on a wintry day when your nose is crammed with snot and you ache in every bone. You’ll encounter books like the smooth, sweet burn of good whiskey that warms you from the inside. You’ll encounter books like a smart kick in the buttocks from that hot personal trainer.

Allow me to be so bold as to suggest some books for writers that have made an impact on me.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury is a short, sweet blast of poetic inspiration. Bradbury was a consummate master storyteller, and being able play with techniques he’s used to cultivate the creative soul is incredibly valuable. This book is less a nuts-and-bolts how-to than techniques for cultivating the creative soul.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a swift little kick in the pants. Each short chapter puts a finger directly onto the throbbing wounds of all the reasons we do not write, all the reasons we hold ourselves back from achieving our potential. The book provides a useful psychological framework for overcoming all of those excuses.

On Writing Horror by the Horror Writers Association is collection of essays from the luminaries of horror fiction. Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell and many others tackle aspects of effective storytelling that go beyond writing horror. Much of this book is simply about writing good fiction, and I still reference various chapters.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a great companion to Stephen King’s book below. Part how-to manual and part memoir, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, every chapter is spot-on. The chapter on first drafts is worth the cover price alone. In fact, I give that chapter to my English composition students as a lesson in how to get past the psychological blocks common to beginning writers.

Few writers can boast the impact that Stephen King has made on American fiction. On Writing is part memoir, part how-to. There are chapters on specific writing and revision techniques, but it’s also a memoir of his writing life. I found great inspiration in his writing life because he talks about the course of his career. Much of it is incredibly familiar, forming parts of every writer’s path. He had the skill, the drive, the support of a partner, caught a couple of lucky breaks, and his career exploded. And if he could do it, so can I. So can you.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron was a life-changing experience for me. This book is a twelve-week program designed to reignite the sparks of a creative person’s soul, whether the person is a writer, graphic artist, musician, etc. It helps examine and reprogram all the ways our creative impulse is squelched–by our own fears, by our families, by the outside pressure of society. If you work through all twelve weeks of this program faithfully, you will experience a sea change in the way you approach writing, the way you approach life. I had already been writing for two decades when this book was given to me by a friend, and I found it so transformative that a few years later I went through all twelve weeks again. It was fascinating to see how much of it I had internalized. And also how far I still had to go. The Artist’s Way treats a creative life as a spiritual journey, making writing into your art, into a way of life, not something you try to do in between your day job, kids and soccer games, and your next session of World of Warcraft.

I hope someday to discover another gem and be as enlightened, invigorated, and inspired as I was when I discovered these books. Everybody needs a shot in the arm sometimes.

About the Author: Travis Heermann

Heermann-6Spirit_cover_smallTravis Heermann’s latest novel Spirit of the Ronin, was published in June, 2015.

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, he is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of Death Wind, The Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Perihelion SF, Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including content for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He lives in New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and a burning desire to claim Hobbiton as his own.

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