In Defense of a “Hobbit” Trilogy

Peter Jackson has made it official, now. The Hobbit will be told through another epic film trilogy in Middle Earth.

For better or worse, I am excited and optimistic about this decision. Most of the internet is rejoicing at the news, but given the smaller, tighter focus of The Hobbit as a book, some are rising up to say the trilogy will feel stretched and boring. Film cynics immediately settled into their favorite act of projecting, stating that the studio “just wants more money.” One or two people have thought themselves exceptionally clever by invoking Bilbo’s quote from Fellowship of the Ring: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Perhaps they will be proven right. The movies aren’t out yet, and anything can happen. But, as an optimist, I refuse to go along with the mourning and bemoaning about this development. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy still is made up of my three favorite movies of all time (heck, I’m watching Fellowship right now).

The man and his creative team sweated blood to respectfully bring the spirit of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to life twelve years ago, and he knew an adaptation of Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain would require the same care and love. I am trusting him to do well with this decision, and I believe him when he says the third movie was motivated not by money or marketing, but by the needs of the story that was coming to life before the camera.

Here’s why I believe him. Tolkien himself once said that his visits to Middle-Earth resulted in “tales that grew in the telling.” Even with Jackson’s films, that was the case with the Extended Edition DVDs, which most Rings fans agree are the superior versions of each movie. Jackson wants to draw on the appendices (published at the end of Return of the King) to supplement Bilbo’s simple adventure story, which he obviously knows doesn’t need three movies by itself. And now that I think about it, my opinion is that three movies are needed, for a simple reason: to immerse viewers in Middle-Earth by showing them a much larger world. Tolkien’s lifetime of work produced a realm that was much more than the adventures of a ragtag group of Dwarves, and later a Fellowship.

No doubt the filmmakers will enjoy even more profits from expanding two films into three, but so what? The richness and depth of Tolkien’s world deserves a better cinematic treatment than a strict, by-the-numbers telling of Bilbo’s side of the story. The films may be part of a trilogy called The Hobbit, but they should show much more than what is seen through Bilbo Baggins’s eyes.

And even if I’m wrong, if the movies are bloated and stretched and Jackson couldn’t quite tell as good a story this time around…well, I would rather have too much of a good thing than too little. Especially when it comes to Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Besides, the more movies Ian Mckellen plays Gandalf in, the better. That’s pretty self-evident.

UPDATE: Here’s an io9 article that helps show why The Hobbit can’t be fully realized in just one movie. If you want to know why Gandalf repeatedly leaves the Dwarves and Bilbo behind, know how the Dwarves started up on this quest in the first place, and have each character become sympathetic and memorable so you actually care about them, the solution is to build your story through multiple films.

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The Reason I Love Speculative Fiction

I do not mean to say other genres suck or are inferior. I mean only to celebrate what I love in my own field, shameless optimist that I am.

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Alternate History. Together, these genres form the pillars of what is called speculative fiction. There can be lots of blending and subgenres that don’t quite belong to any one group (just look at steampunk and dystopia), but together they give an image of worlds that, as far as we know, don’t exist. Yet that’s not all they do. They can accommodate any other theme or motif, perform any other task, that characterizes fiction of other stripes.

Speculative fiction is a field of storytelling that specializes in “What if?” and “Why not?” It probes, challenges, questions, and explores in ways that no other kind of fiction is capable of. Yet it can take whatever has been produced by other sorts of fiction and give it more flavor, more chances for originality and finding what has been overlooked. Science fiction can probe as deeply into human nature as any literary novel you can think of. Alternate history can be as pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, or as romantic as a bodice-ripper from the checkout line. A fantasy can be a murder mystery, or even a slice-of-life tale (though it may be a slice of life from a magic student or an apprentice dragon-breeder).

Admittedly, there is a reputation which says speculative novels are not as introspective or deep or profound as “literary” novels. There are indeed thousands of shallow, hackneyed tales in all three genres, with little thought behind them.

However, one-dimensional stories do not remove the capacity for profundity or depth from any genre. Though fantasy may have its Twilights and Eragons, it also has its Name of the Wind and Song of Ice and Fire. Science fiction may allow The Fifth Element or Transformers into its ranks, but it boasts of  Star Trek, Fahrenheit 451,  and Dune. A million terrible novels could not extinguish even one book that doesn’t just ask “What if?” but also provides the best answer it possibly can.

I think bad fiction is usually bad because of untapped potential. The writer did not squeeze hard enough, or didn’t look in enough shadowy corners, to see what could nourish their characters, story progression, pacing, or anything else writers need to consider about their work. But when they do, they should be recognized for their incredible achievement.

In summary, this is why I love to read and write speculative fiction: It can always find a new place to go, and there’s nothing other fiction does that it cannot do.

What Happens when Pee-Wee Herman Meets Batman…

…is pure hilarity. Jimmy Fallon answers the question everyone and their cousin has asked: “What if Pee-wee Herman dubbed over The Dark Knight Rises?”

My more serious review of the movie is coming soon. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this.

Villains, Punishment, and Fiction

Electric Chair photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I decided to offer some thoughts closely related to another recent post, about how we view evil and punishment in fiction. Generally we are fine with the bad guy getting what he deserves, except in cases when the villain wins for the purposes of the story and the character development. But there is an opinion I’ve seen floating around pockets of the blogosphere that looks at punishment itself as if it is barbarism, even when a fictional character gets his just desserts.

Everyone’s still reeling from the massacre in Aurora, CO. My prayers go to the families and friends of all the victims. I can’t imagine how hard it will be for them to find comfort and acceptance in the face of this indescribable horror. It’s heartbreaking when we hear of another shooting. We have a hard time contemplating the kind of acidic evil it takes to point a gun at a crowd and shoot indiscriminately, a jolt of recoil ending the life of someone’s daughter or son. We recognize a need for the perpetrator to face justice because of their actions.

I have seen and heard of many dark things, and still I cannot picture the kind of monstrous transformation I would have to go through before I did something similar to what James Holmes did. Make no mistake: all of us are capable of such evil. All too often I underestimate the darkness that resides in my heart and think I couldn’t possibly become James Holmes or Charles Manson.

It’s not a question of “Can I?” but “Will I?” There but for the grace of God go I, as the saying goes. Even though we have a conscience and can choose good, the potential for evil is always there. It’s not restricted to sociopaths, the mentally disturbed, or people who subscribe to a different worldview. The key lies with human choice.

And since I think good fiction is true to life, I believe we should integrate that understanding into fiction — the realization that tremendous evil can come from anyone. Maybe that realization is why the notion of punishing others makes some people squeamish. Almost no one wants punishment for a crime to catch up with them, after all. By nature, punishment is rough, hard, and always should be treated as a somber affair. Some people are so perturbed by punishment, they start talking as if it shouldn’t even be delivered.

Even with fictional villains, some don’t like the idea of a villain receiving it. I won’t name names, but I know of three or four specific people (though I am sure there are many others) who have a sneering disdain for “good vs. evil” stories when good curb-stomps evil. As if these stories were crafted to appeal to people with anger management issues. They prefer stories where the ideals of forgiveness and mercy are always going to have the last say; good triumphs over evil by mercy, or diplomatic talk, or using something abstract but attractive (like beauty or decency) to entice someone away from dark intentions. They’re very emotionally disturbed every time the side of good throws a fist.

Or a hammer. I just had to use this photo again.

They think beauty can save the world. They can’t imagine a version of the Joker who isn’t just misunderstood and won’t be wiled away from his anarchy by the right painting or poem. Every bad guy becomes Darth Vader, bad on the outside but with a good streak on the inside that will surely enlighten them in the right circumstances.

To their mind, seeking punishment makes you a vengeful, vindictive, even cruel individual. Even when you honestly look for justice and not petty revenge, they can’t tell the difference. Most likely, a lot of these people don’t know what it really means to be the victim of true evil, never knowing what the need for justice tastes like to someone who has been beaten into the ground. I don’t know what it tastes like, either. I haven’t had to face that kind of darkness just yet. But there is more to punishment than getting even.

This romanticized view of human nature, that evil men surely will listen to diplomacy and kindness, crumbles away when we look at the implacable evils in the real world. I can already hear Alfred Pennyworth’s speech from The Dark Knight:

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

That’s why punishment is needed. That’s why it has a vital place in fiction. Because some men and women can’t be talked out of their depravity and injustice, and will not seek forgiveness. We should forgive them anyway, but forgiveness is not antithetical to ensuring they are punished.

Of course, not every story needs or benefits from villains. Some have their focus elsewhere. Sometimes it is best to show a villain mercy, or gently lead them away from their evil. And sometimes when there is a villain, they get away with everything. We need those stories as well, of course. But we also need to keep seeing villains punished in some stories, to remind us of the need to punish them in real life. If we keep saying “Oh, how sad,” at every single tragedy, and silence the inner cry for a penalty for a senseless and evil act, we will inevitably look for solutions to human evil in the wrong place.

Again, the need for punishment arises out of human choice. Mercy and forgiveness form a beautiful language, one I wish everyone understood and spoke. But some people refuse to learn it.

Visual Inspiration, Again

I took some more photos that you can use as writing prompts if you like. Just a quick little post today. I need to get back to my novel’s revisions quickly. Soon I’ll have more time for something more substantial.

Hope you enjoy the pictures!

 

A Brief Thought on Superheroes, Justice, and Violence

I’ll just come out and say it: I am irritated. Sorry for the grumpiness; it seems I’m going through a phase right now.

The astounding Avengers movie and the mostly “Amazing” Spider-Man reboot are keeping bright tights and larger-than-life heroics on the silver screen, while Christopher Nolan prepares to unleash the conclusion of his masterful Batman trilogy later this month. So, just about every blogger or critic with an opinion is weighing in on heroes, antiheroes, and supervillains.

The reason for my griping, in a nutshell: There is an increasing trend in commentary on superheroes, the trend of ascribing the laws made by (and for) normal humans, and using them to indict comic book characters.

More and more of this commentary looks at classic heroes, no matter how noble or selfless, with a suspicious and sour eye. It’s starting to sound like the prologue from Pixar’s The Incredibles, where an increasingly litigious society contends that heroes are causing more harm than they prevent. Anthony Lane, from The New Yorker, has weighed in on this fashionable sport of taking potshots at the heroism of fictional characters, in a shoddy Avengers review. (My guess is that the New Yorker crowd is starting to realize they can’t spend all their time staring at abstract art and chuckling dryly over glasses of wine at dinner parties) If you’re not already a diehard fan of the Avengers and therefore biased in their favor, Lane waves off the film as an experience where the audience gets “mugged by a gang of rowdy sociopaths with high muscle tone.”

No, sure, let’s just let the UN get into a bureaucratic nightmare debating how to deal with an alien invasion. After all, heroes who save the world are no better than the villains threatening it! (See above — he actually implies that) Or let the NYPD deal with the Lizard (despite their repeated failures to do so) as he’s killing people. Peter Parker can’t just swing around a few skyscrapers and subdue him, because that would be recklessly disregarding the law.

In one especially insane online discussion, a certain…gentleman asserted to me that there is no real difference between Captain America and the Punisher, and that their actions and motives don’t look all that different.

What? All right, let’s do a little comparison. If you have read tons of comics and you can note moments where Punisher or Cap acted differently, let me know — I’m generalizing here.

Captain America, doing double-duty as a soldier and a patriotic symbol. Kills enemy combatants while defending others from unprovoked harm.

Versus…

The Punisher, antihero and vigilante who fights urban crime through many unsavory practices, including torture, murder, and extortion. Vents his anger on criminals by maiming and killing them.

I will go out on a limb here — I’m not quite seeing double.

And going back to The Avengers…what was the UN going to tell the Avengers? “Sorry, but this isn’t authorized under the Geneva Convention. You can’t just go firing weapons at assailants and throw the city into chaos.”

Yes, they can. The aliens were trying to kill innocents. When you just found out there is an alien invasion about to arrive in New York City, and you have at your disposal some assassins, a technological genius, a giant green rage monster, a Norse god, and a supersoldier, all of whom are willing to help, you get them between the incoming enemy and the civilian population. Forget about the question of whether the statutes of conventional warfare would, theoretically, apply to an alien race. When civilians are being targeted, you get in the way and throw the biggest hammer you’ve got.

This hammer, to be exact.

There are these little things in life called “emergencies,” when certain legal issues need to be put aside for the moment. Even though most comic books are fantastical, larger-than-life, and just plain wacky, they depict events that I would think qualify as “emergencies.” Regular cops and soldiers can be trusted to deal with the more familiar forms of crime and evil. Generally, superheroes are for super-threats.

When it comes to Batman…ah, now that might be a different matter. Certainly in the Nolan trilogy there are legal consequences to Bruce Wayne becoming the Caped Crusader, even though everyone with half a brain stem was glad Batman was there when Ra’s al Ghul or the Joker set their sights on Gotham. But that is probably best left for another rant, another time. This particular rant is, I think, finished.

Have your own thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Want to yell at me that I’m full of it? There’s the comment window. Use it as you please.

“John Carter” Review, Part 2

The ravishingly beautiful Lynn Collins, in the role of Dejah Thoris — fighter, princess, and scientist extraordinaire.

In fact, there are quite a few changes made from the book that I appreciate. As I understand it, Carter was sent off to Mars in the books by some vague form of astral projection, whereas the movie gets him there by letting him find an alien device in the right place at the right time. Much easier to grasp, and it seems more plausible in its execution.

The character development was also exceptional, and I loved the updates everyone received. Everyone feels more…well, human. Dejah Thoris, a beautiful princess and Carter’s eventual love interest, is now also an accomplished scientist and a talented warrior. Actress Lynn Collins brings the princess to life and makes the character entirely her own, showing her as a strong and dedicated woman with heartfelt moments of vulnerability. Taylor Kitsch plays Carter with restraint and dark charisma. He is the loner who believes in more than he thinks he does, a man who wants to make up for past mistakes and find a higher cause than gold prospecting. Willem Dafoe excels as the voice actor for Tars Tarkas, a green Martian warrior who is by turns enthusiastic, desperate, funny, and committed to protecting the people he cares for.

And I was fascinated with their decision to have Carter tell his story to a fictional version of young Edgar Rice Burroughs, thereby inspiring him to become a writer and giving Burroughs an intriguing role in the story’s climax. Given the changes made to the storyline of A Princess of Mars and integrating elements from the next book, The Gods of Mars, Burroughs’s presence in the story actually works by tying together what could easily have been a lackluster, uninspiring resolution.

A note to fans of the books: though I loved the film’s changes, I mean no disrespect to Mr. Burroughs. Like Tarzan, his most popular work, his Martian story is still one of the must-read works of fiction from the early 20th century. And another of his books, The Land that Time Forgot, helped inspire me to become a writer. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without Edgar Rice Burroughs.

What shocked me most was the emotional involvement I had toward the story unfolding onscreen. When we discover Carter’s tragic past and see him resolve to protect others, or see Dejah on the edge of tears with no idea of what she should do to save her people, it struck me in a way I never expected. Other movies with deep characters have impressed me, but I am still in the early stages of learning how to involve myself in their lives. Normally, I still watch those people struggle through the story from on high, removed but curious, like a kid watching someone else fry ants with a magnifying glass.

By the time this movie finished, John Carter and Dejah Thoris were my friends. I was with them, on Mars, feeling what they felt. I still can’t explain how it happened, and it is probably just me who felt that sort of connection. All I know is that John Carter had me caring for these two people as surely as if they were family.

The supporting cast is extremely talented, even if some of them don’t get enough material — Bryan Cranston, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Thomas Hayden Church, Mark Strong, and many others help show the unfathomable talent and love that went into producing this movie.

When it comes to spectacle, the special effects and musical score are unparalleled. CGI and the emotionally potent music are used to supplement the story and enhance its epic scope, instead of distracting from some inherent emptiness.

Does the movie have its flaws? Sure, but I hardly noticed them. Yes, the adventures of Carter are often “silly,” and it hardly ever gets its science right. That’s not the point. I don’t see how these complaints should be brought up again, when the movie (like the book) is meant to give us adventure and wonder, and stoke the fires of imagination. In my honest opinion, it is one of the best answers we have ever gotten to that favorite question of science fiction and fantasy writers: “What if?”