Tolkien vs. Jackson: An Open Letter to Orson Scott Card

Sigh. All right, one more Tolkien related post before it’s back to business as usual. I swear. Just one.

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite authors. I admit to not having read a lot of his work, though. I do remember reading The Memory of Earth, Ender’s Game, and a few of his short stories, as well as a truckload of essays he publishes in the Rhino Times. His writing advice is solid. I like the way he says things.

But that makes it all the more disappointing when he keeps harping on a particular issue. Every time I’ve seen him refer to Tolkien’s body of work, he feels compelled to throw a tantrum that Jackson “ruined” Lord of the Rings as he brought it to the silver screen. And now the same accusation has been flung against the first Hobbit movie. These films do happen to be my favorites of all time, but that is not why I’m disappointed in his Grumpy Old Man routine; it’s the fact that he keeps going back to it, like the proverbial canine returning to its regurgitated meal.

I don’t expect him to pay me any attention. He’s a big-time, talented writer, and here’s little me, shaking my head on the sidelines. But someone needed to say this, and I didn’t see anyone else calling him out for it. So, without further ado:

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Dear Mr. Card,

We get it. You like to attribute movies you don’t appreciate to dumb Hollywood executives and incompetent directors, following the wrong formulas taught in screenwriting classes. I have heard this complaint over and over and over again. But does it really apply to Jackson’s accomplishment?

I remember from one of the DVD featurettes a teary-eyed John Rhys-Davies — who played Gimli, and was therefore heavily involved in the trilogy’s production — giving his thanks to the whole crew and cast, saying of their love and dedication to bringing Tolkien’s work to the screen, “You won’t find that in LA.” If there is any big-budget movie series that wasn’t subjected to the all-too-common incompetence and cynicism of Hollywood, it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everything from the dialogue to the props was crafted with the care of a historical epic and the passion of people who had been in love with Middle Earth all their lives. And now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings us another movie that is a similarly excellent labor of love from the same people. Even that doesn’t stop you from parroting the myth that The Hobbit was padded out into a trilogy purely for financial reasons. And doesn’t the accusation of padding fly in the face with the complaint that so many “vital” parts of the trilogy were cut out from Lord of the Rings? Too short, then too long. Are you going to have your cake or eat it?

I understand that you appreciate Tolkien in a very particular way, and have spent decades enjoying the story as only you could enjoy it. And maybe the differences between the original books and Jackson’s interpretation felt like a betrayal to the vision you had cultivated and examined and appreciated for so many years. But that should be a matter that is stated once or twice, and then left alone for the opinion and private reaction that it is. It gets under people’s skin when you go back to the same complaint time and time again.

Take as an example the Scouring of the Shire. How Peter Jackson changed the ending made it work better as a movie, even if the book’s ending worked perfectly as a novel. If he’d kept the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King, it would have dragged out the story past the central conflict: the danger and destruction of the Ring. Which, again, works fine in the story’s original form, but drags a movie out even more than the myriad endings we already got. I would have left the theater disappointed and more than a little upset.

Granted, I have learned much about storytelling since then, and am in more of a position to appreciate the Scouring of the Shire and what Tolkien was accomplishing with it, but even now that is all I can do: appreciate it. Not love it. Not find it quickening my imagination. And it undeniably would be a frustrating, dour note to conclude a movie on. But because Jackson left the Shire blessedly intact, I walked out of that theater elated, thinking “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a fantasy writer.”

Some of us were inspired toward fantasy, toward becoming writers, toward the wonders and treasures of Tolkien’s world, because of Jackson and company’s tireless efforts. I should know; I’m one of them. And in honesty, ever since I read the trilogy and The Hobbit, and then saw the movies, I admit to liking Jackson’s Middle Earth even more than Tolkien’s. That’s partly because of personal taste, and partly because of the necessary differences between novels and movies. I’m beginning to think that it isn’t Hollywood’s fault, but yours that it has taken so long for an Ender’s Game movie to finally get made. Clearly you don’t get along well with the movie business and have been far too lacking in cooperation or trust with people who care about storytelling just as much as you do, only in a different medium.

A writer of your talent and sophistication dragging out the same misguided complaints amounts to little more than eloquent trolling. I will still be reading your work, but will stay firmly within your fiction, where I don’t have to hear this bellyaching anymore. And I do look forward to seeing Ender’s Game in theaters, hoping I don’t find myself saying it was a violent betrayal of your own novel. Because I’ve had my fill of writers saying movies ruin the books they’re based on, and don’t want to fall into the same trap.

With sincerest regards,

John K. Patterson

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Was J.R.R. Tolkien A Racist?

…Or “The Coincidental Christmas.” Coincidental, since I was working on another blog post, detailing the races of my own fantasy world, when this little chestnut slithered back into the light: “Was J.R.R. Tolkien a racist?”

Um…no. No, he decidedly was not. In fact, he wrote an eloquent letter to the Nazi party calling the race doctrine “pernicious and unscientific.”

He certainly had races which thought themselves above the others, like Elves and the men of Numenor. Problem is, as soon as they started forcing themselves on the other races, calamitous consequences were not far behind. This little nuance is often lost on those who consider Tolkien a bigot.

Some will never give up on tarnishing one of the 20th century’s greatest storytellers with racist accusations. Today, on this blessed and sacred holiday, I tripped across one rather shrill blogger, who has decided ahead of time that Tolkien’s racism can be recognized by any rational human being, and that the writer’s defenders are immature, angry little white supremacists. Normally for the sake of objectivity and letting the reader reach their own conclusion, I link to pieces I disagree with. In this case, I will neither do this nor mention him by name. This man is getting no more views or attention on my account.

But I’d like to offer my refutation to his all-too-common accusation in the form of someone else’s words. They put it better than I ever could, and you’ll find the whole excellent piece by Michael Martinez here. This paragraph was especially neat:

“Unfortunately, though many people rise quickly to defend J.R.R. Tolkien against the absurd arguments that his critics raise against him, they fall quickly into the trap of replying to silly provocations — a trap that is designed only to control the conversation. Trust me, I have walked that treadmill more than I want to recall. You cannot win an argument with someone who declares blindly that J.R.R. Tolkien was a racist. At best you can write your own thoughtful explanation of what Tolkien was doing and not respond directly to these sensationalists. That is, after all, what they crave: a passionate response from you and as many other people as they can provoke.”

The accusation will always be around, no matter how ridiculous it is. Never quite goes away. Maybe I’m dropping right into the aforementioned trap by replying at all. But since the accusation is finding more ears in the wake of the Hobbit movie, I thought someone’s insights might be offered against it.

Thanks for your time. And Merry Christmas!

A Brighter Day for Paleontology? Switek Steps Down

Edit: June 05, 2013

Evidently, reacting to a link I stumbled across on another paleontologist’s site and then having something critical to say about it is clear proof of “trolling” in Mr. Switek’s mind, just because I’ve criticized him in the past, and I must be someone who’s obsessed and out to “get” him.

Or maybe I saw him doing something I cannot stand (condescending to others if they don’t see the world like he does, and making mountains out of paleontological mole hills), and tried multiple times to call him out for it. Either way, I neither threaten him nor trawl his account for excuses to snipe at him, nor do I call him names. Nothing that I can remember, in any case. If I think he says something that insults my intelligence, I’ll say so. But his best excuse is “go away and shut up.” Which of course doesn’t go over well with me, since I see a problem in his treatment of other people that’s still not getting solved.

Is that “trolling,” or being an annoying busybody? Either way, it’s not laudable. I apologize for sometimes being frustrated. I confess I should have let it go long ago, something I already admitted. For honesty’s sake, I’d just love to see him treat others with more respect and more open-mindedness. But fine. I’ll gladly stop paying him attention. He already gets far too much as it is.

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After four years, Brian Switek is leaving his “Dinosaur Tracking” Blog for the Smithsonian and moving on to what I hope are bigger and better things. Though I wish him the best of luck (honest, I do), I confess that I’m glad about it. Sorry, fellow paleo-nerds.

Here’s the thing: I wanted to love Switek’s blog. I really did. There are many informative posts, I admire and envy his depth and breadth of knowledge, and his devotion to scientific accuracy is quite laudable.

Here’s the problem: His concern for scientific accuracy was rarely expressed in a constructive light. Most of the time it was excessive griping about how movies and TV shows don’t portray dinosaurs quite as accurately as museums and the peer-reviewed literature, or bemoaning all the “inexcusable” mistakes the public at large was making about dinosaurs. At one point he even asked the media to “leave dinosaurs alone” because he couldn’t stand the inaccuracies.

But that’s like asking science fiction movies to “leave space alone” because they rarely get their astrophysics right. I don’t recall Neil DeGrasse Tyson stating that we should stop making space operas. And for all their inaccuracies, Star Wars and Star Trek somehow inspired a whole generation of scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

Wait, inaccurate movies inspiring people toward science and education?! No. Freaking. Way. Imagine that! Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for Jurassic Park to keep inspiring kids to become paleontologists, even with its featherless Velociraptors and poisonous Dilophosaurs.

Not that science isn’t important — of course it is! And I am not saying entertainers have license to throw accuracy to the wind — they should make an effort, most of the time. But entertainment has purposes besides educating people about all the minutiae of scientific accuracy. Sometimes you just get a better story by fudging a couple of details. And if it is somehow a flaw or a mistake, it’s not the end of the world (today’s date notwithstanding). It’s best to shrug it off and let it go, rather than hop onto a Smithsonian blog and sniffle at all those uneducated masses, as they make errors so tremendous and damaging, they’d be better off just leaving dinosaurs to the professionals.

I’ll listen gladly to other paleontologists, thank you, namely those who allow people to imagine and exercise a little artistic license.

My Return to Middle Earth

Well, I am back from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. What did I think of it?

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Run like the wind to the cinema! Go! Now!

Peter Jackson and company have taken us back to Middle Earth, which of course is already a compelling reason to go see it. But they also fulfilled my hopes and dreams, doing justice to Tolkien’s timeless book while adding layers to the story. I was grinning through most of the film, and was completely enraptured. The performances are astounding, especially the main three: Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen is back and amazing as ever as Gandalf the Grey, and Richard Armitage holds his own as the charismatic, intense king of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. Andy Serkis delivers a Gollum that is even more convincing and remarkable than the one in the trilogy, if that was possible.

Of course, the special effects and landscapes are beyond beautiful (New Zealand is proof that there is a God). The Dwarves are by turns hilarious and rip-roaring awesome. Howard Shore delivers a terrific musical score that stirs the heart and puts visions of dragons and fires and grand adventures in your mind. Really, must I go into detail? It felt like going back home. I could hardly be happier with the result. In fact, I have to confess something that might be blasphemy: I liked it more than the book. There are fewer times when Bilbo is saved by “sheer luck.” He has to rely more on his own wits and the assistance of the Dwarves or Gandalf to get him out of sticky situations. Plus, all of the extra stuff they’re pulling in from Tolkien’s appendices gives the movie a greater epic quality, and heightens the stakes of the main adventure to the Lonely Mountain.

Of course, it seems as if some aren’t nearly as delighted about it. Critics and nerds across the world are in fidgeting rage over this film. Did they kill Gandalf at the end? Nope. Is Smaug the dragon wearing a tutu? We don’t see much of him, but I didn’t notice any pink lace.

Evidently, the reason everyone’s tying their undergarments in a slip knot is the deliberate pace of An Unexpected Journey. Yup. A deliberate pace. All right, if your heart attack is over, I’d like to calmly explain why this shouldn’t earn the movie a paltry 65% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies require an audience who is in it for the long haul. The beginning of this film does require a little patience. And the scene with the three trolls around a campfire, though fun and funny, might have benefited from a bit of extra editing. I grant that much. But why should these count so heavily against the film, when Jackson has made it clear that he will be spinning a much larger tapestry than what Tolkien’s children’s book alone could hold? He is fleshing out Middle Earth itself, casting light on the milieu of Tolkien’s astounding creation.

Given such circumstances, I find a nice slow beginning not only acceptable but arguably necessary. It’s the same reason I didn’t object in the slightest to Return of the King having “too many” endings. I’d just seen ten hours of an epic story unfolding through three movies and dozens of characters. There had better be a lot of endings, so we can be satisfied that each character and subplot gets some kind of resolution even as the larger tale slowly draws to a close.

I’ve been going through Orson Scott Card’s book Characters and Viewpoint (which I highly recommend), and one of the latest chapters I’ve read devotes several paragraphs to showing how Tolkien is a storyteller who focuses on the world, fleshing it out to show us a place so convincing and detailed, you believe it might actually exist. Tidy narratives and compelling characters do sometimes find a place in the setting, but the attention is on Middle Earth itself. This is even true of The Hobbit as a book, which is a shorter adventure tale. Even here, where the plot is much more reined in than Lord of the Rings, Tolkien takes his time to show us the people of Dale, outline the customs of Hobbits, flesh out the family line of Bilbo Baggins, and makes us feel the anguish of the Dwarves whose mountain and treasure has been cruelly stolen by the dragon Smaug. Even here, Tolkien makes the world as much a character as Gandalf or Bilbo or Thorin.

The director and writers are taking their time to set the stage for a grander story, a story I can’t wait to see unfold. I have come to trust this crew of people, given what they accomplished with Lord of the Rings. If they want to tell a larger tale through this new trilogy, they are more than welcome to do so.

Well done, ladies and gentlemen. You have delivered one of the greatest movies of the year, and you captured my imagination all over again.

Revived is Finally Revised

My first novel, The Wolfglen Legacy: Revived, has finally been revised. Once I give it time to breathe (leaving it alone for 3-4 weeks) and then do a final polish, it will be ready to send off to an agent. Almost every necessary tweak and critique has been done, and it’s ready to go. I still can’t believe I actually pulled this off.

[EDIT: I should add that my deadline for December 3rd had to be pushed back to the 6th, thanks to my laptop crashing on me. But the point is that I finished on time, and now I can go see The Hobbit with some friends on opening night! Yay!]

In celebration, I’d like to share the theme song from The Avengers. You know, because it sounds very triumphant.

The Next Big Thing

I was quite honored to be tagged by Jackie Hames at The Spidereen Frigate for a blog chain called “The Next Big Thing,” which gives readers a snapshot of your own work-in-progress.

I’ll give it my best shot. Hope you enjoy!

What is the Working Title of Your Book?

The Wolfglen Legacy: Revived

Where Did Your Idea for the Book Come From?

I started drawing maps in 2004 of a fantasy world I wanted to create, and that eventually morphed into a couple of projects, including The Wolfglen Legacy. After watching a lot of movies like the Star Wars prequels, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean, I wanted to tell a big, adventurous, save-the-world kind of story. Plus, I wanted to try giving new(ish) versions of various fantasy cliches like elves, dragons, wizards, dark lords, and see if I could set them up in a somewhat original framework.

What Genre Does Your Book Fall Under?

Primarily epic fantasy, with some tones of dark fantasy, adventure fantasy, and a dash of science fiction.

If Your Book Became a Movie, Which Actors Would You Pick?

I have a large cast in mind for this

Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian) as Morent Wolfglen. He’d do a good job of looking ferocious and desperate, playing the conflicted wizard who is trying to save his family while keeping his conscience intact.

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Jennifer Lawrence would be terrific to play Princess Sathra Wolfglen. She excelled as Mystique and Katniss Everdeen, and I’d like to see her play the role of a vulnerable young woman who learns how to become stronger and more in control.

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Andrew Garfield really impressed me with his interpretation of Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, so I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the role of Josh Kingston, a young man from another time who is awakened from stasis into a distant future ruled by magic and wars, and is catapulted into one of the most dangerous conflicts Earth has ever faced, all while trying to learn his new surroundings and run from mistakes and tragedy in his past.

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Those are the three main characters. But I did have a couple of others in mind. I tend to dream big.

Christian Bale as King Rishtal Wolfglen, brother to Morent and father to Sathra.

Bale

Rachel Weisz as Empress Kilfira Lundill, an ally of the Wolfglen family.

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Sam Neill as General Streynel Halthrin, and David Tennant as Myrickin Schtahl, both of them people who have different goals than everyone thinks they do.

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Tennant

Okay, I could go on, but I think that’s enough of my pipe dream. For now. 🙂

What is Your Book’s One-Sentence Synopsis?

A young man outrunning his past, a princess trying to go on after her mother’s death, and a wizard desperate to save his family all find themselves caught up in a secret war against their country, driven by an ancient supernatural enemy.

Will Your Book be Self-Published or Represented By an Agency?

I’m definitely going to try traditional publishing first. More than that, I want to see how high I can go with this series. If Random House or Tor or HarperCollins picks it up, terrific! If not, that’s perfectly okay. I still want to try it because I don’t want to spend my days wondering how far up the publishing ladder it could have gone.

How Long Did it Take You to Write the First Draft?

After writing off and on while trying to balance school and work with my writing goals, it took me about five years to finally have a complete first draft. Now that I’m graduated, though, it won’t take nearly as long to write the series’s next book (there will be four Wolfglen books in total).

What Other Books in Your Genre Would You Compare Your Novel To?

Hmm. Kind of stumped on this one. Maybe it would be a good fit for readers of Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn, the latest Wheel of Time books), James Gurney (Dinotopia), Christopher Paolini (The Inheritance Cycle), George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), and Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game).

Who or What Inspired You To Write This Book?

In December 2003, as I left the theater after watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, I was blown away by the story I had just witnessed. Given the staggering quality of Peter Jackson’s trilogy and how it affected my emotions and imagination, I knew one thing for certain stepping out of that theater: I wanted to be a fantasy writer.

From there I pieced together bits of worldbuilding, character development, and the clockwork of a plot, and the most developed result is The Wolfglen Legacy.

What Else Might Pique a Reader’s Interest in Your Book?

Possibly the ways I have revamped given fantasy cliches (elves with flintlocks instead of bows, a villain driven by his conscience instead of evil for its own sake, etc.).

Moral complexity is one of the big goals I have in mind for this series. I am striving to get a good balance between the black-and-white conflict in Harry Potter, and the frustrating ambiguity in Game of Thrones.

Dinosaurs join the book’s dragons to give my world plenty of big scaly beasties. When was the last time you saw a Triceratops in a fantasy novel? Seriously, they could instantly improve a lot of books.

And I am working hard to make the story satisfying on all fronts, not only attractive for its worldbuilding or characters or descriptions.

Tagging

To keep this chain going, I’d like to tag four of the coolest writers I know: Janden Daniel HaleRob “The Brain Hamster” Killam, Aaron Ritchey, and Courtney Schafer. All are terrific storytellers, and I recommend you check them out right away.