Category Archives: Tolkien

The Nitty on the Gritty

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Fantasy fiction has experienced a shift in mood and tone over the last couple decades. Or people’s perceptions of fantasy fiction have shifted. As a genre, fantasy used to be stereotyped as fluffy, fairy tale tinted stories of rainbows and unicorns, where evil always fails and good always triumphs. Now, popular fantasy tends to be viewed as dark, gritty, bloody, brutal, and unforgiving, and it’s easy to point to certain fantasy novels and writers as examples of this descent into grit and grime.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones if you’re referring to the first book or the television show) has an upsettingly high body account among its large cast of main characters.

Joe Abercrombie is often mentioned in the same breath as the bloodthirsty Martin.

Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen strives to be so grim and gritty that it feels as though the entire world is covered in dead deserts and unforgiving wastelands.

Patrick Rothfuss’ anti-hero Kvothe from The Name of the Wind is responsible for the heinous assassination of the King and the war that followed. So much potential for going over-the-top with guilt, angst, and pathos, but Kvothe is too much of a cold bastard for that.

Other fantasy writers such as R. Scott Bakker, K.J. Parker, Matthew Stover, Scott Lynch, David Anthony Durham, Mark Lawrence, and Brent Weeks are frequently landing on lists of dark and gritty fantasy. The writers that I usually see recommended among fantasy fans are those who are known for writing dark, gritty, and “realistic” fantasy.

The first time I consciously noted this trend towards the grim and gruesome, and the shift from simplistic tales of good versus evil to stories of moral relativism, was with Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company. (Thank you, Brandon, for convincing me to read these books those many, many years ago.) I remember the pleasant shock of seemingly long-term characters being bumped off not only within the first book, but within the first several pages. The absence of a distinct demarcation between good and evil felt like a much-needed departure from and reinvention of beloved but tired fantasy tropes. Telling the story from the point-of-view of a rag-tag, oft-sidelined group of mercenaries instead of the central movers and shakers was a stroke of humanizing genius.

I’m not the only one who has noticed and remarked on the seminal nature of Glen Cook’s military epic. Do a search for The Black Company, and chances are that any reviews you find will comment on how Glen Cook was one of the first, if not the first, to trade in magical glamour for mercenary grit. There’s no doubt that the books were influential. The impact that they had on Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is instantly apparent in Erikson’s character and place names, and their influence becomes more concrete and vital as Erikson’s novels progress.

But thinking back on all the fantasy novels and stories I enjoyed as a child, teenager, and young adult, I’m not at all convinced that Cook’s reputation for helping to pave the way for dark and gritty fantasy is deserved. I’m not even convinced that the fantasy genre’s reputation for becoming darker and grittier is deserved.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often touted as being a prime example of how twee and simplistic the fantasy genre is capable of being. It’s often criticized for being a shallow, glossy adventure tale of Good and Light overcoming Evil and Darkness, but let’s not forget the creepiness of Smeagol’s demented spiral into despair and his pathetic addiction, or that Frodo fails his final test. Let’s not ignore that the epic’s overarching and ever present theme is about the long, grueling march of mortality and the inevitability of death and the end of all things. Good triumphs over evil, but our halfling heroes are unable to protect their home from the loss of innocence. Magic is fading from the world forever. Of all the fantasy stories I’ve read, this one is still the saddest. It was published 30 years before The Black Company.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan is an amoral thief and warrior in a world where life is cheap and violence rules. He has no qualms with dealing death and destruction, and is not a hero, but simply an adept survivor. The first Conan story was published 52 years before The Black Company.

Titus Groan, the first book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, is about a city oppressed with dense and unfathomable tradition, which is populated with self-serving, monstrous individuals and pathetic, demented wretches. It was published 28 years before The Black Company.

The most popular incarnation of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the albino Elric of Melnibone. This self-loathing wizard and warrior wields the magical sword Stormbringer, which feeds on the souls of those it slays. Elric’s story culminates with Elric losing all that he holds dear, with Stormbringer feeding on his best friend before turning itself on Elric. The first Elric story was published 23 years before The Black Company.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are about a spiteful, lonely man suffering from leprosy who finds himself in a magical land that heals him of his terrible disease. One of his first actions in this world is to rape a young woman who had befriended him. His sense of guilt and his leprosy driven habits of survival cause him to angrily, stubbornly, and steadfastly deny the reality of the world he now finds himself in. Many readers find Thomas Covenant to be a loathsome, irredeemable character. Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series, was published 7 years before The Black Company.

There are many other examples of pre-Black Company fantasy stories with dark tones, disturbing ideas, or shocking events. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Asprin’s and Abbey’s Thieves’ World, Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber, Gardner’s Grendel

Look back even further, to the true progenitors of the fantasy genre such as Shakespeare, fairy tales, fables, myths, religion, Greek drama, epic poetry, and it becomes readily apparent that darkness and fantasy are true bedfellows. Fantasy stories of today are playing in the same heaps of grime and grit and violence that Oedipus was crawling through when he murdered his father, slept with his mother, and stabbed out his own eyes.

So, when someone declares that they love A Game of Thrones because it’s not typical fantasy, just remember that there are old versions of Sleeping Beauty where she was not awoken with a kiss, but by the suckling of her newborn twins, the result of her being raped while laying in an enchanted sleep. That’s sick.

And Cinderella’s step-sisters sliced off parts of their own feet in order to fit into the slipper. That’s twisted.

By the way, please read Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company if you already haven’t. It’s reputation as being groundbreaking in tone and mood might be overstated, but they’re well worth the read, in no small part to Cook’s deft use of first person, his engaging cast of colorful characters, his bizarre creatures and frightening, ancient wizards, and his sense humanity.

The series contains the following books:

1. The Black Company

2. Shadows Linger

3. The White Rose

4. The Silver Spike

5. Shadow Games

6. Dreams of Steel

7. Bleak Seasons

8. She is the Darkness

9. Water Sleeps

10. Soldiers Live

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Adapting Tolkien: The Films

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When one considers how popular J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is, it’s a bit surprising that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings haven’t been adapted into other mediums more often.

It’s not so surprising that The Silmarillion has remained relatively untouched, because that work is, well, you know… it’s The Silmarillion.

But then you start looking at all the different Tolkien adaptations, and all the works that have been inspired by Tolkien, and you end up being surprised (and a bit overwhelmed) that Tolkien shows up in other mediums as often as he does.

The film versions of Tolkien’s work must be the most widely known Tolkien adaptations.

Rankin-Bass

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For many of us, the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit by Rankin-Bass is one of the defining moments in our evolution as Tolkien fans. It’s too bad about the 1980 follow-up The Return of the King, which is such a grotesque abomination that you have to look extremely hard and be extremely forgiving to find any of its redeeming qualities. Try as I might, the nicest thing I can think to say about it is that some of my friends like the song Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way. Catchy, but not enough to hang an entire cartoon on.

While The Hobbit suffered from some bizarre character design and from being so abridged that it lost much of its thematic weight, it at least managed to capture an otherworldly, creepy, fairy tale tone, which can still manage to capture the attention and imagination of children. The Return of the King, on the other hand, manages to be even more trite and childish than its predecessor, which is actually an impressive feat, since The Hobbit is a twee book that’s blatantly written for children, while The Return of the King is the weightier and more ponderously dense tome.

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And somehow, the creep factor of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit manages to be appealing, like a darkly magical image of a Brian Froud fairy, while the creep factor of the Rankin-Bass Return of the King veers wildly into territory that can only be described as uncomfortable.

Ralph Bakshi

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I almost wonder if the poor quality of the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Return of the King was the result of it being rushed into and through production to take advantage of the infamous and unfinished Ralph Bakshi adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from 1978, two years earlier. Bakshi’s version of the fantasy epic is a fan favorite target for ridicule. It’s the kind of movie that’s so widely accepted as being terrible that it’s watched for the entertainment value of how bad it is, like an epic fantasy version of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. The film is undoubtedly a failure. Even it’s more glaring flaws, such as the spastic overacting mannerisms of some of its rotoscoped actors, or the choice to change Saruman’s name to Aruman and then back to Saruman, barely scratch the surface of where this adaptation went wrong.

It’s such a magnificent failure, though. While Bakshi’s wonderfully psychedelic and experimental style don’t quite mesh with Middle-earth, you can still admire the movie for how psychedelic and experimental it is. The screenplay certainly has its flaws, but still, it’s a screenplay by Peter S. Beagle, the man responsible for beautiful novels such as The Last Unicorn and The Innkeeper’s Song. The movie abruptly ends halfway through the story, but it ends with Theoden’s poignant, melancholy charge from Helm’s Deep and Gandalf’s timely, triumphant arrival. And who could complain about Aragorn being voiced by John Hurt? Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings may not be a success, but it certainly deserves to be revisited with as open a mind as possible. It’s full of hidden but shining gems if one is willing to look for them.

Peter Jackson

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This brings us to Peter Jackson’s epic, three film production of the saga. These films are, in a way, the opposite of Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation. Where Bakshi’s film immediately annoys because it’s so utterly wrong, Jackson’s films immediately enchant because they get so much completely right. Where Bakshi’s murky film is saved by a scattering of shiny, brilliant bits of gold shining through its tarnish, Jackson’s shining films are marred by scratches and dings that dull its gold leaf surface.

In a way, I have more admiration for Bakshi’s telling of the story, because it feels like he was, at the very least, trying to do something artful and poetic with Tolkien’s tale. Sure, his version of the Flight to the Ford drags, but it’s also so nightmarish and stark and strange and dark and ethereal that it effectively captures the sense of Frodo slipping into the shadow world of the Wraiths. Jackson’s version of the Flight to the Ford, on the other hand, is simply a thrilling chase scene. A chase scene that frustratingly ends with Arwen stealing one of Frodo’s defining moments of strength and courage.

I do love Jackson’s films, despite their flaws. They suffer from too many typical action film clichés, and they alter or excise the source material in a way that weaken some of Tolkien’s themes (no one will ever convince me that cutting The Scouring of the Shire was the right choice), but they are movies that are an obvious labor of love, and they capture more of the heart and spirit of Tolkien’s work than I ever expected from a big budget production.

I wish I could say the same of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. I’ve written about this before, so for now I’ll just say that the first part of the trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, was like Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings with all its flaws magnified. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s a depressingly missed opportunity that is clumsy in its inability to find a consistent tone, and misguided and artless in its attempt to expand upon such a simple tale.

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At the very least, the casting in all of Jackson’s films is about as perfect as one could expect, which is always a huge plus.

Gene Deitch

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Last, and possibly least, we have, from 1966, the 12 minute animated adaptation by cartoonist Gene Deitch of The Hobbit. Saying that this is animated might be an overstatement, because it’s really just a series of narrated stills. Calling it The Hobbit is even a bit of a stretch, because other than a few names, the general plot of a hobbit on a quest to steal treasure from a dragon, and a few highly altered but still recognizable moments, it bears little resemblance to the original story. It’s rather like Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in that respect (and yes, before you attack me too vociferously, that’s me being hyperbolic).

On the off-chance that you’ve never see it, it’s worth taking a look. The illustrations are actually quite lovely, and it has a quick, breathless, meandering pace that almost reminds me of old Rocky and Bullwinke cartoons. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBnVL1Y2src

Others

There are other Tolkien film adaptations out there that I have yet to have the pleasure (or displeasure) of seeing.

There are fan made films such as The Hunt for Gollum and Born of Hope. I’ve heard good things about The Hunt for Gollum, and the few seconds of footage I’ve seen at least look pretty.

A television movie titled The Fabulous Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit was produced in the Soviet Union in 1985.

1993 saw a Finnish production called Hobitit (The Hobbits), which was a nine episode adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

The Peak of the Pile

Despite my misgivings, the best film adaptation of Tolkien to date is clearly Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films. Even with its flawed screenplays, they manage to be the most entertaining and engaging of the Tolkien film adaptations. And while Tolkien’s books cry out for a quieter, more meditative approach than Jackson’s bombastic style, Jackson’s penchant for going big and brash resulted in some powerful moments. Bottom line is, of all the film adaptations, Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s masterpiece is the least egregious.

Here’s hoping that a couple decades from now we finally get the films that can be more truthfully and honestly called the definitive adaptations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Not that there can truly be any such thing, but surely we can get closer than we have up until now.

In the meantime, I think I will go watch Peter Jackson’s trilogy again.


Rewriting Tolkien

I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings because it’s dense, sprawling, and epic. I love it for its fractured but organized structure, its sense of depth and verisimilitude, its melancholy tone, and its sense of loss even in the face of triumph.

I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit because it’s light, focused, and personal. I love it for its simple structure, its immediate sense of childish wonder, its lively tone, and its sense of triumph even in the face of loss.

These are generalizations, of course. The Lord of the Rings is not without its light moments, and The Hobbit is not without depth, but there is no denying that these are two works that, despite some similarties, are inherently and deeply different from each other; different in authorial intent, different in theme, different in characterization, different in mood, different in tone, and different in audience.

I like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings because, despite several qualms I have with the films, they are largely an attempt to capture the dense, sprawling, epic, melancholy nature of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

I am greatly disappointed in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because, despite some things that I like about the movie, it is largely an attempt to capture the dense, sprawling, epic, melancholy nature of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

I wouldn’t have even brought this up until seeing all three parts of The Hobbit (as if there could be anything more damning than adapting The Hobbit into three long films), but the trailers for The Desolation of Smaug have clinched it for me. A trailer for The Hobbit where two characters who never appeared in the book (one of whom is fabricated solely for the movie) are focused on as much or more than the title character is all the further evidence I need to know that these movies are not for me.

I had been reading The Hobbit to my five year old daughter. We were about halfway through when An Unexpected Journey was released on DVD. My daughter, being the sweet child she’s sometimes capable of being, excitedly convinced her mother to buy me the movie for Father’s Day. She was so pleased and happy that I agreed to sit down that afternoon to watch the movie with her. About fifteen minutes into the movie she turns to me and says “I thought we were going to watch The Hobbit!” Yeah. That would have been a nice movie to see.


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