LOTR

Shannara isn’t perfect, but gives me hope

Ever since the movie versions of Lord of the Rings appeared, I’ve been living in hope more epic fantasy novels will roar to life onscreen.

I love the LOTR movies so much, will never be tired of them. They represent everything I most love about the fantasy genre (and value in life) — adventure, discovery, magic, heroism, deep friendships… The fantastical world first envisioned by Tolkien is brilliantly brought to life by Peter Jackson and his team in those movies. I wanted (still want) more!

Next came the HBO TV adaptation of Game of Thrones. I was excited by this at first — a whole multi-book series of big fat fantasy in TV serial format. It had me salivating at the prospect. It didn’t matter that I never really liked the first book much, back when I first tried to read it it 1999. A TV series would prove a far more digestible format and save me from reading them…

As it turned out, no. Despite the fact that half a world of non-fantasy enthusiasts have become obsessed with GoT, this lifelong fantasy enthusiast could NOT get into it. I tried. Desperately, I tried. The production values are incredible — brilliant acting, fabulous screenplay, amazing visualisation and representation of GRRM’s imagined world on the screen. For those alone, I resolved to watch it, even if there weren’t any characters I actually liked…

In the end, I couldn’t go the distance. The violence — sexual, psychological and physical — did me in. Like several people I’ve spoken to, I made it up until the point where Joffrey gets killed (huzzah! oops, spoilers) and then gave it away.

So disappointing.

The Hobbit movies came and went. I didn’t hate them — they do have the same amazing artistic production values as LOTR; but the plot is shallow compared with the depth and complexity of LOTR. They cannot compare.

There are so many amazing fantasy stories out there. Books I absolutely adore. How about a super sexy adaptation of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series? Or a vivid imagining of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders? Or a poignant depiction of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan?

They would all make brilliant television.

It often seems, however, to be Young Adult or children’s books that are adapted into movies… Not counting the current trend for YA science fiction movies, I can think of Eragon (fantasy) that was made into a movie… And of course, Harry Potter.

Much as I do love Harry and friends, can we have more adult fantasy adaptations please? Preferably without the excessive violence of GoT?

This all brings me to the Chronicles of Shannara, which is what prompted me to write this post.

I got Netflix last week. (Yes, a bit slow on the uptake, I admit.) I was exploring all the options (where to start? OMG) when I came across the TV series, Chronicles of Shannara, which had been mentioned by a friend of mine, just the week before.

Ha! A new fantasy series on TV! Yesssss.

The Chronicles of Shannara is a recent fantasy TV series based on the “classic” books of Terry Brooks (the first books were published in the 1970s). (Actually, technically it’s not fantasy, being set in a post-apocalyptic earth that has lost all tech, but it feels like fantasy, with elves and magic and stuff.) So I thought I’d check it out.

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I almost didn’t make it past the first episode, which was… pedestrian. Visually it’s quite an attractive and interesting representation of our technological world gone to the vines, but the acting was pretty wooden and the screenplay kind of stilted. Not to mention a derivative plot (which is why I never did read these books).

A couple of things stayed my hand from pressing the stop button — and indeed drew me through the entire 10-part series to the end.

Female main characters — not one, but two. Young women who are enterprising, resourceful, determined, competent, fully clothed (mostly — but discreet nudity is shared among the genders). In this TV series, female characters are not an obligatory afterthought, nor limited to a single main character. At the end of the series it’s these two young women who save the world, through trial, friendship and sacrifice. There’s a guy there who helps a bit.

Quest and adventure — Quest-based fantasy may be considered passe these days, but I still love it. I love exploring new worlds — or in this case a post-apocalyptic north-west America that’s now dominated by elves, trolls and gnomes. And I love the dynamic of a group of characters, finding their inner heroism, struggling to fulfill some sort of mission to save the world.

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Don’t get me wrong, this show is still B-grade on all levels. It will never compare with GoT or LOTR screen adaptations. But it does have a whole lot of heart and a cast of heroic, likeable characters. I would still rather watch that than GoT any day.

What I really want is a TV adaptation of epic fantasy that combines the slick production of GoT with the heart of Shannara. Please?

Thoughts on The Hobbit – Battle of the Five Armies

And so we come to the third and final installment of The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies, which wraps up this humble little story well. In the context of the first two Hobbit movies I was not disappointed.

It’s always wonderful to sit back and experience a few hours in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. Any excuse will do.

battle-of-the-five-armies-1The Battle of the Five Armies picks up exactly where The Desolation of Smaug (part 2) ended: Smaug flying off to smite Laketown. And boy does Smaug smite poor old Laketown. His fire-breathing ferocity is completely terrifying and the people are fleeing and the town is burning… And then Bard manages to slay the dragon. It’s all very spectacular.

They could have finished the second movie with this as the climax — and considering it was called The Desolation of Smaug, I have to wonder why they didn’t. But it certainly makes for a fabulous opening to this one.

The rest of the movie deals with the build-up and playing out of a mighty battle between dwarves, men, elves, orcs and monsters that takes place outside the gates of Erebor, the dwarven halls under the lonely mountain. Apparently both the massive pile of treasure and strategic position of the mountain are coveted by just about everyone.

Thorin (Richard Armitage) is one of the major driving forces of this movie, as he spirals into madness and paranoia as the result of ‘dragon sickness’, obsessed with retrieving the Arkenstone. He barricades his small party inside the mountain, irrationally refusing to treat with the survivors of Laketown or King Thranduil and his elves, who have arrived seeking to reclaim certain elven artifacts. But he eventually comes to his senses and I loved his final battle scenes against the pale orc, when he redeems his honour.

Martin Freeman is once again brilliant as Bilbo: honorable, brave, stubborn, resolute. He stands up to Thorin when the other dwarves won’t disobey their king, and although he doesn’t get to do too much in the battle, his actions leading up to it are significant.

Thranduil, the eleven king (and Legolas’s father), is a fairly major character in this movie, and I love the portrayal by Lee Pace. He’s again the perfect blend of arrogance, capriciousness with a measure of benevolence — and boy can he fight! He spins around, robes and hair flying, to great effect. Blood-spattered or no, he’s pretty hot.

Legolas is, of course, also once again a highlight. He doesn’t say a great deal, but he gets to do a lot of fighting with both arrows and swords, not to mention leaping around in mid-air and performing all manner of cool stunts.

Despite the fact neither Legolas or Tauriel impact the overall plot in any significant way (being additions for the movie), they do provide some of the more intimate ‘human’ moments amid all the fighting. The love triangle between the two of them and Kili (the hot dwarf) plays out in a fairly mild way, though; no doubt to fit within the constraints of the actual book. (Why would they want to do that?!)

The movie makers have created a nice little tie-in to Legolas’s role in LOTR at the end… although it’s still difficult to get a sense of how flinty Legolas transforms into more open-hearted and almost innocent Legolas by the time Fellowship starts. Since Legolas is over 2000 years old, the time period between The Hobbit and LOTR is negligible… The inconsistent portrayal bothers me, I confess. (Orlando Bloom also looks a bit different in the face, perhaps merely his 10 year age difference?)

Gandalf starts the movie imprisoned in the black fortress by the ring wraiths (similar to his imprisonment on Orthanc); but is rescued by Galadriel, accompanied by Elrond and Saruman. Here they come face to face with Sauron’s Great Eye for the first time and Galadriel does her scary dark queen impersonation and beats him back… I’m not sure how much of this is in the book, but I felt it was a bit overdone… overly dramatic — particularly given the level of ignorance about Sauron at the beginning of LOTR. Gandalf knows about Bilbo’s ring at the end of this movie… why doesn’t he even consider the possibility it’s the One Ring? Huh?

Battle-of-the-Five-Armies.2I couldn’t really get that excited by the storyline focusing on Bard and his three teenage children. Luke Evans is quite pleasing to look at, but somehow I didn’t feel that invested. The human survivors of Laketown spend much of the movie holed up in Dale, the ruined city outside Erebor that was abandoned when Smaug came to the mountain. They have to fight a lot of orcs.

In fact, a lack of depth in characterisation across the board remains my biggest complaint with the whole series of Hobbit movies. I think the writers could have done a lot more with most of the characters (including the various dwarves). Considering we’ve had two or three movies to get to know them, they remain, for the most part, fairly two-dimensional.

LOTR managed to make you care much more for its much larger cast of characters. They all have much greater depth of character and emotion. The Hobbit pretty much fails on this score in my view — it’s beautifully visual, with rousing action, but doesn’t have nearly as much heart.

It makes me realise how utterly brilliant the LOTR trilogy is, though.

As a final note, it was lovely to hear Billy Boyd (Pippin in LOTR) singing the song for the end credits of Battle of the Five Armies. All three of The Hobbit movies have real folky end-credit songs… it occurs to me to wonder whether they’ve used some of the original songs from The Hobbit, because after An Unexpected Journey none of the dwarven songs are featured in the movies. I must look into that.

Also, as with Return of the King, the end credits feature ‘sketches’ of all the main characters. Love that.

On the whole, I enjoyed Battle of the Five Armies rather a lot, for what it is. I did of course adjust my expectations after the first two, but even so I don’t think it has as much padding (unless you count many many battle scenes of different shapes and sizes).

The Hobbit trilogy may not leave the same lasting impression as the three LOTR movies, or inspire the same number of viewings, but it’s still a wonderful fantasy adventure that I will no doubt cherish and re-watch periodically for many years to come.

Here are links to my thoughts on An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug.

Thoughts on The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

As a huge fan of the Peter Jackson et al movies set in Middle Earth, I once again rocked up to the latest installment of The Hobbit hoping it would be wonderful.

Once again I enjoyed the movie —  the lavish and dedicated depiction of Tolkien’s fantastical world, the rousing adventure, the eye candy in the form of Legolas and Kili… But once again I can’t help comparing it with the Lord of the Rings movies and came away wishing it had managed to be more.

And in this case I think less would have yielded more. (Mild spoilers follow…)

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The Desolation of Smaug picks up more or less where An Unexpected Journey left off. Like the first movie, the second also follows the book reasonably faithfully in terms of major events — the meeting with Beorn, the giant spiders of Mirkwood, capture by the elves of Mirkwood, escape via the barrels down the river to Laketown, arrival at the Lonely Mountain… However, after mining as much of the book as possible for kernels from which to seed subplots, the writers did invent a fair bit of content to bulk out the movie.

Legolas! As soon as I heard they were filming The Hobbit years ago, I hoped they would bring Legolas (Orlando Bloom) into it. In LOTR Legolas was always the son of Thranduil, King of the Elves in Mirkwood (his father having sent him to the Council of Elrond), and it made perfect sense to me that if Thorin’s party of dwarves encountered the elves of Mirkwood then Legolas would be there. It doesn’t matter to me that his character isn’t mentioned in the book. Since they’re embellishing the story, they might as well centre it on Legolas – yes!

The Legolas scenes are lots of fun — especially when he gets to kill orcs with those fabulous acrobatic-athletic moves. The dwarves-in-barrels escape scene is a great action scene. In the book it’s all rather mundane, but in the movie there are elves chasing dwarves, then orcs chasing dwarves, then elves chasing orcs… (Legolas balancing on dwarves’ heads as they float in barrels…) Arrows and axes flying everywhere. Awesome stuff.

Interestingly, the portrayal of Legolas in this film is much more hard-edged and flinty than in LOTR. He’s suspicious and rather more ruthless. I’m wondering what’s going to happen to soften him before his appearance in Fellowship…

I love Legolas.

If you’ve seen the movie trailers, you’ll know they’ve added a token ‘she-elf’ (urgh) too. I guess the sentiment is good, because there are few other women in the film anywhere. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a captain in the Elf King’s guard, and is also a fearsome warrior. She develops a connection with Kili (Aidan Turner aka the hot dwarf), and already has the eye of Legolas, so there’s a little bit of a love triangle happening. Will be interesting to see where that goes.

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The other major character introduced is a barge man from Laketown called Bard (Luke Evans). He helps smuggle the dwarves into Laketown (for a price), but has his own history and agenda. He’s presented as a fairly significant character in the film, and we sense he’s going to have a role to play — as are Legolas and Tauriel. (Turns out he comes into the book later on…)

However, ALL these additional plot lines jangle a bit awkwardly together and slow the pace of the movie down. To me it seemed a fairly clumsy attempt to pad out the movie to nearly three hours — all part of the artificial stretch of a simple children’s book into three long films.

After all, normally when books are made into films, the writers have to decide what to leave out, and come up with creative ways of incorporating as much as possible. The Hobbit movies have the reverse problem, with every nugget of book squeezed out until it’s completely dry — and then they make extra stuff up. (One aspect of the plot that is tightened is the time over which everything happens. Tolkien’s characters are notorious for hanging about for days and weeks in the one place, whether relaxing or hiding. There’s none of that happening here!)

On the other hand, I did rather like Gandalf’s (fabricated for the film) side journey to the abandoned tombs of the nine ring wraiths, and subsequent visit to the ruined citadel of the necromancer, where he learns of Sauron’s return. Although this is a blatant attempt to link The Hobbit more strongly to events in LOTR, I felt it worked — even if it renders Gandalf’s ignorance at the beginning of Fellowship a little odd. 

I also really liked the way Bilbo is a lot more hesitant to use the ring in the movie than in the book. One suspects Tolkien had no notion of how evil the ring was when he wrote The Hobbit… Bilbo slips it on and off at will, with no repercussions. Not so in the movie, where he definitely feels a sense of foreboding just holding it.

Martin Freeman is once again a highlight as Bilbo. He really is perfectly cast. The film remains loosely centred around him, although less than the first film, I think. Nonetheless, he gets his big chance to shine when he sneaks into the dragon’s lair and confronts Smaug the dragon. This is a great scene, although I confess I couldn’t sense much of Benedict Cumberbatch in Smaug.

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Interestingly, I noticed several direct reflections of the LOTR movies in The Desolation of Smaug:

  • When Kili is suffering from a wound from a morgul shaft, those tending him call for the athelas plant (kingsfoil) only to be told it’s a weed. (Same thing happens in Fellowship when Frodo gets stabbed.)
  • Gandalf spends time imprisoned high up in an enemy fortress watching the enemy prepare for war. (Same thing happens in Fellowship when he’s imprisoned by Saruman.)
  • The journey through Mirkwood seemed very similar to the journey through Moria, with gnarly trees replacing caves.
  • Thorin’s lust for the arkenstone was starting to affect him something like the one ring affects its bearers.

I’m sure there are more parallels, and I’m not sure whether I liked them or not. The Hobbit is a different story, and I don’t think there’s a need for all the clumsy tie-ins.

Overall I think I liked The Desolation of Smaug about the same amount as An Unexpected Journey. Both are enjoyable returns to Middle Earth, but simply can’t live up to the LOTR movies. As I said in my post on An Unexpected Journey a year ago, the source material just isn’t there.

On second thoughts, maybe I liked The Desolation of Smaug a bit better… you know, Legolas. Heh.

If you’ve seen The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug, I’d love you to share your thoughts here in the comments.

 

Thoughts on The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit movie (part 1 — An Unexpected Journey) has finally arrived. Given my love of the three Lord of the Rings movies, I have looked forward to this day with excitement and some trepidation — could the dramatisation of this humble book possibly live up to the magnificence of LOTR? And what’s with stretching it out into three movies?

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I haven’t followed all the discussion about the intended three Hobbit movies, but among my own friends there has been much doubt and cynicism. It does seem like a grab for box-office cash… after all, The Hobbit is a simple story, with none of the plot intricacies of the much longer and deeper LOTR. Assigning it the same amount of screen time seems ludicrous.

So off I went this evening to see the first movie, hoping it would justify its length with substance.

It does… and it doesn’t. The opening is marvellous. I liked the prologue, narrated by older Bilbo, which explains the origins of the quest — how Smaug came to occupy Eribor and why the dwarves want it back. And I didn’t mind the early tie-in to the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring movie. And I loved the unexpected party of dwarves rocking up — gorging, burping, laughing, singing, the lot!

Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo, and the motley band of dwarves are wonderful. They’ve made them up to be far more variegated in appearance than expected… some are old, some younger, some just odd. Richard Armitage as Thorin is excellent — but he’s the only one given any depth of character. Balin has a little more depth than the others. James Nesbitt’s Bofur is fun, and Aiden Turner’s Kili is being referred to by me as ‘the hot dwarf’…

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Another great scene was ‘riddles in the dark’, when Bilbo meets Gollum and finds The One Ring. That plays out very close to the book, right down to the riddles. Andy Serkis as Gollum really works his relatively short appearance in the films.

Most of the rest of the movie loosely resembles the book (as far as I can remember — it’s been about 30 years). This was, I suppose, to be expected. I don’t really have any objections to deepening what is essentially a very simple story — strengthening motivations, building in backstory here and there etc. But I’m not convinced of the merit of all the attempts to foreshadow the events in LOTR. In parts these plot deviations/insertions seem a little contrived.

On the whole I enjoyed the movie — but my expectations of Peter Jackson movies set in Middle Earth are now extremely high, so I’m taking the magnificent production design, costumes, makeup, CGI, score, cinematography etc completely for granted! Visually it is of course stunning (I saw the standard version, not the higher frame rate or 3D version).

Overall, The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey lacks the gravitas and depth of LOTR. This is understandable given the source material, but it seems to be trying to achieve a similar emotional journey — which is impossible. I think I would have liked it more if they had spent some of the ‘padding’ time giving some of the individual dwarves more character and depth — rather than mindless battles and discussions of ‘dark portent’.

As a result, I’ve come away liking the movie, but feeling as though it lacks something… It certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Fellowship of the Ring as a part 1. By the end of Fellowship, we truly cared about those characters and were completely invested in their quest. I don’t feel the same connection with The Hobbit. If they were going to stretch it to three movies, at least they could have given me that.

But it is worth seeing and I will almost certainly obtain the DVDs when they come out. And I am definitely looking forward to the next installment — probably with about the same combination of excitement and trepidation.

What about you? If you’ve seen The Hobbit part 1, what do you think?

 

Journeying through Middle Earth again

The imminent arrival of the new Hobbit movie (part 1) to our cinemas has me indulging in yet another viewing of the movies that started it all: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I love these movies.

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I’ll never forget the first time I saw Fellowship of the Ring. I went a couple of days after it came out, expecting it to be terrible. I was determined to see it, though, because it’s, well, fantasy and iconic fantasy at that. It absolutely blew me away, and I sat with a grin stretched from ear to ear. And saw it another three times in the cinema.

The entire trilogy is a masterpiece. How marvellous are the costumes, the props, the fantasy settings? How fantastic an interpretation of the story — all the stupid bits weeded out and the plot made slick?

These days I watch the special extended editions on DVD — I couldn’t count how many times. They never fail to uplift me. It’s classic epic fantasy at its absolute best.

I think Fellowship is my favourite of the three — I can’t go past the wonder I always feel on watching that movie. It’s more intimate than the others, and I enjoy the trials and tribulations of the fellowship. (On this most recent viewing I even gained a new perspective: some of those skirmishes are very like D&D battles!)

My favourite scene, however, comes from Return of the King. It’s the lighting of the beacons — when Pippin lights the beacon of Gondor and then, far off in the distance, another one is lit . . . and another . . . and another . . . until they get the message in Edoras. And, although I think it’s rather unlikely you’d have a couple of blokes shivering high up in the wind on the snowy mountain top, just in case they had to light a fire, this scene never fails to move me to tears.

Here it is.

There are other scenes I find inspiring too, including:

  • When Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf ride across the plains of Rohan towards Edoras after summoning Shadowfax (the combination of scenery and score is magnificent).
  • When the fellowship passes by the Argonath on their way down the river Anduril (the frequent reminders of an ancient civilisation gives the world of Middle Earth so much depth).
  • When Sam slings Frodo over his shoulder and carries him towards the mouth of Mount Doom (I think Sam is the true hero of LOTR!).
  • Pretty much any scene with Aragorn or Legolas in it (hehe).

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I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of these movies. I really hope the Hobbit lives up to them, although I’m very skeptical about making such a small, simple book into three movies. Ah well, I’ll be of to see the Hobbit — An Unexpected Journey soon after it’s out, of that I’m sure!

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is my inspiration of the week. Any kindred spirits out there? What do you love about them, and what’s your favourite scene?