Why I felt let down by The Hobbit movies

As the end credits rolled up on The Hobbit: Battle Of Five Armies, I said ‘well, that’s 144 minutes of my life I won’t get back.’ That followed the 169 minutes I lost with the first one (my wife said ‘it felt like out-takes from The Lord of The Rings’) and the 161 minutes I lost with the second.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

My main problem this time was a fundamental structural failure – the dramatic pacing associated with the big battle, which didn’t build to anything and diverted instead to a one-on-one combat on a skating rink. All of which puzzles me. Jackson is a genius film-maker. He’s nailed the current trend, he can get tremendous performances out of his actors – all of them masters of their craft – and he’s got an awesome team behind him.

But the movies weren’t The Hobbit. Not The Hobbit I grew up with, the delightful kids’ book that Tolkien published in 1937. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since forever. I must have read The Hobbit 20 times, and I hugely enjoyed Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.

I know full well that movies can’t exactly follow books. But this adaptation had, to me, missed the spirit of the original, largely through a mis-match of scale. You see, I am pretty sure that Jackson and his team know what they’re doing. About a decade ago one of the scriptwriters who’s worked on all six movies – Phillipa Boyens – told me that they, themselves, were fans. She also outlined how they’d done The Lord Of The Rings, and why it’d been adapted as it had been – for instance, dropping the Tom Bombadil sequence. All very sound, sensible reasons with which I agreed, princpally flowing from the fact that a movie demands very different structure and pacing from a book.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

Check out the battering. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Yet The Hobbit movies came across as disproportionate to the scope and scale of the original story – in effect, as very, very bad fan-fiction – a mishmash of Tolkien’s world with cartoonish bad guys and plots and characters that never existed in anything Tolkien wrote, an Elf-Dwarf romance that was the reverse of Tolkien’s own mythos, and lots of biff-bang-wallop adventuring. All presented with glacial pace and over-long set-piece chase sequences such as the goblin tunnels and the barrel ride, which seemed more designed as entrees for a video game than dramatic film scenes.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture at the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012.

I can only speculate as to what happened. But a large part, I think, is the direction film-making has generally taken in the last decade, partly in response to the capabilities of CGI and a new generation’s expectations, partly on the back of an increasingly risk-averse film industry. Films won’t get funded without meeting the market, and studios are increasingly aiming to get best bang-for-buck – capitalising on development costs by spinning multiple franchise movies out of a single investment.

Another issue is the fact that The Hobbit of 1937 is a period piece, these days – a tale framed by 1930s thinking. It lacked female characters. That stands against modern needs and ideals. Hence, I gather, the need to introduce one, Tauriel. All three Hobbit movies were excellent examples of modern film-making. Jackson’s unquestionably nailed that.

Tolkien did epic too – not least in The Lord of The Rings, more so in The Silmarillion, which is packed with tales that absolutely demand the Jackson big-screen treatment. But The Hobbit wasn’t among them. It had its epic moments, but they unfolded against a quieter background, as Bilbo engaged in his journey of self-discovery, and that to me was the spirit of the tale. To turn that into three multi-hour epic movies also meant the original themes and ideas were buried. Obviously a book has to be adapted to film; but to my mind the scripting went well beyond that. Largely, I suspect, to meet that need to make three movies.

And this, I think, is the problem; the fact that huge-and-epic stands against what Tolkien envisaged with The Hobbit, which was a short-ish childrens book with simple plot. Bilbo’s hero journey. Aspects of it were there – and Martin Freeman captured Bilbo’s character arc. But it was well buried amidst a panoply of other plot, characters and story line. As I say, to my mind the spirit of the original had been lost.

Given that, I can only lament the fact that the Tolkien estate hasn’t released the film rights for The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works. Jackson could certainly do them justice. But as I understand it we’ll have to wait until 2048, when it enters public domain, to see anything more on screen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Kids books that have totally stuck with you

When you were a kid, did you ever find a book that, to this day, hasn’t gone away – that you could maybe read, years and years later, and still enjoy?

Here’s my list, all books I read up to the age of about 11-12. I’m not limiting it to a ‘top 10’ – in fact, some of the entries cover whole series of books. Justifiably.

  1. Arthur Ransome – the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series
  2. C S Lewis – the ‘Narnia’ series
  3. Robert A. Heinlein – all his ‘juveniles’ (Farmer in the Sky, The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, etc).
  4. Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle In Time
  5. Tove Jansson – Finn Family Moomintroll
  6. J R R Tolkien – The Hobbit
  7. J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
  8. Nicholas Fisk – Space Hostages
  9. Norman Hunter – the whole Professor Branestawm series (my copies of the first three were autographed by the author himself, who came to my parents’ house in 1970).
  10. Arthur C. Clarke – Islands in the Sky (my main entree to Clarke, a YA-pitched showcase for his comsat future, and the first appearance of the ‘broomstick’ he also used 50 years later in 2010: Odyssey Two).
  11. Andre Norton – Plague Ship.

Care to share your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Visiting Peter Jackson’s amazing cinema in Miramar, Wellington

The other day She Who Must Be Obeyed and I went to have a look at the Roxy Cinema in Miramar, Wellington. It was done up a while back in classic golden-age cinema deco by Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, among others.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi frieze on the upper floor.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi sculpture on the upper floor. I took this photo hand-held, incidentally, and apart from adding copyright info and scaling back for the blog, it’s unedited.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork - Dr Grordbort himself in action.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork – Dr Grordbort himself in action.

There is a magic about the cinema that we’ve lost, these days. Except here – where it’s been recaptured with a vengeance. And more. It was like stepping back in time – not just to the magic of the 1940s, but the magic of the 1940s as they never were, a bronze-and-gold world of deco-infused dieselpunk, streamline moderne spaceships and fantastic planet-scapes.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Inevitably, it featured heavy Weta Workshop influence. Not least in the Hobbit Hole entrance leading up to the second floor atrium with its amazing Greg Broadmore ceiling featuring his iconic Dr Grordbort dieselpunk artwork.

And if that wasn’t wow enough, we also found a model of the Wotwot spaceship – and a glass-encased Lego model of the cinema, which was simply extraordinary.

Even the facilities had been finished with full attention to period detail, down to the shape of the handbasins – though it’s unlikely, I suspect, that 1940s cinema bathrooms had hand-movement sensors to turn the water on and off. But maybe, in the dieselpunk alternate world of this cinema, they did.

I had only one thing to say about the whole thing. OMG!

And when can I watch the Dr Phibes movies here?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

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