Tuesday, December 30, 2014

5 Thoughts on “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

For my final post of 2014, I’ll offer my thoughts on the final installment in The Hobbit series and what will likely be our last visit to the Middle Earth envisioned by Peter Jackson. So, without further ado . . .

Two movies would have been enough.

 1. This should have been a 2-movie series

I’m now firmly convinced that stretching The Hobbit into three films was a mistake from a storytelling perspective (although it may have been brilliant from a revenue perspective). While the movie covers roughly the last third of Tolkien’s work, the actual Battle of the Five Armies is only a single chapter in the book. Yet it takes up most of the screen-time in this film and frankly felt like the most drawn out battle in movie history.

Had The Hobbit been a two-film series, this movie could have begun with the escape from the elves, included the wonderful scenes with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, and concluded with a spectacular Battle of the Five Armies. Of course, Jackson would have been forced to cut out all the fat he inserted to stretch the movies into three parts. But that would have been a good thing.

This could be the longest battle ever filmed!

2. The best part was the first scene

Let’s face it, Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the best thing about the second film, and he’s the best thing about the third film too. Unfortunately, Bard slays Smaug in what is effectively the movie’s prologue, even before the opening credits. The dragon’s attack on Lake Town was brilliantly portrayed, and the dialogue between Smaug and Bard was perfect. Sadly, the rest of the movie never lives up to this first scene. This could have all been avoided in a two-film series, where Smaug’s entire story would have dominated the middle of the show.
Once again, Smaug steals the show.

3. The madness of Thorin was well done

After the first scene, the best part of the movie mirrored one of the best parts of the book, namely how Thorin’s greed upon claiming Smaug’s golden horde begins to drive him mad, to the point where he’s willing to go to war with the elves and men. Richard Armitage did a fine job with Thorin in this series, who has the most compelling character arch in Tolkien’s book.

Richard Armitage is damn good in his role.

4. I don’t know what to make of that scene in Dol Guldur

I was a fan of Jackson’s decision to include the scenes with the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, which are only hinted of in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. From the appendix in The Return of the King, however, we know that the Necromancer was actually Sauron, having returned to Middle Earth. He ruled from Dol Guldur until he was driven away by The White Council, which included Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond, and Saruman. 

To me, including the scenes in Dol Guldur transformed The Hobbit into a true prequel to The Lord of the Rings. But the way the final scene unfolded in this film seemed bizarre. Sauron appears in the sky wearing his armor from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Beneath him, clad in their kingly garb, is a line of floating Ringwraiths that looked like the spinning diamonds on a cheesy slot machine display or a bad video game. The CGI just didn’t look right. To me, the giant flaming eye from the Lord of the Rings films would have been a far better image. To make the scene even stranger, Galadriel turns the color of a Smurf and basically screams at them until they go away. Needless to say, this scene left me shaking my head.

I prefer Galadriel when she isn't impersonating Smurfette.

5. Farewell to Middle Earth

As in the novel, the end of The Hobbit takes Bilbo back to the Shire. The scenes of his final journey with Gandalf and the images of the Shire reminded me how fortunate we’ve been that Peter Jackson was able to bring Middle Earth to life. Even when the movies weren’t great (like the last two in this series), it was still a joy to spend a few hours in Middle Earth. I can’t imagine that Tolkien’s The Silmarillion will be made into a film, so this appears to be the end. I am going to miss these annual journeys to Middle Earth. Fortunately, we can still get there on Blu-ray!

* Images courtesy of TheHobbit.com

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An Amusing Interview With Smaug!

It's hard to find time in December to get anything done, and with a busy work week, it's been near impossible. That said, I found a few minutes to post a link to this amusing interview of Smaug by Stephen Colbert (you can see it here). I'm off this week for the holidays, but promise to post again before the New Year. Enjoy!

Note - This originally appeared last Wednesday. Due to a Blogger snafu, I had to repost it after accidentally deleting the original while trying to replace a bad link to the video. Blogger gets a lump of coal for Christmas this year!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vintage Fantasy: “Three Hearts and Three Lions”

After rediscovering vintage fantasy fiction by Robert E. Howard last month, it got me thinking about some of the other classics I’ve read over the years. Among these is Three Hears and Three Lions by Poul Anderson, first published as a novella in 1953. This may not be one of the most well-known works of vintage fantasy, but its influence on the genre cannot be overstated.

This is the cover of my Fantasy Masterworks edition.
Here is what famed fantasy author Michael Moorcock had to say about the book (from the back cover of my paperback edition):
This book, with The Broken Sword, is the best Anderson ever produced, a great seminal work which should be read by anyone interested in the roots of modern fantasy fiction.
 – Michael Moorcock
Moorcock has admitted that Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced his own stories about Elric of Melniboné, another fantasy classic. Anderson’s tale contains all of the fundamental archetypes of fantasy fiction, and while it may seem cliché by today’s standards, it was original enough in 1953. Also, this novel is credited among the sources that influenced the creation of the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons. It’s easy to see why since the whole story plays out like a good old fashioned D&D campaign.
This old school cover is cool too.
The protagonist of Three Hearts and Three Lions is Holger Carlsen, a Dane living as an engineer in 1930s America who decides to return to Denmark during WWII to join the resistance against the Nazis (significantly, Anderson too is a Danish-American who was in his teens when WWII broke out). When a bullet grazes Holger’s head during a gunfight, he loses consciousness, only to wake up in an age long past. Waiting for him is a warhorse, a suite of chainmail, a sword, and a shield bearing the heraldry of three hearts and three lions. Strangely, they fit him perfectly. He soon encounters a wood witch who divines that for Holger to return home, he must travel to the land of Faerie, and so his adventure begins.

Holger is befriended by a dwarf named Hugi, who plays the role of Holger’s sidekick, and a beautiful swan-may named Alianora, who serves as Holger’s love interest in the tale. As they travel to the Faerie realm, which exists in a perpetual state of twilight, Holger concludes he’s “fallen into a realm beyond his own time.” He comes to learn this world is parallel to our own where the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne exists alongside the realm of Faerie and creatures from legend, as if the fantasy world of the French Chansons de Geste (the Carolingian Cycle) had come to life. The fantastic realm is called Middle World, which sounds a lot like Middle Earth, but both Tolkien and Anderson likely derived the term from the Midgard of Norse mythology. The land is in a perpetual struggle between the primeval forces of Law (represented by the Holy Roman Empire) and Chaos (the forces of Faerie), and like the Nazis of Holger’s home world, Chaos seeks to make the whole earth its own.

This was one of the original covers.
Upon arriving at the Faerie castle of Duke Alfric, Holger learns that whoever he is in this world is a notorious enemy of Chaos. After things end badly at Alfric’s court, the story kicks into gear as Holger and his two companions flee from Faerie and encounter a veritable Monster Manual worth of beasties, including a dragon, a giant, a werewolf, a nixie, and a fearsome troll. He also discovers that whoever he is in this world was once the lover of Morgan le Fay – yes, she of Arthurian legend – and now his scorned lover is one of the queens of Chaos. The introduction of Morgan into the story seemed out of place at first, but then I was reminded that the French Chansons de Geste often crossed into the realm of Arthurian legend (and, without giving away the identity of Holger’s alter ego in Middle World, the chansons even include a story about the paladins of Charlemagne and Morgan le Fay).

Holger determines he must discover his true identity in this land so he can fulfill whatever destiny has brought him to this world. Along the way, he is joined by a mysterious Moor named Sir Carahue (also of Carolingian fame) who has been searching for Holger. Together with Hugi and Alianora, Carahue accompanies Holger on a quest to retrieve a magical sword named Cortanta, forged of the same metal as Durindal and Excalibur, which can help Holger withstand the gathering forces of Chaos (at least according to the old wizard who sent them on the quest). All of this makes it easy to see how Three Hearts and Three Lions influenced so many fantasy tales and role-playing games that came after it.

To me, the most interesting thing about Three Hearts and Three Lions is where it fits into the pantheon of vintage fantasy fiction. Anderson published Three Hearts and Three Lions a year before Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, yet sixteen years after the release of The Hobbit and twenty-one years after Robert E. Howard published his first Conan tale. Because both Tolkien and Anderson borrowed heavily from folklore, it’s hard to tell how much The Hobbit may have influenced Anderson’s tale. The dwarves and elves of Middle World bear little resemblance to Tolkien’s, though the story does have a riddle contest with a giant that’s a lot like Bilbo’s parlay with Gollum, and it’s reminiscent of the scene with the three trolls as well.

Of course, playing riddle games with a monster is as old as Oedipus and the mythological sphinx. The point is, each story and myth influences the ones that come after it. And as far as fantasy fiction is concerned, Three Hearts and Three Lions holds a special place in that lineage.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Teaser

I have been travelling all week, but before the week’s end I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the new teaser for the upcoming Star Wars film: The Force Awakens. Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, it’s hard to measure just how much influence the original Star Wars trilogy had on my own creativity. I am fairly certain that as a nine-year-old boy sitting in Grauman’s Chinese Theater watching a Rebel Blockade Runner being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer was a life-altering event. I suspect the same is true for many, or even most, science fiction or fantasy authors who grew up in that same time period. George Lucas essentially created a new mythology for our age (he’s sort of like the Homer of the late 20th Century). I frankly cannot imagine a more influential movie in my lifetime.

All of this said, I was never a fan of the three prequels. Every actor who tried to portray Anakin Skywalker seemed horribly miscast. If Anakin was supposed to be a rock-star Jedi before he went to the dark side, they needed an actor who exuded charisma. A Harrison Ford or Chris Pratt-type, if you will. Hayden Christensen brought none of that. Even Natalie Portman, who has proven herself to be a talented and engaging actress in films like The Professional, Black Swan, and even the two Thor flicks, fell totally flat in the prequels. It didn’t help to have that ridiculous age difference between her and Anakin in the first film, which made the last two rather creepy. All of this has convinced me that the biggest problem with the prequels was the writing and the stories themselves. Author Kristin Lamb wrote a wonderful piece on why the prequels don’t work. You can read it here.

Which brings me to the teaser. I loved it! It looks totally old-school and reminiscent of the original series. I loved seeing the X-wings and the Stormtroopers, and the shot of the Millennium Falcon soaring to John Williams’ famous score gave me chills. I even liked that new dark force light saber. J.J. Abrams (of LOST fame and the new Star Trek films, among others) has proven himself worthy of great filmmaking. May the Force be with him on this one!