Thursday, January 29, 2015

5 Reasons Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” Was Better Than Tolkien’s Original

For the past few years, my daughter and I have been slowly making our way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings (this is the third time for myself, the first for her). After we’d finish a part of the trilogy, we followed it up by watching the movie version by Peter Jackson. In many ways, I believe Jackson improved on Tolkien’s original. Here’s my take on the first part of the story, The Fellowship of the Ring.

As I wrote several months ago in my post on Rediscovering Vintage Fantasy Fiction, the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954 helped revive fantasy fiction as a literary genre. It’s probably the single most influential fantasy work ever published. For that reason alone, it’s a must read for anyone interested in the genre and should probably reside on the top shelf of every fantasy lover’s collection. That said, Tolkien’s trilogy was written more than a half-century ago and storytelling in the genre has evolved considerably since then. As a result, it’s not too surprising that a gifted director like Peter Jackson was able to tell the story better. Here are five ways in which he accomplished that task.

Here's the  vintage cover from my first edition!

1. Jackson Trimed the Fat from the Story’s First Act

In the film, the initial scenes with the Black Riders were intense. In the book, not so much. 

After the first scene with a Black Rider trying to catch the Hobbits’ scent, Frodo and his companions encounter a group of elves. They decide to eat dinner with their new elven friends (why not, they’re only be hunted by a Nazgul) and learn that the elves’ leader, named Gildor, has spent time with good ‘ole Bilbo. Then, after another brief Black Rider sighting, they wander onto Farmer Maggot’s farm, where they stay for another dinner and bit of ale, only to learn that the Black Riders are looking for a “Baggins.” (Through these many encounters, they learn bits and pieces of what Gandalf tells Frodo in the film about the Black Riders before he and Sam ever set off on their journey.) Instead of racing to Buckleberry Ferry with the Nazgul in fast pursuit, Farmer Maggot gives them a ride, and when they think a Black Rider may be following them, it turns out to be Merry riding a pony (Pippin, in the book, is with Sam and Frodo the whole way). 

Upon bidding farewell to Farmer Maggot, the hobbits spend time with a fifth hobbit, Fatty Bolger, in Frodo’s new home at Crickhollow. (In the book, he sells Bag End before embarking on his journey; but the fact he had time to close this real estate transaction just shows how little tension Tolkien infused into the first part of the tale.) Next, the four of them (sans Fatty) decide to travel through the Old Forest, where they fall victim to Old Man Willow (a hobbit-eating tree), only to be saved by the quirky Tom Bombadil. At Tom’s house, they get dinner with good ‘ole Bombadil and his pretty wife Goldberry. Only then does the story get interesting again, when they encounter the Barrow-wights before being saved by Bombadil and his animal friends. 

Jackson was smart to cut out these scenes and make the Black Rider encounters more of a harrowing and frantic chase. These cuts are one of the reasons the first book could fit into a three-hour film. Without them, the movie would have lasted and extra hour or more and half the audience would be asleep before Frodo and Sam reached Bree. And while the book’s barrow-wight scene is a good one, it’s not central to the plot and would only have interrupted the heart-pounding pursuit of the Nazgul.

This was well done in the film!

2. Jackson’s Scenes With the Nazgul Were Way More Intense

Even the scene with the Nazgul at Weathertop, which kicks the film up a whole other notch, is far less dramatic in the book. Instead of building tension, Tolkien has Aragorn recite a two-page poem about some elven woman, followed by a page-long info dump that looks as if it was plucked right out of the Silmarillion and dropped in here to diffuse any inkling of dramatic tension. I realize that readers were more patient back in 1954, but writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard wrote tales decades earlier with far more dramatic energy and conflict. Peter Jackson, by contrast, vastly improved on this scene, making it one of the most intense in the film until the characters are deep within the Mines of Moria. 

The last two pages of the first “book” (the first half of the The Fellowship of the Ring) involves the race to Rivendell and the pursuit of the Nine, ending with their devastation at the river. This scene is fast paced and accurately portrayed in the film, except that the relatively pointless character of Glorfindel was wisely replaced by the character of Arwen in Peter Jackson’s take. 

The movie's scenes with Gandalf were better!

3. Gandalf’s Scenes Were Superior in the Film

The film featured an exciting scene where Saruman betrays Gandalf and imprisons him at the top of Orthanc. In the book, this entire story is told by Gandalf at the Council of the Ring, which deprives it of almost every ounce of tension and suspense since we already know that Gandalf survives. So too must we wait until the Council scene to learn that Gollum had been captured in Mordor and tortured until he betrayed the words “Baggins! Shire!” Jackson, however, reveals this information before the Black Riders even arrive, giving much more logic to their purpose and creating much more tension up front both for the viewer and Frodo.

We felt what Frodo felt when Gandalf fell.

4. The Emotional Element is Far Stronger in Jackson’s Film.

In the book, once the Fellowship gets on its way, the story starts to hum. The scenes in Moria are exciting and even fast-paced, especially the scene with the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. Jackson makes these even better on film (seriously the cave troll scene is one of the best in the movie), but Tolkien gave him a ton to work with. Even Gandalf’s dialogue is straight out of the book: “Fly, you fools!” The game-changer for me, however, was when Gandalf falls at Moria.

Tolkien gives us no emotional reaction from Frodo’s viewpoint—or any of the hobbits. Instead he gives us a stilted speech by Aragorn. Jackson, by contrast, makes this one of the most emotional scenes in the entire film. You almost shed a tear when Frodo does, and the hobbits are so distraught, Aragorn orders Boromir and the others to carry them.

The film brought Boromir's tale full circle!

5. The Ending Is Much Better

The Fellowship of the Ring ends with Frodo and Sam setting off alone to Mordor. The attack by the Urak-hai, the capture of Merry and Pippin, and the death of Boromir actually take place in the first chapter of the second book, The Two Towers. Jackson, however, was wise to include that scene at the end of the first film.

For one, it completes Boromir’s personal journey, from his temptation for the ring, to his dark moment when he tries to take it from Frodo, to his heroic redemption in the battle against the Uruk-hai to save Merry and Pippin. Tolkien, by contrast, ends Boromir’s tale as almost an afterthought by moving it into the second book. 

Secondly, including Boromir’s death in the first installment creates a more exciting climax for the first film. Without this scene, which Jackson infuses with plenty of emotion, the movie would have ended on a bit of a whimper. While it’s great to see Sam loyally following Frodo at the end, this scene has more weight when it’s played against the death of Boromir, emphasizing the true danger posed by the Dark Lord and his servants. This only adds to the gravitas of Frodo’s quest and it sets up everything perfectly for the next film.

But these are just my thoughts – I’m curious to know yours. Do you think Peter Jackson improved on Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

5 Questions Going into Season 2 of “Black Sails”

This Saturday marks the return of the Starz original series Black Sails. It is the first of what should be an incredible run of shows in the first half of 2015, including seasons 3 of Vikings and Da Vinci’s Demons, as well as the return of Outlander and the next season of Game of Thrones. It rarely gets this good! Here are five questions I hope get answered this season as Captain Flint and the remains of his crew set their sights on the shipwrecked Urca de Lima!

1. How Will Flint Survive?

Since Black Sails is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, we should have always known that Flint was an evil bastard. After all, in Treasure Island it’s revealed he murdered his crew after hiding his precious treasure. Through the first half of Black Sails, however, Flint comes across more as the hero of the story. That is until he murders Billy Bones and Mr. Gates. After that last shocker, I was fully on the side of Mr. Dufrense and the rest of the mutineers, ready to see Flint hang for his crimes. Yet, for some reason, when he woke up on the beach after the Walrus was blown to bits by that Spanish man-of-war, his crew spared him. Is it because he was correct in his belief that they’d find the Urca? Or do they still plan to kill him once they seize the treasure? Who knows, but I suspect he’ll live and Long John Silver will have a big hand in his fate. 

2. Will Eleanor Guthrie Get Her Revenge?

Eleanor Guthrie is one of my favorite characters on the show. She’s tough, takes no crap, and outmaneuvers most men – that is until her ex-lover and hated enemy, Captain Vane, seized the island’s fortress and ruined all her plans. But I wouldn’t count her out for too long. My money’s still on Ms. Guthrie!

3. Can Billy Bones Really Be Dead?

Last season, we saw Flint push him overboard into a stormy sea. Also, he doesn’t show up among the cast of characters on Starz’s website for this season. But could we truly have seen the end of Billy? Not according to Treasure Island, where the appearance of Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow puts the entire story in motion. Unless, of course, the man who claims to be Billy Bones in Treasure Island is actually some other pirate who has stolen his name! I hope Starz clears this up before the series ends.

4. Will Jack and Anne Bonny Rebound?

By the end of season one, Jack Rackham and Max took over the island’s brothel, balanced the books, and fired its cheating madam. Jack’s girlfriend and former crew mate on Vane’s ship, the beautiful and mysterious Anne Bonny, was none too happy about this, yet she appears to stick with Jack. But when Vane reappears, he renounces both of them. I have to believe Jack and Anne will either get back in Vane’s good graces (though Vane appears to be a fairly unforgiving man) or side with Ms. Guthrie against him. I look forward to finding out which it is.

5. Will Silver Outwit Them All?

Long John Silver, played by Luke Arnold, may be my absolute favorite character on the show. He’s a charming and conniving rouge who’s destined to become one of the most notorious pirates in literary history. But how will he get there? Somehow he needs to get crosswise with Flint. And there’s still the matter of the parrot and a missing leg (though, I’ll note, the real “cook” on the Walrus has already lost one). I suspect there are big things in store for Silver this season, and I look forward to seeing if I’m right!

But those are just my quick thoughts – let me know yours. What big questions are you hoping to have answered in the second season of Black Sails!

* Images courtesy of Starz

Thursday, January 15, 2015

To Miklagard the Vikings Go in “Odin’s Wolves,” Book 3 of the “Raven” Trilogy!

To kick off the New Year, guest reviewer Bill Brockman has reviewed Odin’s Wolves by Giles Kristian, and it looks to be another fantastic Viking tale. Bill is an avid reader of historical fiction, but he’s also devoted his life to public service as a Battalion Chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and a 31-year part-time airman in the Air National Guard. His review of follows this image of the book’s cover.

Odin’s Wolves is the third and final volume of a trilogy, but may not be the final word in the story of “Raven”, the young Wessexman taken and adopted by Jarl Sigurd and his Viking raiders in the first volume, Blood Eye. I have already reviewed Blood Eye and Sons of Thunder (2nd volume) on Fresh-scraped Vellum (you can read it here and here).

Author Giles Kristian claims Viking ancestry in the author’s note and although he never uses the term Viking (he explains in an historical note to the first volume), there is no doubt who the primary characters are – Norsemen or “Vikings from Norway.” The narrator is a teenage orphan boy who had been named Osric by the villagers of Abbotsend in Wessex in the year 802. He has no real memory of his life before and had been shunned and feared by the other villagers due to his “bloodeye” (one of his eyes is red instead of white). In this third volume he has long left his past behind and become a proud member of the “Wolfpack” of Jarl Sigurd, blooded in battle both in Britain and France.

A motley and enlarged Wolfpack it is, too. In Sons of Thunder, the Norsemen who made up the original band had already been joined by Raven; several Wessexmen led by fierce warrior Penda; a Christian priest named Father Egfrith; and Raven’s love Cynethryth - daughter of the treacherous Wessex Ealdorman Ealdred, who was killed in Sons of Thunder. During that adventure in France, a forlorn group of Danes had been rescued following their imprisonment – along with Raven – by Emperor Karolus (Charlemagne). At the end of that book, we see the two Norse and two Dane longships barely escape from the pursuing Franks by the expedient of leaving behind their fortune of silver to distract the pursuers. This stratagem of Raven’s, although successful, does not endear him to the Vikings and they constantly remind him of their loss. The Danes are weak from starvation and nearly unarmed, but seem a hearty lot and Jarl Sigurd doesn't have it in him to abandon them. Thus the Wolfpack of Sigurd grows.

The solution to their poverty? Well, of course they decide to travel to Miklagard, the Great City!  Also known as Constantinople and today called Istanbul, this city is said to be made of gold, just the thing for “silver-light” Vikings.

Sailing along the coast, as ships nearly always did in those early years before better navigation methods became known, the Wolfpack spend weeks either sailing or rowing as the wind allows, beaching each night. Cynethryth has become a very different woman from the daughter of a prosperous Ealdorman that we met in Raven. Her ordeal at the hand of French nuns has forever darkened her outlook and she falls deeper and deeper into the orbit of the Godi (Norse priest) Asgot. She has little to do with a confused and dismayed Raven. Will she return to the normal world, or be lost into the darker side of the Norse religion? Only time will tell.

Along the journey, the Wolfpack will come into contact with Moors in the Emirate of Cordova (Spain); deal with Moorish pirates in the Mediterranean; visit a fallen Rome, and come into contact with all sorts of characters. The time in Rome, which is a nearly ruined shadow of its former glory, is eventful in several ways. Still populous, the city has lately been in an uproar. There has even been a return of gladiatorial contests to the Amphitheater! Being fierce Viking warriors, these Wolfpack will find a way to enter these contests once a substantial prize is offered by the mysterious Greek who sponsors them.

Their journey to Miklagard will take the nature of a quest to restore and Emperor to the throne, and perhaps lead to the riches Viking always crave. Will Raven and the Wolfpack survive? Will Cynethryth and Raven reconcile? Odin’s Wolves is a welcome and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, which leaves open the possibility of future adventures. Raven has matured, become wiser and less naive about life and death. His ties with the Wolfpack are tested almost to the breaking point and at times he even wonders if Jarl Sigurd still supports him. Without any more spoilers, you’ll have to read Odin’s Wolves to find out.

Thanks, Bill, for the review. I just started Blood Eye this month, and it looks like there’s a great third book to look forward to in this series!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

“Emaculum” Offers the Perfect Ending to “The Scourge” Series by Roberto Calas!

I began the New Year by finishing The Scourge: Emaculum, the third and final volume in Roberto Calas’ historical fantasy series about a zombie apocalypse set in fourteenth century England. In short, I loved this book and believe it’s the perfect ending to this trilogy. You can read my review of The Scourge here, and my review of the second book, The Scourge: Nostrum, here. A few *SPOILERS* may follow, so be forewarned.

Emaculum begins right where Nostrum ended. Having obtained three vials of a cure for the disease inflicting the zombie-like “plaguers,” Sir Edward of Bodiam and his friend Sir Tristan of Rye need only to return to the abbey of St. Edmund’s Bury to complete their quest. There, Edward can administer the cure to his afflicted wife Elizabeth and reunite with his beloved. Even more, if they can find an alchemist who can decipher the recipe for this cure, they may be able to save all of England. Yet, as in the first two novels, nothing about such a straightforward quest is ever easy. And I mean ever.

Now that the plaguers can be cured, Edward no longer sees them as monsters, but as victims – the afflicted who need to be spared until they can be saved. As the story progresses, he even comes to view himself as the “champion of the dead.” After all, he’s the only savior the afflicted may have. As a result, the true monsters of this story are entirely human. They include Sir Gerald of Thunresleam, Edward’s belligerent nemesis from the past two books, and – in one of the book’s many surprises – the king of England, Richard II, who has succumbed to madness during these dark times. In the Middle Ages, kings had almost absolute power over life and death, so there are few things as scary as an insane and violent king! Richard is the series’ best villain, so it’s not surprising that Emaculum may be the series’ best book. 

One of the author’s greatest skills is his ability to put his characters in a situation and have them suffer the worst outcome imaginable. Often these involve plot twists that the reader may see coming, but only because we’ve become trained to expect the most dreadful results for Edward and his friends. But don’t get me wrong, despite this perchance for putting his characters in unbelievably awful situations, the story’s pace is brisk and thrilling, and it’s filled with witty banter and amusing interludes that provide needed comic relief throughout the tale. Thankfully, the Scourge books are not horror novels, but rather fun, rollicking fantasies in the spirit of classic cliffhanger stories like the Indiana Jones tales – except set in medieval England.

As with the first two books, the author keeps the historical details believable and accurate (as much as they can be in an alternative history), and where he has taken liberties for the sake of story, he admits as much in an excellent series of historical notes at the end. One of my other favorite aspects was the return of a number of characters from the first book that didn’t appear in the second. In this sense, Emaculum takes the entire series full circle, tying up nearly every loose end from the first two installments. This results in a fitting conclusion to one of the more unique and engaging historical fantasy series I’ve encountered in a long time. I highly recommend it!

You can purchase The Scourge: Emaculum here.