Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

In fairness, I did like The Lord of the Rings too (Part 1)

Frodo eyeing Sting for the first time, duplicating my skeptical look at the prospect of a Lord of the Rings movie.

The Huffington Post quoted me praising Star Wars in their “battle of the franchises,” in which, following preliminary rounds that have seen spirited contenders such as Harry Potter and James Bond fall by the wayside, Jedi now fight hobbits in the quest for the ultimate prize – the top rank in a meaningless, statistically-flawed survey of genre popularity.  Judging such things is a bit like trying to assign criteria to beauty – everyone has his own preference, and for infinite different reasons.  The same can be said for how I and many like me weigh Star Wars against The Lord of the Rings.  How we view them depends on who we are, what our circumstances are when we experience them for the first time, and how those experiences evolve as we grow and accrue the cynicism of wisdom to find endless fault with what once sparked only wonder.

I grew up with Star Wars, but can’t say the same for The Lord of the Rings.  I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated version at a friend’s birthday party when I was six or seven and what I recall most was the entire group of youngsters finding it tiresome and cheap and quickly shutting it off to listen to the newest Duran Duran record instead.  As I got older, it was one of those elements of popular culture that I was always aware of, but never terribly interested in exploring further (kindly recall that this would have been when the idea of sitting down with three enormous volumes of Tolkien prose would be quickly supplanted by the sight of a shapely pair of tanned legs strolling by).  And I was jaded by cinematic fantasy throughout the 80’s and 90’s:  endless chintzy, low-budget productions with lousy special effects, cruddy-looking monsters, embarrassing writing, hammy acting by D-list performers and the infuriating cliché of the “magical portal to Los Angeles.”  After all, why pit your dashing heroes against dastardly villains in a wondrous setting of visceral imagination (you know, something you’d actually have to pay somebody talented and expensive to dream up) when you can have them duke it out on Sunset Boulevard while hip-hop plays over each swing of their enchanted swords?  On television, mainstays like Hercules and Xena were amusing diversions, but drowned in smirking, anachronistic pop culture references, and characters’ ability to die and resurrect ad infinitum, what a friend once called “a day pass to the underworld,” undermined any sense of stakes when the scripts could be bothered trying to aim for it.  You got the sense that the creative sorts behind these ventures considered their target audience strictly ADD-afflicted kids.  Given little consideration was any semblance of “the big ideas” that fantasy can tackle, or any sense that these characters were remotely human.

Around the turn of the millennium I’d heard rumblings here and there that a new movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was underway.  Oh yeah, that crummy cartoon, I thought to myself.  The CV of director Peter Jackson was not encouraging either; the few minutes of The Frighteners I’d seen were silly.  When the appalling Dungeons & Dragons limped its way onto the screen in 2000, I thought it was a pretty accurate barometer of how the new LOTR would turn out.  Nobody could do this right, not with the kind of verisimilitude that fantasy cried out for, and this unknown New Zealander with a few weird-ass movies on his IMDb page certainly wasn’t going to be the first.

Then, in early 2001, someone sent me a Fellowship of the Ring promotional calendar.  And I was floored by what I saw – portraits of esteemed actors like Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm in richly detailed costumes as wizards, elves and hobbits.  Steven Tyler’s daughter looking simply radiant as Arwen.  North and Rudy as Frodo and Sam respectively.  The grizzly-looking guy who played Satan in The Prophecy as Aragorn, and what’s this… the MAN himself, Sean Bean as Boromir.  Okay, I thought, there might be something to this after all.  Especially since the quality of this calendar proved that some serious coin had been poured into this endeavour, it wasn’t a one-off “let’s-cut-our-losses-and-sell-the-rights-to-Taco-Bell” promotion.  Maybe, I dared to hope.  Maybe this time, they’ll get it right.  Thus, unbelieving me decided it was finally time to set about reading the books, so I could see how, despite all this incredible design work, the filmmakers would screw everything up.

Certainly a lot of Tolkien’s original work is decidedly uncinematic (not that it’s a bad thing, just some stuff fundamentally works better on the page).  Goofy Tom Bombadil seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen, and I cringed every time Sam burst into tears or characters broke into song at the drop of a wizard’s hat like they were starring in a Middle-earth revival of Guys & Dolls.  Realistically, I thought, for this to be adapted faithfully you’d have to turn it into a ten-hour musical.  But coming to it late, in the shadow of the upcoming films, I didn’t find any story beat I was particularly attached to, or dying to see realized in 35 millimeter.  I thought it could have made a great movie; I was just saddled with memories of 20 years of bad movies and could visualize the visible matte lines, crude animation and histrionic over-emoting under a synthesizer score that could have resulted.  Even as the months ticked away, trailers leaked out into the world, a traveling exhibit of the movie’s props and artwork made a stop in Toronto around my birthday, part of me tempered my excitement with a pestering reminder that after all of this promise, the inevitable letdown was soon to come.  It still could have gone so wrong.

Then, just after midnight on December 17th, 2001, the lights went down and the screen came to life…

(To Be Continued)

Vroom, vroom, sputter

As our civilization becomes more diverse, and more accepting, we still, like a man dangling from a cliff by his fingertips, cling to the traditional sense of what a man and a woman are supposed to be – what they like and don’t like and what they are supposed to be interested in and passionate about.  I wouldn’t under any circumstances suggest that I’m somehow breaking new ground myself – I’m a white guy who likes girls, it doesn’t get more mundane than that.  But I’ve always had cause to wonder why not being in to the same things that other guys of my generation are somehow makes me one of the “other people.”  What we like or don’t is still acceptable grounds for prejudging each other and defining how we stack up against the societal norm – whatever the hell that is.

I would think that for regular readers my nerdiness has been well heretofore established, what with innumerable references to Star Trek, Star Wars and those nefarious little ponies.  Conversely, I haven’t even a microscopic level of interest in football, hockey, boxing, wrestling, ultimate fighting, nachos, beer (beyond a good pint of Guinness every now and then) or, as I realized while waiting for mine to be fixed, cars.

Does nothing for me, sorry.

We do so love our magnificent machines, don’t we.  But not I.  I recall once walking with a group of friends, maybe four or five of them, from my house to some summertime event.  From moment one of this hourlong trek, the conversation did not deviate from engines, cams, rims, horsepower, makes, models, torque, valves, and god knows whatever else.  Every parked car we passed gave additional fuel – pardon the pun – to this ongoing, intellectually numbing dialogue where the underlying theme, if any, was one-upping each other with increasingly picayune displays of automobile expertise – the ultimate irony being that we were all too young to drive.  I think I got maybe one or two words in, likely nothing more profound than “Yeah” and its more insightful variation, “Oh yeah.”  To me, a car has only ever been a necessary tool for getting from one place to another in a world where we’ve spread ourselves out too far.  I don’t enjoy the experience of driving whatsoever.  I’m impatient with other drivers, I’m always convinced I’m going to hit something, and every whiff of exhaust sends me into a mental tailspin about what we are doing to the planet.  If it has four wheels, sitting in it doesn’t feel like being confined in a decompression tank and it isn’t costing me my firstborn to keep running, I don’t care what it looks like or how many cylinders are blasting away under the hood.

I appreciate that everyone has his passions.  Some are passionate about food, about movies, about designer clothes.  I am most passionate about writing.  The major difference, as I see it, is that I don’t talk incessantly about what colour typewriter or paper stock Hemingway or Tolkien or Ian Fleming used and how many words you can get out of a single strand of typing ribbon (or, rather than dating myself, I don’t know – the accuracy of the Microsoft Word spell check?)  The passion of driving doesn’t compute for me – when you’re writing something you are on a journey of the soul to places and states of being unknown, but when you arrive at the end of a car trip, are you changed?  Have you had an enlightening experience?  Are you somehow physically different because of the type of car you drove up in?  No, you’re just there at your destination, whether you took a Ferrari or a jalopy, whether you experienced the rush of breakneck speed or waddled in at 2 mph.  I understand that there are people who love fixing cars, who love transforming rustbuckets into sleek machines.  That’s fine, and that’s something entirely different – that’s more along the lines of what writing is, the process of creation.  But I still can’t get behind an invention whose existence, like it or not, has led to most of the wars we’ve fought over the last hundred years (and consequently a great deal of our environmental degradation) so Susie can get to the beach in her sweet sixteen present.

It frustrates me that our society needs the car so much.  I accept that it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.  I just don’t get why we should celebrate its trivialities at the same time, or why worship of all things automotive continues to be a prerequisite of masculinity.  And I find a bit of hypocrisy in the “racing fan” who is really just there to see those so-called beautiful machines crash and explode, or in the man who will chide his wife for the effort and money she spends on her hair and makeup while fretting lovingly over every stone chip and rubbing baby oil into his leather seats every night.  Perhaps this entire argument veers toward the curmudgeonly; perhaps one man’s passion will always be another man’s waste of time, no matter what it is.  But there is one major difference.  Drunken writing gave us some of the greatest and most spiritually transformative classics of modern literature.  Drunken driving just kills people.

So there.