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Series that shouldn’t have stopped (plus). July 18, 2014

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As we all wait…and wait…for “Game of Thrones” Season Five (and for “The Hobbit” and “Mockingjay” and… ), our friend Ben is picking up the theme from yesterday’s Silence Dogood post “Feel-good films.” There are some film series and TV series that Silence and I loved and feel simply shouldn’t have stopped, or should have swapped out leading actors. Here are a few that ended before their time, starred the wrong guy, or passed on the chance to star the right girl:

* The Conan movies. We love “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the Destroyer.” Rather than waiting until Ah-nold was too old for the role, then trying to revive the series with a younger man (Jason Momoa of Khal Drogo fame), they should have kept going while the going was good. (And kept Conan’s original sidekick rather than replacing him with that creepy little man.) Robert E. Howard wrote many Conan stories, so the filmmakers had plenty of material to work with. A missed opportunity for fun for all ages, more classic lines from Ah-nold, and campy entertainment for adults.

* The Tony Hillerman PBS “series.” Tony Hillerman wrote a shelf or two of Navajo murder mysteries featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, with a slew of great recurring characters, lots of Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni rituals and beliefs, and the breathtaking backdrop of the Four Corners as his setting. Robert Redford saw the books’ rich visual potential and filmed three PBS “specials” starring Wes Studi as Leaphorn, Adam Beach as Chee, and the marvelous Native American character actors Graham Greene as Slick Nakai, Gary Farmer as Captain Largo, and Sheila Tousey as Leaphorn’s wife Emma. But rather than making a regular series, Redford made one episode a year, stopping after just three. He should have filmed all the books while the cast was together, rather than letting them drift and losing momentum.

* The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels that follow the adventures of the beloved Botswana detective, Precious Ramotswe, her assistant, Grace Makutsi, and a cast of gently humorous and unforgettable characters (shout out to you and your famous fruitcake, Mma Potokwane), calls out for a series. And it looked like it was finally getting one, with Anika Noni Rose giving a true star turn as Grace Makutsi, but it fizzled and died after just three episodes. No fault of the series or the actors—the director suddenly died. I’d have thought another director would have been brought in, but instead, the series ended just like the Tony Hillerman specials. We are hoping, hoping, hoping that The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the Tony Hillerman novels both get a second chance.

* Master and Commander. Russell Crowe and the ensemble cast gave such a strong showing in the film version of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic seafaring novel, showcasing everything from warfare at sea to natural history and Regency-era espionage, that it seemed a natural for followups based on O’Brian’s subsequent novels. Instead, no more were ever made. Silence and I are still waiting.

Moving on to casting:

* Sean Connery in “Shogun.” James Clavell wrote the lead character in his blockbuster novel Shogun with Sean Connery in mind, and Connery would have been perfect for the role. (He proved his range beyond Bond once and for all in “The Man Who Would Be King,” and gave his greatest performance, in our opinion, in “Rising Sun.”) Watching the series, if you picture Connery in Richard Chamberlain’s place, everything suddenly makes sense. What a wasted opportunity, since everyone else in the series was so good, and Sean Connery would have made it perfect. But in this case, it wasn’t the producers’, director’s, or casting team’s fault. Whoever played Pilot-Major Blackthorne would have had to commit to filming in Japan for two years, and Connery wasn’t willing to do that. Chamberlain was.

* George Lazenby as James Bond. Speaking of Sean Connery, there have been a lot of Bonds over the years, but none were so perfect in our opinion as Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, who was chosen to succeed Connery. In “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” Lazenby proved virile, resourceful, intelligent, educated, and—in the only instance known to Bond—capable of actually falling in love. (Well, it was Diana Rigg.) You could totally believe both his 007 and human sides. This is a depth of character missing from most Bond portrayals, and, as Silence is constantly pointing out, he was very easy on the eyes, too. Yet he just played Bond in the one film. Why? Because his agent told him that being typecast as Bond would hamper his career. No doubt that great advice is why we all know him as an A-list actor. (Sarcasm.) I hope that agent is now supporting himself as a Wal*Mart greeter. We think Sean Bean, who played villain Alec Trevelyan in another Bond film, “GoldenEye,” would have made a fantastic Bond, too, so much stronger than Pierce Brosnan.

* Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar. Peter Jackson brought back Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, but passed on the opportunity to bring the gorgeous Liv Tyler back to Middle Earth in his film trilogy “The Hobbit.” She was, in our opinion, the strongest character in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (sorry, Sean Bean and Andy Serkis, we loved you, too), and since they decided to simply stuff Orlando Bloom’s Legolas into “The Hobbit,” not to mention Galadriel, we don’t see why Liv Tyler’s Arwen couldn’t be there, too. We do applaud the choice of Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, though.

Speaking of “The Hobbit,” which stars Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon Smaug, we are very concerned that the series “Sherlock,” starring Cumberbatch as Holmes and Freeman as Watson, might go the way of the Tony Hillerman specials. As it is, you’re lucky to get three episodes of “Sherlock” every two years, and its stars, and even its co-creator Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in the series and now the Banker of Braavos on “Game of Thrones,” are becoming increasingly busy with other projects. They’re promising a “Sherlock Christmas special” in December 2015 and three more episodes in 2016, but gee, that’s a long way off, and a lot of inertia and dispersion can happen between now and then. Hey, guys, show some pity! We could be hit by a bus between now and then and miss the next installment… if there even is one.

In an ironic turn, Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in all the Peter Jackson movies, is also playing Sherlock Holmes (at 93) in the upcoming movie “Mr. Holmes.” We look forward to seeing it!

Now it’s your turn: Tell us some we missed, or what you miss.

Stop bashing Tolkien. April 9, 2014

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are fans of the HBO hit series “Game of Thrones.” We don’t get HBO, so we’ll have to wait a year to see Season 4, but we own the other three seasons and have been re-watching them as Season 4 takes hold of the popular imagination.

We’ve also tried to keep up with the new season vicariously by reading press releases, interviews, reviews, and plot summaries. My favorite characters are Tyrion Lannister and the Hound, with Tywin Lannister a close third; Silence favors Lord Eddard Stark, Stannis Baratheon and Mance Rayder. (But then, she loves Sean Bean, Stephen Dillane and Ciaran Hinds, so I’m not sure what this is really saying.)

But I digress. Point being that we’ve noticed a really ugly trend in the reviews: Tolkien-bashing. It seems as if reviewers can only say good things about “Game of Thrones” if they say bad things about “The Lord of the Rings.” This is like comparing James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mystery series, or, as Silence points out, Gulliver’s Travels to Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.”

Think “A Song of Ice and Fire” author George R.R. Martin, on whose novels “Game of Thrones” is based, decided to see how J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic of Middle Earth would play out in real time? Fine. There are plenty of interesting parallels. What’s not fine is to gleefully shriek “A stake has finally been driven through Tolkien’s heart!” or “Tolkien is dead; long live Martin!” as we’ve seen in recent reviews.

As we’re sure many of you have, Silence and I grew up with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I used to read the whole cycle once a year, until it finally dawned on me that the characters in LoTR were so wooden and, unlike The Hobbit, there was no humor in it. But Professor Tolkien wasn’t trying to become famous or rich by writing a hit series. He was trying to make his life’s work—the study and translation of early to mediaeval Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic myth and literature—relevant to his generation.

He included heroes and monsters, trolls, elves, dwarves, goblins, dragons, and wizards as well as humans in his series because they were all in the lore and legends of the cultures he studied. For those peoples of the North, as for the Starks in Westeros, winter was always coming, and it was always long, dark, and brutal. And he wove the great mediaeval myth of chivalry, the noble knight, Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, into his epic as well, that honor will triumph, that weakness will be defeated. Aragorn and Gandalf win. Saruman and the Nazgul lose. Does anyone actually like Aragorn, or Gandalf, for that matter? To me, the only likeable characters in LoTR were Gimli son of Gloin, Samwise Gamgee, and Pippin. The rest were place-holders for a myth JRR Tolkien chose to weave and populate.

George Martin chose to bring this mythical world kicking and screaming into our modern age, sort of a bastard child of Tolkien and “Rome” and “The Tudors.” He has no education in the original works, unlike Tolkien. He also sets his action in a mediaeval world, and peoples it with mythical characters (giants, white walkers, dragons, witches—think Melisandre, the Red Witch—warlocks and wizards, as well as those like Bran and Rickon who are “wargs,” able to see through the eyes of others). But he brings the myth to the present with clever spins, from making the mythical dwarves of Tolkien into an actual physical dwarf, Lord Tyrion, to turning chivalric heroes into brutal sadistic monsters like Ser Gregor Clegane.

All this, and the ambivalence that pervades “Game of Thrones,” that makes a character like “The Spider,” Lord Varys, a hero, and a hero like Lord Eddard Stark a loser, is great plotting, great writing. But it is no excuse for reviewers to bash the books of someone long dead, someone who had a very different agenda: to make the past come alive for a new generation. True, there was no sex, there was no nudity, there was no sexual ambiguousness or titillation in Tolkien’s books. There was no gratuitous torture or violence. That’s because in his heart, Tolkien was a knight.

He lived what he wrote, all of his life. At 17, he fell in love with a 19-year-old girl at his boarding house and wished to marry her. The priest in charge of him (Tolkien had been long orphaned by then), afraid he would waste his brilliance, demanded that he leave his sweetheart without a word of explanation and not dare to approach her or any other woman until he reached his majority at 21. Tolkien felt honor-bound to agree. The day he turned 21, he rushed to London to propose to his true love, and they remained married and passionately in love until her death. He based one of his most astonishing stories on their love, and had the names of the characters he created for them carved into their tombstones.

Is this the world of “Game of Thrones,” where sisters and brothers have sex and murder anyone who might have found out their secret? Where scenes in whorehouses are as common as scenes on the battlefield? Hardly. Yet, George Martin has benefited from JRR Tolkien’s world, if only to use it as a ball to bounce off of. For reviewers to rush up to take pot shots at Tolkien now is despicable. Let “Game of Thrones” be “Game of Thrones,” and Tolkien be Tolkien.

And now my watch begins. March 5, 2014

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Fans of “Game of Thrones” may recall Lord Tyrion Lannister saying these words on his unfortunate wedding night, alluding to the vow of perpetual celibacy made by members of the Night Watch. But those of us who enjoy the occasional movie or TV series are in the same boat when it comes to waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for the next installment of our series to come out.

Mind you, we’re just starting 2014. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood just read that the next season of “Sherlock” won’t be aired until 2016. The three “Hobbit” movies have been stretched over three years; the three books of “The Hunger Games” series have been made into four movies to be aired over four years. As for “Game of Thrones” itself, if, like us, you don’t get cable TV, you can’t rent a season on Netflix or buy it on Amazon until a year after it’s aired. We finally received season 3 from Amazon last week, over a year after ordering it, because HBO wouldn’t release it any earlier.

It strikes us as amazing in the age of instant gratification, when people complain on social media if they have to wait ten minutes to receive their food in a restaurant and use that as a perfectly justified example of unfair, awful time wasted, that everyone seems perfectly happy to wait years to see movies and series they’ve been eagerly anticipating.

We don’t understand what holds their interest as year after barren year goes by. If you’re a child growing up with the Harry Potter books, you could keep reading and keep watching. But if you’ve already read The Hobbit or the Hunger Games trilogy years ago, how do you sustain your interest or even remember what happened, as eons go by between films? We’re not elves, after all, we don’t live forever.

It seems to us that studios are losing money and we’re not getting any younger while waiting and waiting and waiting. Please, people, won’t you hurry up?

Of Smaug and storytelling. December 17, 2013

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Our friend Ben is big on storytelling. There’s nothing as satisfying, nothing that brings such a sense of connection, nothing that reinforces a society’s values like a good story. That’s why stories like the King Arthur cycle and the Iliad and Odyssey and, say, Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol have enjoyed such long and healthy lives.

J.R.R. Tolkien was also a great storyteller. Our friend Ben has read his books, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, every year since I was in sixth grade.

Like all great stories, these books are ultimately about people (be they human, dwarf, elf or hobbit), about their strengths and weaknesses, about how they come to know themselves, to rise above their limitations or sink below their birthright. Thus, you have Gollum. You have Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. You have Arwen Evenstar and Thranduil, Aragorn and Boromir, Saruman and Sam Gamgee. You have Thorin Oakenshield.

And you have Peter Jackson, who is bringing Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, first in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now in The Hobbit trilogy, to the big screen. Mr. Jackson’s films of Tolkien’s books have been a huge success. But ultimately, they have little to do with the books that inspired them.

Mr. Jackson has succeeded in turning Tolkien’s books into high-speed action adventures worthy of any Marvel Comics adaptation. He apparently is so enamoured of his 3-D, computer-animated, high-speed action sequences that he is willing to sacrifice everything that made Tolkien worth reading in support of them. Such as individuality and character development. And as he has famously said, he doesn’t give a damn about what anyone who actually values Tolkien’s works thinks; he’s not making the films for Tolkien fans, he’s making them for himself.

Our friend Ben is sorry about this. I still see the Jackson movies; Silence Dogood and I saw “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” just last night. Much as we love Benedict Cumberbatch, we agreed that only three characters were developed at all during the entire, interminable 2 1/2-hour-plus film: Bilbo, Thorin, and Thranduil, the Elvenking. Everybody else just paled into shadow or (as with Bard and Tauriel) were cardboard characters, stereotypes, to begin with, serving a purpose but lacking real individuality.

You can’t blame Peter Jackson for Bard; he was a stereotype in Tolkien’s original as well, a place-holder. But to drain the life out of Balin, Bofur, Gandalf, Radaghast, Beorn, Legolas, the Master of Laketown, pretty much everybody; to cram in as many computer-generated fight scenes as was humanly possible, at the expense of character development; to make the plot subservient to the action sequences, just as in his Lord of the Rings trilogy: For shame!

Who knows if a version will ever be filmed that does justice to the actual story in Tolkien’s books rather than trying to turn it into Star Wars or a Marvel Comic epic. Our friend Ben salutes Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis and all the actors who tried to give Peter Jackson’s version their best. But for those who think these movies are all J.R.R. Tolkien’s world has to offer, three words of advice: Read the books.

Year of the dragon(fruit). February 8, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. We may be entering the Year of the Snake, but yesterday I felt that the Year of the Dragon was still very much with me. I discovered an oriental grocery while out shopping with a dear friend. Given that I live in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the local cuisine chiefly derives from hearty German farmhouse fare (“Dutch” in this case derives from Deitsch, German, not Netherlands Dutch), I’m always excited to find any venue that offers an extensive selection of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and other vegetarian-friendly foods.

This time, I hit the jackpot. My poor friend finally dragged me kicking and screaming from the store before I bought everything in it. I came away with some fabulous finds like Szechuan pepper oil, fermented red rice, and fried tofu. But the real highlight was the produce section. I loaded up on round green Thai eggplant, long purple Japanese eggplant, baby bok choi, super-fresh mung bean sprouts, okra, miniature mushrooms, garlic chives, baby shallots, cilantro, Thai basil, and long beans. Then I added an oriental persimmon and a dragon fruit.

Dragon fruit! I’d read about it, but never actually seen one. When I did, I was struck by how wildly gorgeous it is. The length and width of my palm, the heavy oval fruit had a ruby-red skin with overlapping “leaves.” Our friend Ben thought it looked terrifying, like an alien heart, but what it most reminded me of was the tuna, the beautiful red prickly pear cactus fruit beloved in Mexico, but in giant form.

Once I got it home, and before cutting into it, I wanted to learn more about dragon fruit, so I turned to my good friend Google, which led me to an extremely helpful article on About.com. I was very gratified to discover that the dragonfruit really is the fruit of a cactus: Score one for Silence! And I was surprised but pleased to learn that all you had to do to eat it was…to eat it.

The beautiful red skin isn’t edible. The author of the About.com article suggested slicing the dragonfruit in half lengthwise, scooping out the flesh and then cubing it (after making sure you’ve removed any trace of the colored skin). The flesh itself is white and filled with tiny black edible seeds; the author compared it to eating kiwifruit seeds.

She further suggested adding the cubed dragonfruit to a tropical fruit salad with papaya, mango, banana, starfruit, and so on, bathed in a dressing made from lime juice, canned coconut milk, and brown sugar or palm sugar. (What about kiwi?) Sadly, we’re trapped in the house expecting a major snowstorm to hit now, so the best I could do is a dragonfruit and persimmon fruit (and frozen mango, oh dear) salad (though I do have the lime juice, coconut, and brown sugar). But I think I’ll try the dragonfruit plain first, just to see what it tastes like.

I’m still in the dark about how people eat dragonfruit where it’s actually grown, but I think once I actually taste it I’ll have some ideas about how I’d like to eat it. Now the challenge is to get our friend Ben to try some…

If any of you are dragonfruit aficionados and have recipes to share, please let me know! I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to the oriental grocery, so I’d really like to make the most of the dragonfruit I have. As a huge fan of The Hobbit, it seems only appropriate to me to enjoy a dragonfruit in the year that Smaug has made the big screen at last.

‘Til next time,

Silence

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” December 24, 2012

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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and our friend Rashu finally got to see the film adaptation of the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The journey may not have been unexpected—we’ve all been reading The Hobbit regularly since childhood—but we were all anxious about the film adaptation.

The reviews have been lukewarm at best, praising Richard Armitage as the dwarf-king Thorin Oakenshield, Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Andy Serkis as Gollum, the last two reprising their roles in the Lord of the Rings (LoTR) movie cycle.

Mind you, it’s not that Silence and I don’t love Richard Armitage, who stole the whole show in the BBC’s “Robin Hood” series as Sir Guy of Gisborne, normally a minor character, and even with really tough competition from the hilarious Sheriff of Nottingham (“ham” being the operative word, he was so funny) and a very sympathetic Palestinian boy-but-really-girl who was part of Robin’s band. And who wouldn’t love Andy Serkis?! His Gollum is priceless and displays a full range of very moving emotions, far beyond just muttering “my preciousss.”

Admittedly, Sir Ian leaves me and Silence cold as Gandalf; we’d have preferred our hero, Christopher Lee, in the role. (At least he makes a return appearance as Saruman the White, though his beard looked a lot better in LoTR.) But our real issue was that nobody’s talking about Bilbo.

Bilbo Baggins is the heart and soul of The Hobbit; it’s a book about his journey, from a sheltered life in The Shire to a very full life of adventure and self-discovery, and it’s full of humor, unlike the uniformly dark, brooding Lord of the Rings trilogy. And we’ve very much enjoyed Martin Freeman’s performance as the longsuffering Dr. Watson in “Sherlock” (we’re also looking forward to seeing—or at least hearing—Sherlock himself, the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch, as Smaug). So why wasn’t anyone talking about his performance as Bilbo, the star of the show?

We were also dismayed when our friend Rob and his son Christian went to see “The Hobbit” and both of them proclaimed it the most interminable, boring waste of time they’d ever sat through. (Given all the movies they see, that’s quite a statement.) What had Peter Jackson done to our beloved childhood favorite?!

We were prepared to believe the critics’ comments that the movie was padded; after all, Mr. Jackson has stretched the book into a film trilogy. And we were also willing to set aside Rob’s and Christian’s comments on the grounds that they hadn’t even read The Hobbit, much less read it every year, so they could hardly be called fans.

However, Silence and I had been far from impressed by the film version of LoTR, while everyone else seemed to be falling all over themselves praising it. We found it tedious, with most of the characters interchangeable (exceptions being Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, Saruman, Gollum, Boromir, Pippin, Sam Gamgee, and, of course, Gimli, played by the marvelous John Rhys Davies), and the interminable battle sequences. But to be fair, we’d also found the trilogy in book form to be tedious, taking itself so very seriously, unlike the playful Hobbit. What worried us most was that Peter Jackson might have stripped all the humor from the film.

Not to worry. As it turned out, the dwarves were all great and all but Thorin were quite humorous. The makeup artists deserve a huge shout-out for their dwarves’ looks, especially the hair and beards. If you enjoy slapstick (which we do), the trolls were a scream. But Bilbo, who has a comedic aspect in the book much like Pippin’s in LoTR, seems to have lost it after serving a most unexpected supper to a bunch of uninvited dwarves and Gandalf at his home, Bag End. His performance can best be described as earnest. We hope he’ll recover it in the sequels.

Richard Armitage as Thorin was as good as advertised, and I have to admit that Silence thinks he’s a major hottie (as she did in “Robin Hood”) and makes a far better romantic lead than did Viggo Mortensen in the LoTR films (though we both admire Mr. Mortensen’s erudition enormously, he brings a depth to film that is seldom seen). Thorin may be a dwarf, but that’s not apparent in the film; he looms large as a valiant warrior and leader. This is a vast enlargement of his role in the book, where he was an arrogant, wooden, one-dimensional stick figure. Much credit is due Mr. Armitage, the screenwriters, and the director for this improvement on the original.

As before with LoTR, we felt that far too much time was devoted to digitalized fighting. But then, we’re not of the video-game-playing generation; maybe they’d find it fabulous. However, Rashu is of that generation, and he found the film much more disappointing than we did. We’re still not sure why, but we think it’s because so little of the film actually was drawn from the book. (We can only think of a couple of comments by Gandalf, and Gollum’s riddles, that were taken verbatim from the book.)

Maybe it’s because we weren’t expecting much, but we actually enjoyed the film. (Though we did mutter a lot of “Poor Bilbo!” as it progressed.) Would we see it again? Probably, but at home where we could walk away from some of the fight scenes (though we’d watch the opening fight of Thorin’s ancestors and the one where he battles the wargs and orcs in the final confrontation of the film; they were great.) But we think the fan documentary “Ringers” captures the playful spirit of The Hobbit far better than “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” If any of you have seen it, please let us know what you thought!

More on naming cats. December 9, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. We wrote about naming cats—specifically, naming our cat Pumpkin—the other day. This of course brought to mind the way popular culture influences the choice of names in general, from baby names to cat and dog names.

With the first movie in “The Hobbit” trilogy debuting within the week, no doubt a generation of dogs will find themselves named Bilbo, Frodo, Thorin, Beorn, and Gandalf. But what about cats? I suspect cat-lovers will turn not to J.R.R. Tolkien but to The Hunger Games for inspiration. We may not see many cats named Coriolanus, Seneca or Romulus, but Katniss is an excellent cat name. Gale works for me. Cinna is a good cat name, as is Caesar. Some cat-lovers who also love The Hunger Games might decide to name their cats Cato, Clove, Glimmer, Rue, or even Thresh, not to mention Finnick, Annie, Haymitch, Effie, Maysilee, and Johanna.

Would you name your cat after a character in The Hunger Games trilogy? Would you name a dog after a character in The Hobbit? Much as our friend Ben and I love The Hobbit, I doubt I’d go to it for pet names. But I wouldn’t mind naming a cat Katniss. Somehow, it just seems right.

             ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

The Hobbit turns 75. September 22, 2012

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This year, J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit, turns 75. Admittedly, that’s still pretty young compared to Bilbo Baggins’s 111 or Gandalf’s many centuries (if memory serves, Sir Ian McKellen, the actor who plays Gandalf in the movie series, believes him to be 700 years old). But it’s still a pretty good run. And now we Hobbit fans have not one but two things to look forward to: the release of the first part of “The Hobbit” movie series in December, and a new book, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen.

I discovered Mr. Olsen’s book in an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “The Grown-Up Pleasures of ‘The Hobbit’.” (Find it at www.wsj.com.) In the article, Mr. Olsen makes the point that The Hobbit is not just a children’s book, that it has a great deal to offer adults. Our friend Ben couldn’t agree more. I’ve loved The Hobbit since I first read it in sixth grade, and it’s still my favorite of Tolkien’s works. It’s complex, driven by Professor Tolkien’s vast knowledge of Nordic, Celtic and Saxon mythology and literature, yet it’s also playful. It never takes itself too seriously, unlike his other and darker works.

But there is one point on which I disagree with Mr. Olsen: He praises Tolkien’s songs and poems in his article as the highlights of The Hobbit, decrying the fact that many readers dismiss them as irrelevant or don’t even bother to read them. Our friend Ben is a lifelong poet and lover of songs, but Tolkien’s just don’t do it for me. I understand why he included them—again, homage to the ancient literature he loved—but while he was a great prose writer, he was no poet. Mr. Olsen quotes the song of the goblins (“Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!”) as an example of why Professor Tolkien’s songs were so great. Uh, excuse me?

Our friend Ben prefers Tolkien’s love of maps, geography, and walking (as expressed by Bilbo and lovingly illustrated by his creator). Professor Tolkien spends as much time on the places he creates for his Middle Earth as on his characters, and I think it’s time well spent: Middle Earth comes alive for us, from the Shire to Rivendell to Mirkwood to the Misty Mountains to Gondor to the fiery heart of Mordor itself.

Professor Tolkien was a great storyteller and a great creator of character. But he also understood the importance of creating a compelling context in which his story can unfold, a world that we as readers can picture and lose ourselves in.

Reading The Hobbit, we can see ourselves in Bilbo’s home, Bag End, with its numerous pantries (and wish we, like the dwarves, could enjoy one of Bilbo’s freshly baked seed-cakes); we can see ourselves creeping like Bilbo into Smaug’s lair; we can see ourselves in Beorn’s home, lying terrified as we hear the roaring outside and praying that we’ll survive the night; we can see ourselves in Laketown when the dragon rises and comes to set us all on fire.

Point being that, even as we can see Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and the rest in these situations, we can also see ourselves there. This is the secret of great storytelling: to make us not just want to read but to be part of the story.

Silence Dogood, reading over my shoulder, reminds me that this is also the secret of the unlikely success of a writer like Jane Austen, whose modest domestic period pieces should have gone the way of her contemporaries into obscurity when that period was past, but instead not only have endured as literary classics but have spawned a highly successful film industry and an entire category of fiction, the Regency romance. Like Professor Tolkien, Miss Austen was able to make her readers want to be part of the world she created, to be courted by Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, to live happily ever after.

It is a great gift to be able to imagine a world and bring that world to life. J.R.R. Tolkien drew on his enormous erudition and, taking the best from it, did exactly that. Even 75 years later, The Hobbit is timeless, as enjoyable to read today as when it was first published. Our friend Ben can’t wait to see the movie and read Mr. Olsen’s book. But those songs and poems? Oh, please.

A little treat for Tolkien fans. July 29, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

This Sunday’s “Cul de Sac” cartoon featured a little boy picking out a book in the library, when a second boy told him it was “derivative and thin, like watered-down Tolkien.” When the first boy’s mother asked him where the book was, he replied “I put it back. It’s derivative, watered-down tolking.” He thought “tolking” was some kind of obscure water sport! As all Tolkien lovers know, there’s a lot of “watered-down tolking” taking up shelf space out there.

Still, it’s hard to get enough Tolkien for the die-hard fan. Our friend Ben is really looking forward to the film version of “The Hobbit,” especially now that I know that the wonderful Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in “Sherlock,” will be starring as Bilbo, and that Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock himself, will have dual roles as the voices of the dragon Smaug and “the Necromancer” (can you say “Sauron”?). Of course, I’m also looking forward to the return of the priceless Andy Serkis as Gollum and my hero, the (apparently) immortal Christopher Lee, as Saruman. Rumor has it that director Peter Jackson is now planning to turn “The Hobbit” into a trilogy; I hope he’s able to pull it off, since The Hobbit is by far my favorite of Tolkien’s books.

But there’s still quite a stretch of time before even the first part is released in December, so if you’re hungry for more, here’s a little gem our friend Ben discovered that has delighted me at least as much as—and possibly more than—the actual “Lord of the Rings” films. It’s called “Ringers,” and it’s a documentary of Tolkien fans, but it’s a lot more than that. It has lots of background information on Tolkien and his world, numerous interviews with the actors of the movies, behind-the scenes shots on location in New Zealand, insights from Peter Jackson and others involved in the film, as well as Discworld author Terry Pratchett, David Carradine, Lemmy of Motorhead, and a curious assortment of others. 

If you’re like our friend Ben, you’ll love the interviews with some of the more colorful Ringers (“Call me Grimlock!”), and with favorite actors like John Rhys-Davies. There’s a wonderful surprise appearance by Andy Serkis (in his own form but still Gollum through and through; one Ringer remarks “You’re looking a lot better these days!” to which he replies “Thanks, preciousssss!”). And you’ll be amazed—or perhaps not—at the lengths some Ringers will go to to get their Tolkien fix. (One woman sold her house so she could go to New Zealand for the premier.) Fans of Pippin will enjoy getting to hear more of Billy Boyd’s delightful Scottish accent.

As you might expect, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn and is himself a deeply literate author and poet, has considerable insight into Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. But for our friend Ben, the best surprise of the film was the tremendously moving commentary of Sean Astin, who plays Samwise Gamgee, Frodo Baggins’s gardener and companion. In the films, his dialogue is mostly limited to “Mr. Frodo!”, “I’m coming, Mr. Frodo!” and “Don’t leave me, Mr. Frodo!” So it was wonderful and impressive to hear him expound on The Lord of the Rings in his interviews; his insights were the best of them all. Sadly, neither Christopher Lee nor another of our friend Ben’s favorites, Sean Bean (Boromir) were interviewed, but pretty much everyone else is there, with, of course, the exception of the Dark Lord Sauron himself. 

All this would make “Ringers” an exceptional documentary. But its creators have also added plenty of humor and cleverness in the way they treat the information. The scene in which they take down the early critics of The Lord of the Rings is worthy of Monty Python. If you’re used to documentary films being deadly serious, straight-ahead reporting, “Ringers” is a delightful, and delightfully funny, and ultimately delightfully human surprise. It’s one no Tolkien fan would want to miss.

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