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Happy Hobbit Day! September 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Today, September 22, is Hobbit Day. And as huge fans of JRR Tolkien’s beloved book The Hobbit and all things hobbit, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac thought we’d celebrate with a quiz. See how much you really know about hobbits! The answers will follow the quiz, but no cheating, now:

1. Bilbo Baggins lived to be:
a) 111
b) 75
c) 120
d) no one knows

2. Bilbo’s home was called:
a) Baggins
b) Bag End
c) Bag Hall
d) Boromir

3. Frodo Baggins was originally called:
a) Fungo, after a cartoon ferret
b) Drogo, after a horse lord from “Game of Thrones”
c) Bingo, after a toy koala
d) Groucho, after a popular comedian

4. A song was written as a tribute to Bilbo. Who wrote and performed it?
a) Captain Kangaroo
b) David Bowie
c) Michael Jackson
d) Leonard Nimoy

5. Who tried to steal Bilbo’s silverware, auction off his belongings, and move into his house?
a) a gang of trolls
b) Samwise Gamgee
c) the Sackville-Bagginses
d) the Black Riders

6. The wizard Gandalf came to Bilbo’s final birthday party. Why?
a) for old times’ sake
b) to shoot off fireworks
c) to check in on old Bilbo
d) to take the Ring of Power for himself

7. Where does Bilbo want to go when he “retires”?
a) to Laketown
b) to the halls of the Elvenking in Mirkwood
c) to Mordor
d) to Elrond’s halls in Rivendell (Imladris)

8. To which of these hobbits is Bilbo Baggins related?
a) The Old Took
b) Belladonna Took
c) Bullroarer Took
d) Peregrine Took (Pippin)

9. What do Bilbo and the creature Gollum do when they meet?
a) eat raw fish Gollum has just strangled
b) play chess
c) exchange riddles
d) show their childhood photos and exchange childhood memories

10. What is a hobbit?
a) a small, quiet, singular creature that inhabits Middle-Earth along with larger beings like dwarves, elves, and men
b) the name is a cross between rabbits and humans; JRR Tolkien created them to amuse his young children
c) a heroic small race whose attributes, though modest, enabled first Bilbo and then Frodo and Sam to save the day when no other race could
d) the hero of a parable: YOU can save the day (or the world), no matter how unimportant you—and everyone else—thinks you are

And now for the answers:

1. d) Bilbo sailed away with the Elves at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; no one knows how old he lived to be.

2. b) Bag End. It’s basically in a luxury suburb of Hobbiton (as opposed to Bree or Bywater).

3. c) Frodo was originally called Bingo, after Tolkiens’s sons’ toy koalas. And Frodo was originally Bilbo’s son, not his nephew!

4. d) Leonard Nimoy. Good thing Doctor Spock mostly stuck to acting! Though you could certainly call his performance “out of this world.” Yowie kazowie!

5. c) Bilbo’s greedy, hateful, pretentious relatives, the Sackville-Bagginses.

6. a-c) Any or all of the first three would be correct as to why Bilbo’s dear old friend came to his 111th birthday party.

7. d) Bilbo had a fascination with Elves from the time he was a little hobbit, and when he actually saw Rivendell, he fell in love with them and their lifestyle.

8. a-d) Bilbo is a Took through and through on his mother Belladonna’s side; he’s related to all of them, even the foolish but lovable Peregrine Took (Pippin).

9. c) JRR Tolkien, a scholar of ancient Norse cultures and literature, must have found a connecting link across cultures in riddling. While it’s hard to imagine meeting someone now, especially a potential enemy, and challenging them to a game of riddles, Tolkien either found this plausible or didn’t want to scare his little boys, for whom The Hobbit was written.

10. a-d) All of the above. Hard to believe that Tolkien started out imagining hobbits as rabbit-sized people who lived in humanized rabbit holes, given the great importance they’ve taken on in the popular imagination. But there you are!

How’d you do? Happy Hobbit Day from our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders here at Poor Richard’s Almanac!

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

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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.

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

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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!