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Of Smaug and storytelling. December 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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.

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More on naming cats. December 9, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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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

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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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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.