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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.

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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.