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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.

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Bring back “Sherlock.” May 28, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. If there’s one thing that’s really aggravating, it’s when your favorite books finally are made into a series and then they just… vanish. Today, “Game of Thrones” fans are outraged because the producers chose to skip a Sunday showing over Memorial Day. Fans have to wait two weeks for the next episode.

But this is not a hardship compared to fans of “Sherlock,” who are apparently now going to have to wait until 2016—and, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s now 2014 and we last saw a season of “Sherlock” in 2013—for the show’s next season, thanks to star Benedict Cumberbatch’s hectic filming schedule.

Or fans of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries. Robert Redford took an interest and filmed three great PBS specials starring Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn, Adam Beach as Jim Chee, the marvelous Graham Greene as Slick Nakai, the always delightful Gary Farmer as Captain Largo, and the fantastic Sheila Tousey as Leaphorn’s wife Emma. But rather than filming a weekly series, Redford chose to release a single episode a year. For three episodes, total. No surprise when you have a bunch of busy actors and are trying to get them together once a year. But what a disappointment, since we know there will never be any more episodes with these beloved actors. Shame on you, Robert Redford! You had a great chance, great plots, and great actors, and you blew it.

Ditto for Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, starring Jill Scott as the beloved, compassionate, and wise detective Precious Ramotswe and the incredible Anika Noni Rose as her outspoken assistant, Grace Makutsi. The director died after just a few episodes were filmed, and the project was sidelined. For those of us who’ve read all the books and wait eagerly for the next tempting slice of the formidable Mma Potokwane’s famous fruitcake to be served up, this was and is a serious blow. Can’t blame the director this time, or the producers for not knowing how to move the series forward without him. But what a shame.

So, “Game of Thrones” fans, it’s tough to skip a week. But think of those of us who don’t get HBO and won’t pirate the series and are going to have to wait a whole year to get Season 4. Aaaagghhh!!! At least the showrunners are promising that they’ll take “Game of Thrones” through Season 7.

‘Til next time,

Silence

When the movie is better. March 24, 2011

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are great readers, but we try not to be book snobs. People love to belittle movies by comparing them, unfavorably, to the books on which they were based. (The Lord of the Rings movie series comes to mind as a justifiable example of this, reducing a wonderful trilogy to a two-dimensional endless battle sequence worthy of a video game.) But sometimes the movies are better.

Perhaps it was the death of Elizabeth Taylor, possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived, certainly the most beautiful we ever saw, that brought the topic to mind. Or watching the first episode of “The Pallisers” last night, or comparing the recent version of “True Grit” with the original. But whatever the case, we challenged each other to name some movies that were far superior to the books that inspired them.

First on our list was “The Running Man.” The novella that inspired the movie was little more than a two-dimensional sketch by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). For whatever reason, the scriptwriters managed to flesh the story out with real characters, lots of color, and actual depth. Ditto for Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun versus the Sean Connery-led film “Rising Sun.” Silence would add the Timothy Dalton version of “Jane Eyre” and both the Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions of Jane Austen’s “Emma” to the list. Certainly, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” were far better on film than on paper. Ditto most of the James Bond movies and the Conan movies. “The Commitments,” the marvelous fleshing out of a very slight novella by Roddy Doyle. And “Slumdog Millionaire,” the brilliant bringing to life of an Indian novel called Q&A, a first effort by Vikas Swarup.

Plays are not immune, either. “A Man for All Seasons” and “Amadeus” are two cases where the film trumped the play; ditto “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

Sometimes, we feel that the film versions and book versions come out as a draw. We both love the Tony Hillerman mystery series featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But we also really enjoyed the Robert Redford-produced dramatizations of the series. We feel the same for the movie “Smoke Signals” and the Sherman Alexie short stories on which it was loosely based. And we really enjoy both Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its TV adaptation.

Then there are the film versions that fall short. Besides the Lord of the Rings movies, there is the issue of Sherlock Holmes. Silence and I love Basil Rathbone as Holmes and respect Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, ADHD-bipolar genius enormously. But we are still waiting for the ultimate interpretation, the one that truly lives up to the stories and books. Silence enjoys the various interpretations of her favorite Jane Austen book, Pride and Prejudice, from the BBC version to the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth film to “Clueless” and “Bride and Prejudice,” the Bollywood version. But she still thinks the ultimate interpretation has yet to be done.

And of course, there are the books that should be made as films but are still waiting: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne and Tigana; Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen; Sheri Tepper’s Grass and The True Game trilogy; Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting; Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light and Golden Witchbreed; Wendell Berry’s Port William novels; Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons and Falls the Shadow; Hope Munt’s The Golden Warrior.  Directors, producers, scriptwriters, where are you?!!!

Readers, we know you have additions to our various lists. Please share them with us!  And meanwhile, let’s take a moment to honor those often-invisible, overlooked entities, screenwriters, who can turn run-of-the mill text into great cinema.

Exits and entrances. January 4, 2009

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Some days, even the simplest thing seems all snarled and gnarled in an impenetrable knot. Today was one of them. Our friend Ben wanted to write a post on 2008’s notable deaths and arrivals. There’d been an overview in one of our friend Ben’s and Silence Dogood’s favorite news digests, The Week, a few weeks back, but we appear to have cleared that issue away to get our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, ready for New Year’s guests.

Well, no worries, right? Just go online and search for notable deaths in 2008. Yeah, right. Um, deaths of famous people in 2008? Fuggedaboutit. Celebrity deaths? Geez. Never has so much pointless verbiage proved so unrevealing. Dammit, couldn’t somebody just have put up a list?! Even The Week‘s website proved as obscure as the Delphic Oracle. You’d have thought their article had never appeared.

This means that our friend Ben must fall back on my notoriously impoverished memory. That’s the downside. But, as Silence is sitting here gleefully pointing out (grrr!!!!), the upside is that this post will be a lot shorter than it might have been otherwise.

Obviously, the grand entrance this past year was Barack Obama’s, as he made history with his successful presidential bid. But a few other entrances shouldn’t be overlooked: Hillary Clinton’s as the first female presidential candidate; Sarah Palin’s, as she seemingly roared out of nowhere to capture the hearts and minds of her constituency; Caroline Kennedy’s, as she picked up her family’s mantle; and Ron Paul’s, as he proved that the internet was a viable political tool. (Dr. Paul has admittedly been on the political scene for a long time, but his unexpected appeal to young voters via internet support paved the way for Barack Obama and doubtless all future candidates.)

A lot of famous and significant people also made their exits in 2008, but I’ll limit my coverage to four: First, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first explorer of European descent to climb Mount Everest, whose feat and famous line when asked why he did it, “Because it was there,” inspired millions and has led many to risk and often lose life and limb while desecrating sacred space. Our friend Ben does not believe that “because it was there” is a justification for anything, but apparently plenty of Darwin Award candidates do.

Next, two writers: Tony Hillerman, who made Navajoland real to millions of otherwise oblivious readers. Fans ate up his Navajo mysteries starring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and learned something about the land and the folkways of an amazing people in the process. And Michael Crichton, whose novels followed his interests, from The Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park and Rising Sun. Our friend Ben found Crichton’s writing all but unreadable, but was fascinated by his obsessions and dragged myself through every new work avidly. The man couldn’t write, but he sure could think.

Finally, our friend Ben would like to give the nod to a man who was seminal to an entire generation, who inspired the heroes of the Hippie movement back in the Sixties and whose involvement with The Beatles became so notorious it still colors our perception of his school of Transcendental Meditation. I speak of course of the man who made “guru” a household word in the West, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who went to his reward in February of 2008, half a century after he first burst upon the Western scene with his mantras and meditations. By connecting with pop culture, the Maharishi opened the West to Eastern practice and philosophy, from Zen to Tibetan Buddhism, in a way that would never have happened otherwise. Our friend Ben has never tried TM or read the Maharishi’s work, but I give him credit for expanding my world and my awareness of the world notwithstanding through his missionary activities.

Before I leave this topic, our friend Ben would like to address other deaths that have affected me deeply, more deeply than any single death could. And no, I’m not referring to the deaths in 2008 of our beloved pets and companions Marcus Hookbill and Kittenous, hard though they’ve been to bear. Instead, I’m referring to all the senseless deaths that shook the planet in the past year, deaths of people like you and me, not famous, not important, but still beloved in the eyes of others and of God. I grieve for those whose lives were cut short by terrorist bombs, by sectarian warfare, by drunken drivers, by robbers, by drought and disease, by wildfire and flooding, by cold and heat, by hunger and thirst. As John Dunne so beautifully said, “No man is an island… any man’s death diminishes me.” And so it does.

Okay, I’m going to sign off now. This seemed like a big year for exits, from Tim Russert, Isaac Hayes, Studs Terkel and Heath Ledger to Eartha Kitt, George Carlin, William F. Buckley Jr. and Paul Newman, and I’m sure all of you have favorite folks you’d like to commemorate, as well as people who entered the world stage as others were exiting. So please, let us hear from you!

RIP Tony Hillerman October 27, 2008

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Today’s MSN headlines let our friend Ben know that one of Silence Dogood’s and my favorite authors, Tony Hillerman, just died. Tony Hillerman is the author of a series of mysteries set in the Four Corners region of the Southwest and starring fictional Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

Generally speaking, Silence and I aren’t fans of mysteries, unless you’re talking about Sherlock Holmes, where the famous detective is typically solving puzzles, not gruesome crimes. (A blue diamond in a Christmas goose and a fake beggar leap to mind.) Holmes’s mysteries focused on detection. Most of today’s mystery writers feel their novels have to focus on murder, and the more murders and the more horrific they are, the better. For some reason, Silence and I fail to find this entertaining. Even when the novels are wonderfully written and meticulously researched, as in the case of P.D. James’s work, we tend to admire them rather than enjoying them.

Tony Hillerman’s mysteries proved to be an exception. Silence and I collect Pueblo pottery, and we have a small collection of Navajo textiles, Zuni fetishes, Navajo sandpaintings, and Hopi kachinas (now more properly katsinas) as well. We both grew up avidly reading about Native American culture and saving our allowance for the occasional arrowhead, and our friend Ben is also a bigtime fan of cacti, reptiles, rocks, dinosaurs, and other hallmarks of the Southwest.

So when we first stumbled on Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, we were hooked. We loved his detailed descriptions of the Southwest. (We have been to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as to the ruins at Bandolier, and we have many books on the Southwest with gorgeous photos, some of them written by Hillerman himself, but even without them, we think we’d have been able to see the landscape through Hillerman’s descriptions.) We loved his reverent depictions of Navajo and Hopi beliefs. We loved his colorful characters, especially Jim Chee. The murders seemed almost incidental to the sweep of the Southwest and the Navajo and Hopi cultures.

We read each new Hillerman novel avidly as it came out, and waited impatiently for the next volume in the series. We watched the movie version of The Dark Wind and the excellent PBS versions of Coyote Waits, A Thief of Time, and Skinwalkers. Too bad PBS didn’t film them all! Silence and I applauded the casting of Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn and Adam Beach as Jim Chee, and we loved the strong supporting cast, including two of our favorite actors, the deathless Graham Greene as Navajo preacher Slick Nakai and Gary Farmer as Chee and Leaphorn’s boss back at Navajo Tribal Police headquarters, Captain Largo. The PBS series escaped the dreadful mistake Hillerman himself made when he killed off his best creation, Leaphorn’s wife, Emma, early in the series. (What was he thinking?!!) Fortunately, Emma remains alive and feisty but big-hearted as ever in the PBS series. We enthusiastically urge you to rent these episodes via Netflix, buy them used through Amazon, or try to find them at your local video store. You’ll be glad you did!

If you haven’t yet discovered Tony Hillerman’s novels and would like to try them, we suggest that you look carefully at the copyrights and choose books from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s. Because the life stories of Chee and Leaphorn are told sequentially, it’s nice to start at the beginning (Hillerman’s first Navajo novel is The Blessing Way) and move forward.

We think the last few novels were a mistake and should be avoided. As Hillerman got older and had more health issues, his plotting and research became sloppier. We found his final novel to be virtually unreadable. Tony Hillerman was a born storyteller, and we enthusiastically think he should have continued writing until he died. (We certainly hope we do!) But writing and publishing are two different matters, and those last few books should never have seen the light of print, especially when his publisher apparently couldn’t be bothered to have an editor, copyeditor, or even proofreader look over the novels before they went to press, full of typos, inaccuracies, and contradictions. Shame!!!

Silence and I would have loved to have caught up with Tony Hillerman back when he was at the peak of his abilities. We’d have loved to ask him to go back rather than always pressing forward, to write about Leaphorn and Emma’s earlier adventures, about Jim Chee’s upbringing and what brought such a traditional boy to become a policeman. Perhaps, as in the case of Sherlock Holmes himself, other writers will take up the challenge to keep Chee and Leaphorn alive now that Hillerman is gone. We hope so. And Robert Redford, if you’re reading this, how about finishing the PBS series you produced? It was great!

Thank you, Tony Hillerman, for giving our friend Ben, Silence, and countless other readers and viewers so many hours of pleasure. We hope you’re up there now, enjoying the Four Corners section of Heaven!