I told myself that February is the month I get my Hard Times manuscript together. This is in-between searching for jobs for after I graduate (preferably overseas), working on an anthology submission, and working on a PhD app. Times like this I feel kind of glad to be small press. The expectations I have for myself aren't any lower, but good god, I don't envy someone like George R.R. Martin, trying to get together a quality story that MILLIONS of people are waiting on. That's a lot of pressure. At this point, I've probably blown as many deadlines as he did. But I keep telling myself: don't stress too much. I write about elves, fairies, and unicorns. The whole point of doing fabulist work is to have frickin fun while dealing with the themes that interest you. So, this Black History Month, I'm going to honor my ancestors' sacrifices by finishing my unicorn book. Three days to go :)
Latest small press complication: Createspace won't do upside-down print. This is after much wrangling on the publisher's part. Format-wise, this is a severe blow. I really want it arranged like an old Ace book. But it's not the end-all. No ranting here, just an update. All it means is that other options have to be explored. It is certainly possible to sandwich the books together one after the other, as has been done with countless collections. Maybe another printer? Who knows. It's something I have to rap about with the other artist involved and see what conclusion we come to. The actual writing of the piece is on track. Again, as long as the content is up to the quality I set for myself, other setbacks can be endured.
Also, I was perusing Podcastle and found this gem: http://podcastle.org/2012/01/24/podcastle-193-fruit-jar-drinkin-cheatin-heart-blues/ It's from a recent lesbian steampunk anthology that got contributions from boatloads of talented writers. I don't read steampunk. Just not terribly interesting to me. But I do love folky, Southern-style storytelling, and Patty Templeton delivers it in spades. Some people tell me I write in that whole Faulknerian genre. I don't know. I think there's a big gulf between my work and somebody like Lewis Nordan (and don't you say that it's because he can actually write, asshole). I'd like to write more domestic or tall tale type Southern stories with folklore more in the background, and I will. Right now I gravitate toward the sweeping epic. Where was I? Oh yeah, Patty Templeton. She's the shit. Go listen to M.K. Hobson's excellent reading of her work.
Fellowship of the Ring
So I watched the trailer for The Hobbit. Looks good. I'm not super psyched. Contrary to some opinions, the Lord of the Rings movies did not get better as they went along, and King Kong pretty much killed my faith in Peter Jackson to tell a concise story. As you can tell, I don't like the decision to split this children's novel into two movies. That's getting into a whole other rant, but the entire thing is so greedy and cynical.
As Hollywood becomes increasingly artistically bankrupt, they've realized the power of the geek dollar. What do geeks like best? Length. Hollywood knows that, by splitting a movie in half, the geeks will pay twice for the same flick. After all, these bloated affairs come closer to the impossible and unnecessary task of replicating the book onscreen. Ugh. Just...ugh. Instead of tight, focused movies that narrow in on the themes of the work, we get Twilight: Breaking Dawn cut in half, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows cut in half. Both books have completely simple storylines that could easily be streamlined by a good screenwriter. Both books have interesting themes (most definitely Breaking Dawn, one of the most fucked up books about female sexuality in recent memory) that could get brought to the forefront by brave and ambitious filmmakers. Instead we get...fanservice. We get The Hobbit, brilliantly told in a Rankin-Bass cartoon that clocked in under two hours, cut in fucking half. And the geeks will pay top dollar for these half-movies.
I would say it takes real skill to cut a narrative down to the meat of it. To make a thematic masterpiece like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or the Olivier Hamlet. Movies like that are movies. The filmmakers knew how to let the visuals do the talking in place of text. Nowadays we get movies that are just scene after scene transcribed from the book. Like Watchmen, where they were so intent on replicating the comic that the film itself had no soul whatsoever. Was I seriously supposed to care about Rorschach as a person?
I'm sorry, books and film are two separate mediums and should be treated as such. Only in geek circles does bloated = quality. I'd personally take The Last Unicorn over your average high fantasy ultraseries of 10+ thousand-page books any day. I love George R.R. Martin. He either needs to cut or turn his books into a Burroughs-style serial with a book every year. And even then he'd need to cut.
I would say part of the blame for this trend stems from the LOTR Extended Editions, DVD versions that New Line released with extra footage and made bank. Fun for fans of the series, but bloated and meandering from a film perspective. Sorry. I knew I'd start ranting. If I want The Hobbit + made-up stuff from the LOTR appendices, I'll go read those books. I want the movie to be a good movie. I was super excited when Guillermo del Toro was attached. Yes, because its GDT, but also because I know he doesn't have the inclination to go bigger and bigger like Jackson does. He could deliver a well-done, beautiful and, best of all, tightly scripted fantasy story a la Pan's Labyrinth. I still have the niggling suspicion that Jackson, given his epic inclinations, will take one of Tolkien's simplest tales and try to outdo the scale of Return of the King. Oh, and add some fart jokes.
But enough Negative Nancy-ing. Of course I got a kick out of seeing "carefully, carefully with the plates" brought to life. The Gollum part at the end, with the LOTR music cue, was just perfect. And, yes, I'll be there for the half-movie on opening day. Why?
Because Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies are the reason I write fantasy.
I'm not going to start talking about Two Towers and Return of the King, because if I do this post will never end, but all my trepidation about Jackson's direction starts with those movies. Fellowship of the Ring is flawless. Beginning to end, a pitch-perfect example of the power of fantasy to tell human stories. There is not a wasted moment, and there are plenty of human moments that zero in on the characters' hopes and frailties. All told on a scale that boggles the mind.
I'm not a Tolkien fan. As I get older I find myself appreciating his poetic work like Sir Gawain, but his stories of lily-white ubermensch defeating the dark-skinned hordes always bored me. The idea of one group of people being good and another evil was just as lame and racist with Tolkien as it was in the Redwall books. I couldn't relate to Frodo. How can you relate to a guy whose primary problems in life come from external forces that oppress him simply because they're evil? In my world, the people I usually butt heads with think they're doing the right thing. They suck, but they're human. I wasn't used to that story in life, and I didn't like it in fantasy. I like my characters flawed, my favorite color is gray, and my favorite fantasy book is Beloved.
Let's go a bit further. In 2001 my concept of fantasy was Elfquest, Dragonlance, Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock. I discovered them in that order. My concept of science fiction was Ender's Game. Thus, for me spec-fic was complicated scenarios, morally questionable characters (very questionable in Conan's case), and an open approach to sexuality (fave Dragonlance character: Kitiara). I was a young, angsty and black product of the cynical '90s and my country's semi-elected leader has just received his blank check to massacre the Iraqis. I was in no mood for simple-minded bullshit from any form of entertainment.
December of 2001. I'm 17. I was in my senior year of high school and, as I often did, spent the Christmas season with my dad in Pittsburgh. There was a Showcase Cinema in Monroeville that closed down not long after. Now it's a Sheetz. I think the only Showtimes left in Pittsburgh are on the outskirts in places like Robinson. So I'm no Tolkien fan, but it's a fantasy epic on the big screen. You know I'm there. Sat right down in the theatre with my dad.
It was amazing. I've heard the second and third movies described as awesome, and they are, but Fellowship is amazing. The first half hour was spent developing the characters (I looooove the Hobbiton parts), and I already feel an attachment to them during the harrowing section with the Nazgul. There were all these wonderful character beats and the pacing was absolutely perfect.
And for every character moment there's an equally great visual. Saruman chanting from the top of his tower. The moth flying over a ravaged Isengard. Gandalf's stand against the Balrog. One jaw-dropping locale after another. Fantasy with a capital F. The filmmakers break new ground with the technology at their disposal and bring a whole world to life.
As I said, I grew up on Dragonlance. I picked up every book I could find in the macroseries and, no, not all of them were great literature, but the world of Krynn was consistently entertaining. Many DL fans have spent years clamoring for a film. The story is certainly cinematic. There was a garbage animated DTV movie that came out a few years ago, shortly before Wizards of the Coast put the whole series to bed. Hopes for a live-action DL film went out the window.
Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring was my Dragonlance movie. It had all the scope, all the fantasy, but most important it had the characters. I could see the correlations between Merry/Pippin and Tasslehoff, Aragorn and Tanis, Elrond and Elistan, Boromir and Lorac. Characters who had to conquer their own darkness before they could conquer evil. Simply put, eveything I wanted in a fantasy story was now onscreen.
So for an hour and a half I follow these poor Gandalf-deprived hobbits through a horror movie. Things get progressively worse, but they end up getting help from the mysterious Strider and gallant elven princess Arwen. (By the way, it tickles me how much Tolkien fans were complaining in 2001 about Jackson cutting Tom Bombadil and giving Arwen something to do. Little did they know the hair-pulling they'd be doing over the next two years). And by the way, how awesome was that scene of Arwen galloping around the trees with the Nazgul behind? Brilliant filmmaking and some damn good stunt riding.
I was afraid the movie would end at Rivendell because I've already watched a whole film, basically. I didn't want it to end. I thought I would exit with my dad into the cold night wanting to turn right back around and see the next showing because I NEEDED more. At this point, even Frodo thinks his story is over. Thankfully, it keeps going. And we get a whole new bunch of characters! As if things aren't bad enough, Saruman sends a hunting party after the Fellowship. Now, I'm assuming the Uruk-Hai leader is going to be a major villain in the next few films. A quick rest in Rivendell and it's back to hard times for the Fellowship.
The storytelling is engaging right down to the smallest detail. I'm a big fan of the "unexpected comrade" trope. I've loved it ever since I saw I Wanna Hold Your Hand and the greaser guy launches himself out the back of his car into the Beatles fans' car, just to be a dick, but now he's part of the adventure. I love that Merry and Pippin are simply out to still vegetables from a farm, run into Frodo and Sam and suddenly they're part of a mission to save the world. Sometimes, the greatest adventures are entirely unplanned.
What differentiates Fellowship from other fantasies, and makes it unique in the trilogy, is that there's hardly any humor. This is a mission, not an adventure. I can get down with some high fantasy if it's done well. I don't need everything to be Joe Abercrombie levels of bleak. I need to relate to the characters, know they deal with internal conflicts, and feel like what they are doing matters. That part in Two Towers where the Gondorian soldiers beat down Gollum, Abu Ghraib-style? Loved it. Sam cracking under the pressure and punching Gollum in the face every five minutes in Return of the King? Loved it. But back to Fellowship. Instead of Tolkien's douchebag Aragorn who runs around telling ev eryone they need to bow to him, we get an heir who is ashamed of his legacy and unsure of his destiny, played with a certain spiritual quality by Viggo Mortensen. We get a Boromir who becomes a big brother to the hobbits; a great warrior broken by despair. A Gimli who mourns the death of his kin. I was reminded in Fellowship that fantasy is not just about great happenings. It's about people just like me.
And these people get pulled through the ringer. Nazgul. Cave trolls. Goblins. Traitorous wizards. Evil crows. Gollum skulking everywhere. Kraken. Crumbling stairways. Snowstorms. Balrogs. Crazy elf ladies going nuclear out of nowhere. Uruk-Hai hunting parties. Sword fight after desperate swordfight, and it always feels like they're fighting a rear guard battle against superior foes. On top of Sauron's threat, the psychological pull of the ring is driving the companions apart. Even knowing Gandalf would return in no way diminished that scene of the Fellowship on the rocks outside Moria, literally breaking down after his fall into the darkness. For them, this is absolutely, positively real.
So I've traveled with these characters. I've seen them in joy and sorrow, I've seen their laughter and their loves and their emotional struggles, and I, the viewer, am just as emotionally exhausted as they are. That is when the fantasy part takes everything up a notch. These exhausted characters are, after all, in an epic battle against evil, and their enemies catch up to them at the worst moment. Jackson milks this for all it is worth.
Let me see if I can summarize:
Boromir succumbs to the pressure and tries to take the Ring from Frodo, but Frodo puts it on to become invisible, runs away but not before giving Boromir a good kick in the ass, and the warrior is left screaming at the trees, then Frodo is face to face with the flaming EYE OF SAURON HIMSELF, falls off the ledge of a ruin, is confronted by Aragorn but now he is distrustful, and asks the Dunedain if he can refuse the Ring of Power, and Aragorn DOES, making the choice that his ancestor could not and overcoming the lingering doubt of his ancestry, but they're not safe because Sting is glowing which means orcs are near and Aragorn yells at the ringbearer to run, RUN, and as Frodo runs, cloak blowing behind him, Aragorn struts out to confront what looks like every Uruk on the planet, lefts his sword to salute them like a true knight, ducks the first swing and hamstrings his foe, and it is literally awesome fight move after awesome fight move, Sam is looking for Frodo in the woods, Aragorn is pulling out every trick in the book to take on these orcs while SHOUTING HIS ANCESTOR'S NAME before Legolas and Gimli come to the rescue with an arrow and throwing ax and the three of them proceed to start wrecking everything in sight, Legolas draws an arrow, STABS AN ORC BETWEEN THE EYES WITH THE ARROW, then draws it back and SHOOTS IT AT ANOTHER ORC, and I am now in witness to the full badassery of these warriors that they'd been holding back until the very end of the movie where it would be its most awesome, I mean this nigga Legolas SHISH KABOBS TWO ORCS ON THE SAME FUCKING ARROW, Gimli smacking the shit outta them with his ax, Aragorn stabs an orc in the belly and then rams his head on a wall just to be a asshole, Merry and Pippin see Frodo crouched behind a tree and Pippin tells him to join them but Merry realizes he's leaving, going off on his own for the sake of THE WORLD, and they, because they may be small but they are HEROES, understand his decision and put themselves out as bait for the Uruks, distracting them, "Its working, Merry," "I know it's working," ha ha ha, and every single last character is being awesome, Legolas is standing there calmly picking off orcs as at least one person in the audience says "goddamn," when Boromir blows the horn of Gondor, at which point the High Fantasy Wrecking Krew engages in a RUNNING BATTLE with the Uruks, all documented in a beautiful overhead tracking shot that somebody should have won an Oscar for, and what's cool about Aragorn is that he's not afraid to fight dirty, ducking under an orc's swing only to pop up and smack him in the jaw with his sword hilt, then keep running, and Merry and Pippin see the Uruks coming for them when Boromir arrives and catches the haft of an ax in his hands, takes out that orc and every orc who comes at him, but wait, the hobbits start throwing rocks, and lo, Boromir the Fair, champion of Gondor, slicing and dicing and godDAMN this shit is violent, then the Uruk captain Lurtz ascends the ridge, draws back his longbow and shoots an arrow the size of a tent pole into Boromir's shoulder, and Merry and Pippin watch as he falls to his knees in front of a Catholic-looking statue, everything goes to slow-mo, the hobbits pause, but with a yell Boromir is back up, fighting in spite of his wound, then another arrow in his chest, Boromir is in shock, takes a look at his little brothers and KEEPS FIGHTING, and this is Gondor, this is the men of the West, slaughtering his enemies even as the strength leaves him, plunging his sword down into a fallen foe, lifting it for a downward chop that splits his enemy's skull to the teeth, then a whiz, the third arrow in his belly and he falls, as sunlight glimmers dim through the boughs the brave hobbits are pulled screaming into the arms of the Uruks and Boromir the Brave is on his knees in the center of the shot, three arrows jutting from his body, helplessly confronting his own failure as the Uruks race by him, and the only people left in the grove are him and Lurtz who is taking the time to savor the kill, posed right in front of Boromir, growling, the leather of his bowstring creaking loud as thunder and as he draws it back the son of Gondor can only stare straight in the eyes of his doom, and then ARAGORN! ARAGORN!! ARAGORN!!! jumps him outta nowhere, gets thrown into a tree and the orc pins him to the bark by throwing his fucking shield like Captain America, comes to decapitate Aragorn but he ducks, and it's just awesome, he punches dude in the belly, takes a knee to the gut, rolls away from his swordstroke and drives that wicked-looking dagger right into the thigh of the orc, who punches Aragorn and throws him like a ragdoll and then, I shit you not, pulls the dagger out of it his own leg and flings it at Aragorn, who STRIKES IT OUT OF THE AIR WITH HIS FUCKING BROADSWORD, and redoubles his efforts, blow after furious blow, and chops Lurtz's arm off, stabs him right in the gut, only for the Uruk to grab his hand and pull the sword into his own body, roaring defiance in Aragorn's face, and Aragorn's pulls the sword and summarily cuts his head off, thus ending the most down and dirty fight scene I'd ever witnessed in a fantasy movie, Aragorn runs over a hill of dead orcs to Bormoir's side, and Boromir despairs because he tried to take the ring and Minas Tirith will fall and on top of it he couldn't even save the hobbits, and Aragorn says he fought bravely, hands him his sword so he may die as a warrior, and Aragorn, finally taking up his mantle as a Son of Gondor, swears that he will not see the White City fall or their people come to ruin, and a look of peace comes over Boromir's face because he knows that this person will carry on his mission, and his dying words "I would have followed you my brother, my captain, my king," so goddamn poignant I bet Tolkien himself wished he'd thought of it, and Aragorn kisses his brow, and Frodo is on the edge of the river remembering the words of his beloved Gandalf, knows he must go alone, and makes his choice by rowing out in the boat, but what is this, it's Samwise Gamgee, loyal Sam, who will not defile his vow to stay with Frodo, who says, "I'm going alone," and Sam says, "I know, and I'm coming with you," and steps into the water although he can't swim and drifts slowly to the bottom and 17-year-old Elwin was absolutely positive the poor side-hobbit was going to die, I mean, it looked like he was already dead, and I was astounded by how much I actually cared, but a hobbit hand somehow descends twenty feet into the water to grab his hand, which comes to life to grip Frodo's hand, and with the Power of Love Frodo pulls him up into the canoe, and Samwise remembers his vow to Gandalf, and Aragorn sends Boromir's body into the river and off the falls but refuses to follow Frodo and Sam, "Frodo's fate is out of our hands," "The Fellowship has failed," despairs Gimli, and Aragorn puts his hands on their shoulders and says "Not if we hold true to each other," a vow to rescue Merry and Pippin from torture and death, a knowing smile between Legolas and Gimli and Gimli screams "Yes!" and they take off after the orcs ON FOOT, and as Frodo and Samwise look over the crags at the distant volcano Frodo knows he will most likely never see his friends again, and with a beatific smile he says,"I'm glad you're with me, Samwise Gamgee," they descend into the valley, the screen goes black, "Directed by Peter Jackson" comes up and I witness the biggest groan of disappointment I ever heard, and I knew...
That I would follow them. They had me completely. I cared about these characters. What I will forever love about this battle is that all the fighting is used to serve emotion. Aragorn, Frodo, and Boromir all resolve their character arcs in the first movie, and the other members of the Fellowship have their moments to shine. And by the end I was as emotional as them.
Why do we love fantasy? Because it's awesome. Magic and impossible things are awesome. It provides a space for badass elves to stab people in the face with arrows then use the same arrow to skewer two guys. But this same creativity is used to serve character. All to round out a movie that, minute by minute, is pitch-perfect in plotting, fight choreography, acting, set design, costume design, editing, pace, adaptation. A collection of grand events and small moments that create an entire world. That movie has informed my writing ever since. It's not often I watch a three-hour film and never want it to end. I thought it was going to end at Rivendell. But it kept going, and got more epic.
I never stopped reading fantasy, but Fellowship gave me an overwhelming urge to create. To pass along that feeling the movie gave to me. The feeling that the world holds more wonder than we can imagine. And in the midst of wonder, love, courage, friendship, our basic humanity is just as important.