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Books

The Lord of the Rings: book versus film

As a preface to this article, let me first make clear that I love Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. They are every bit as thrilling as the original Star Wars trilogy and are rightly considered cinema classics.

However…

I confess I get frustrated by those who have seen the films but refuse to read Tolkien’s novel. There is so much more depth to be appreciated in the book – depth that could only be hinted at in the films, and a depth that enables one to appreciate the films more. Many omissions and differences exist between book and film, almost all of them made with good reason. However, here then are just ten differences that illustrate why reading The Lord of the Rings is an essential exercise, preferably before seeing the films (SPOILERS AHEAD, obviously).

Fatty Bulger, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, the Old Forest and the Barrow Wights – The hobbit Fredegar “Fatty” Bulger is omitted from Jackson’s films, for reasons of narrative redundancy. However, losing him and Frodo’s fake move to Buckland also leads to the loss of a more significant section of the book, namely the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry and the Barrow Wights – an interval of several chapters between pursuits by Black Riders. Although the surreal nature of this section makes it an understandable cut for Jackson to make for film purposes, it is wonderful to read. The enigmatic Bombadil is the only character in the story entirely unaffected by the power of the Ring, and his mastery over the trees of the Old Forest (think bad Ents) and the evil spirits known as the Barrow Wights suggest an almost godlike origin. His wife Goldberry is equally mysterious. By the way, one of the daggers that Pippin and Merry get from the Barrow Wights are eventually partly responsible for the slaying of the Captain of the Ringwraiths, because of the spells cast on those blades when they were used in the fight against the Witch King of Angmar hundreds of years previously. Again, the film changes where Merry and Pippin get these daggers (from Galadriel) but it is great reading this background detail in the book.

Glorfindel – In the films, the Elves of Rivendell send Arwen to help bring Frodo safely across the Ford to evade the Black Riders. In the books, the character of Arwen is absent, although the mysterious and powerful Glorfindel appears instead at the last minute. Again, this is an understandable change, as it introduces Arwen in a more meaningful way appropriate to the film, considering Jackson opted to reintegrate her love story with Aragorn into the main narrative (in the novels it is relegated to the appendixes). However, the version of the story in the book works better for that medium, since Frodo’s collapse into the shadow world (due to Morgul blade poison) is isolating and genuinely frightening, especially the way the Black Riders communicate with him, urging him to give in.

The Hall of Fire – In Elrond’s house in Rivendell, the Hall of Fire is a magical place where stories are told in music and verse that seem to magically transport the listeners into the time and place of the narrative. It could have made for an extraordinary, hallucinatory sequence in the films, but the director would need to be someone like Terrence Malick rather than Peter Jackson.

Faramir – Boromir’s brother Faramir is handled very differently in the book. He doesn’t at first try and take Frodo and the Ring back to Gondor, but instead lets Frodo go on his way without a diversion to Osgiliath, once he is satisfied it is in his interests to do so. The version of Faramir in the films works equally well, but only in the extended cut which includes a key flashback that explains why his actions are different to those found in the novel.

Beregond, Bergil, Prince Imrahil, Ghan-Buri-Ghan and other allies omitted from the Battle of Minis-Tirith – Jackson rightly removed certain peripheral groups and characters from this sequence purely to streamline and avoid confusion. However, the book gives a much broader explanation of the provinces and dominions in and around Gondor that are affected by the invasions of Sauron. On a related note, whilst Jackson creates thrilling, eye-popping battle scenes, reading Tolkien’s prose is a more profound experience, as it is abundantly clear that the book has been written by someone who has seen the horrors of war first hand (Tolkien served in the British Army in the First World War).

The Palantir in Minis-Tirith – This is a major omission, and quite honestly one that Peter Jackson should have included. Denethor goes mad, but the reason he goes mad is because he has a Palantir. He unwisely uses it to try and see into Mordor, but the Dark Lord Sauron, being aware of him, manipulates Denethor by only allowing him to see things that will make him despair (such as his vast armies). This sends Denethor mad. The film only hints at this (“Do you think the eyes of the White Tower are blind?”) when really Jackson should have properly shown it.

The Structure – In the books, the novels are structured in an audacious way that allows the reader to really feel the despair before the battle at the Black Gate, because at that stage the last the reader heard of Frodo was his capture by the orcs following the horrifying encounter with Shelob. The Mouth of Sauron character (only present in the extended cut of the film) reveals to Gandalf, Aragorn, et al that he has Frodo’s mithril shirt, thus leading them to assume (falsely) that Frodo has been captured and killed, that Sauron has the Ring, and all is lost. However, in the film, we know this isn’t the case because the story cuts back and forth between the Frodo/Sam plot and the rest of the characters, making the scene dramatically redundant, hence why Jackson removed it from the version seen in cinemas.

Many Partings – Following the destruction of the Ring, the novel takes its time to wind down, saying goodbye to many characters that we have come to know and love, all of whom we will sorely miss. Jackson can’t do this properly, as film is the wrong medium for such indulgence (even what he did was considered overlong by some critics) but the page is the perfect place to do this. There are many melancholy sections of prose filled with vivid images, such as Aragon watching the hobbits depart, holding up the green gem, and the light of the sunset shining through it like a green fire. Or this moment, when Gimli laments their departure, which always brings a tear to my eye: “We will send word when we may, and some of us may yet meet at times; but I fear that we shall not all be gathered together ever again.”

The Scouring of the Shire – One of the main themes in the novel is that of growing up. When the hobbits return to the Shire, they are warned by Gandalf that they might not find things as they left them, but that they won’t need his help as they are now more than up to the task of dealing with the trouble they will find. Sure enough, Saruman has escaped from Isengard and wreaked havoc, and they end up having to confront his mischief, ending with the death of Saruman himself, right at the front door of Bag End. This is a significant difference from the films, as they placed Saruman’s demise (by the same hand) at the beginning of the third film, only in the extended cut. This change makes sense in the film, as having an addition confrontation and mini battle in the Shire following the destruction of the Ring and the crowning of Aragorn would have been episodic and anti-climactic. Nonetheless, in the novel this is one of my favourite moments – one that underlines the bitter cost of war and the pain of coming home to a world that has changed forever.

The Broken Power of the Three Rings – One thing the films fail to adequately convey is the tragic plight of the Elves. Either outcome of the War of the Ring is a loss for them. If Sauron wins, everyone is enslaved, and the world is covered in darkness. However, if the Ring is destroyed, the power of the three Elven rings is broken, thus undoing their magic, ending their power and leading to the departure of the Elves from Middle-Earth, paving the way for the dominion of men. It is equally clear in the books, but not in the films, that all Ring-bearers are doomed to this fate, which is why Frodo has to leave. Indeed, there are vivid moments in the final stages of the novel where Frodo is feverish, clinging to the white gem Arwen gave him as a kind of methadone to the Ring’s heroin. It is clear long before his departure at the Grey Havens that like the Elves, Frodo will not be able to stay in Middle-Earth, making his final departure all the more tear-jerking (much more so on the page than in film, in my view).

In conclusion, if you’ve only seen The Lord of the Rings but not read the books, I can only urge you in the strongest possible terms to do so.

Categories
Books

All Dark Places cover reveal

Here is the cover for All Dark Places – the upcoming horror anthology from Dragon Soul Press. It was designed by the fabulous Ruxandra Tudorica at Methyss Art.

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I have a short story entitled Once in a Lifetime in this collection. A psychological horror story dripping with existential dread, it is based on a particularly alarming (and surprisingly well-plotted) nightmare I had earlier this year. It is also partly inspired by some of the lyrics in Talking Heads classic 1981 single of the same name.

This is the first piece of writing I have not self-published, and it has been tremendous to see this whole project come together, under the brilliant editorial control of Jade Feldman.

I hope to interview the other hugely talented authors (A.M. Cummins, Anna Sinjin and Hui Lang) who contributed to this volume on this blog soon. Also there will be updates on launch events, in the run up to the official release.

All Dark Places is released on the 30th October.

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Categories
Books

My take on The Book of Dust

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I’ve recently finished reading Philip Pullman’s latest novel The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage. Described as an “equel” to Pullman’s astonishing His Dark Materials trilogy, this novel is set before those events, with the next two volumes supposedly taking place afterwards.

The His Dark Materials trilogy is justly celebrated, including here on this blog. An extraordinary feat of fantasy storytelling, I consider it an imaginative triumph on a par with The Lord of the Rings. Yet this new novel… Well, I have to be honest and say I found it a lesser offering.

The plot concerns how Malcolm, a landlord’s eleven year old son, becomes involved in protecting the heroine of the original novels whilst she was a baby, inside the parallel universe where human souls (called daemons) manifest as animals outside their owner’s body. Certain characters from the original stories – including Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter – make an appearance along the way.

Book of Dust

Pullman’s writing is atmospheric and vivid, and since I was brought up in Oxford and the surrounding areas, I love reading about places I am very familiar with (even if they are counterparts in a parallel reality). However, the story itself lacks the immediate vicelike grip of the originals. It take a while to get going, and one never quite gets the same sense of outrage at the villains of the story, despite flashes of that old Pullman anger at corrupt organised religion (the horrible St Alexander group for instance). Things perk up in the second half, once the flood hits, and Malcolm and his rather belligerent co-worker Alice have to escape with baby Lyra in the eponymous La Belle Sauvage, the boat of the title. Here there are intermittently exciting vignettes as they are pursued by a murderous sexual predator called Bonneville. Strangely this brought to mind not previous His Dark Materials stories but Charles Laughton’s classic film The Night of the Hunter.

Perhaps this cannot be fully judged until the remaining two volumes are released, but I must confess, I didn’t find La Belle Sauvage to be anything like as essential as the His Dark Materials trilogy. Perhaps time will prove me wrong, but that was my initial reaction at least.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Crazy Rich Asians

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Crazy Rich Asians is little more than a Singapore based variation on Cinderella, replete with additional variations on romantic comedy tropes. However, although it is not the groundbreaking genre giant some have claimed, it is frothy, fun and diverting, and goes to one or two unexpected places.

Based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, the central couple in the story are Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding). They’ve been living in New York in a relationship for a year, when Nick decides it is time to take Rachel to meet his mother. What Rachel doesn’t realise is that Nick is heir to a vast fortune and practically considered royalty in Singapore. Furthermore his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is a lot more than merely disapproving of the relationship.

This conflict between mother and potential daughter-in-law forms the central strand of the drama, but there are some good laughs along the way with side characters, including Rachel’s best friend Ah Ma (Lisa Liu) and the obligatory gay fashion expert Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos). Performances are winning and its well directed by Jon M Chu, who makes the film a colourful, vibrant experience with lavish houses, cars, wardrobes and some very tasty looking food on display too. However, this cleverly sidesteps the Sex and the City pitfall of revelling in what Mark Kermode notoriously called “consumerist pornography” by providing a sense of incredulity about the superficiality of the many crazy rich Asians on display here. For all its fantastical fairy tale gloss, the film definitely has its heart in the right place, occasionally dipping a refreshingly humane toe into more serious subjects like marital infidelity and single parents escaping an abusive partner. Best of all, the demonstration of true love as an act of sacrifice provides an almost Christian undertone at one point, which is fitting given that for all her sharp edges, Eleanor is portrayed as a Christian.

All of that makes the film sound terribly deep. It isn’t. Nor is it above criticism. For instance, I found the character of Nick a tad too-good-to-be-true, and there are a few clunky moments in the early stages. However, rest assured, all romantic comedy boxes are ticked, up to and including the inevitable but crowd-pleasing finale (which reminded me a little of Crocodile Dundee). I don’t think Crazy Rich Asians will ever make my list of greatest romantic comedies of all time, but it would certainly make a list of those that are above average.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – American Animals

American Animals. 

Photo: Courtesy the Orchard

A caption at the beginning of American Animals initially informs the audience that “This film is not based on a true story”, before the words “not based on” disappear. It’s a good joke, and one that sets up the supposed factual veracity of what follows in quite a forthright manner. At any rate, regardless of whether liberties are taken in the telling, American Animals is a riveting docu-drama heist film.

Writer/director Bart Layton intersperses his narrative with interviews with the real people involved in the heist – Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, as well as one or two other key people in the story (including librarian Betty Jean Gooch). Their characters are portrayed in the bulk of the film by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner, and Ann Dowd as the afore-mentioned librarian.

In 2004, disaffected Kentucky University students Spencer and Warren conspire to steal rare books (worth several million dollars) and sell them to a “fence” in the Netherlands. They plan by researching classic heist movies such as The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi and Reservoir Dogs, but during the audacious heist, things don’t exactly go to plan.

Layton coaxes great performances from his leads, especially Keoghan and Peters. The film delivers what is expected of the genre, building up a considerable head of suspenseful steam in the heist itself. However, what makes the film stand out is the quiet tragedy in the central relationship between Spencer and Warren. Both bright students from not exactly poor backgrounds, they nonetheless feel disappointed in life to the point where they come to believe the heist is a way to make their mark on the world, rather than disappear into an oblivion of humdrum everyday life. The duality of their intelligence and utter stupidity is ultimately quite affecting, as it touches on an almost spiritual need for significance that is bound to resonate with many in the audience.

In short, American Animals is suspenseful, darkly funny, insightful and poignant (albeit with the usual warnings about strong language) and comes highly recommended.

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Books

King Arthur and King David

King Arthur_and_ Sir LancelotThe King Arthur legends, and whether such a character ever actually existed, has long been the subject of speculation by scholars. However, I am starting to wonder if I am the only one who has ever noticed how closely the legends (most specifically, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur) resemble the Biblical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, detailing the story of King David.

Consider the following parallels:

Saul and Uther Pendragon are both assisted and then abandoned by the prophet Samuel and the wizard Merlin respectively.

The anointing of David the shepherd boy (at the expense of his older brothers) is strangely akin to the moment Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, at the expense of more outwardly obvious candidates. David and Arthur are both taken under the wing of Samuel/Merlin.

031David’s early battles with the Philistines and rise to become King are very much akin to the battles Arthur faces to unite the kingdom of Britain. In both cases, a golden age is eventually ushered in, in Jerusalem and in Camelot.

At the height of both golden ages, an act of adultery shatters the idyll. In the case of King David, he commits adultery with Bathsheba. In Arthur’s case he is innocent (although some versions of the story have him duped into sleeping with his half-sister, thus creating Mordred), but his wife Guinevere has an affair with the knight Lancelot.

Samuel and Merlin both die or disappear from the story, only to return from the dead at a key moment.

David and Arthur both end up fighting battles against vengeful sons, Absalom and Mordred respectively. Both kingdoms also suffer when plague and famine strike the land.

Both stories feature objects of immense power – the Ark of the Covenant in the Bible, Excalibur and the Holy Grail in the Arthur legends. These items bring blessing to the land and/or destruction, depending on what is happening in the story at that point.

Obviously there are some points of divergence in the stories, but the similarities are so clear that I can’t help wondering if Malory and others didn’t look to the Bible for their storytelling inspiration, or otherwise to embellish Dark Ages history (assuming there was a real Arthur, Merlin, Camelot etc). And even if they didn’t, the parallel is still fascinating.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Cold War

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A postscript at the end of Cold War, the new film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, rather touchingly dedicates it to his parents, whose relationship inspired the story. Far from feeling self-indulgent, this dedication contextualises the non-judgemental sadness oozing from every stark, monochrome frame, adding a very personal layer to what is already a masterpiece of austere, understated emotion.

This is the kind of story that, in Hollywood hands, could have been a bloated three hour epic laden with histrionics and melodrama. But as with his previous film Ida, Pawlikowski prefers a more low-key approach. Shot in unfussy Academy Aspect ratio with a mere 88 minute running time, this is nonetheless packed with incident as the story glides between 1949 and 1964, beginning in post-War Poland as music maestro Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) begins a love affair with up-and-coming singer Zula (Joanna Kulig). The film charts their relationship with music as a key commentator, with Wiktor’s initial interest in Zula revolving around having her as part of a Polish folk music group, bringing the voice of the peasants to the people in song, as per the Communist ideal. But with Stalin in charge of the Soviet Union, songs about love give way to political hymns, and idealism turns to despair. Escapes to the West ensue, but displacement and alienation severely test the bond between lovers – again as music provides a key commentary on the passing of time, from folk to jazz to the birth of rock and roll.

Make no mistake, this is an absolutely beautiful film in every sense of the word. Not only does the black and white photography look stunning (care of cinematographer Lukasz Zal), but the screenplay is shot through with compassion, longing, love and regret, with the tragic spectre of Communist totalitarianism ever looming in the background. Those whose idea of cinema is purely car chases, superheroes and CGI visual effects obviously need not apply, but others will be stirred by the raw, understated, ultimately heartbreaking performances brilliantly delivered by the leads. There are images here that will stay with you for the rest of your life, as well as music that will haunt you (the irony in the song referring to two hearts and four eyes is particularly potent).

It’s still too early to make predictions, but I suspect Cold War is a shoo-in for Best Foreign Film at the next Oscars, earning Pawlikowski his second Oscar (he won for the equally brilliant Ida). In the meantime, this minimal, melancholy, achingly romantic gem is nothing less than a must-see for anyone with a serious interest in cinema.

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Books

Once in a Lifetime to be published by Dragon Soul Press

Here is a short post about a short story.

I am thrilled to announce that Once in a Lifetime has been accepted by Dragon Soul Press for inclusion in their upcoming horror anthology entitled All Dark Places, to be released this October.

Once in a Lifetime is an existential dread short, inspired by an existential dread nightmare. I’ve always been of the opinion that bad dreams are better than good dreams, because they provide great inspiration for writing. Besides, there’s always that disappointment when you wake up from a good dream and find out that it wasn’t real.

Needless to say, I am very pleased. I will announce further details on the blog soon, including precise release dates, the cover reveal, interviews with some of my fellow authors, details on release launch events and so forth.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Upgrade

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If you’re looking for an outrageous blast of B-movie sci-fi thrills, look no further that writer/director Lee Whannel’s Upgrade. Essentially Robocop meets Death Wish, the film has a nifty premise with thrills and dark laughs to spare, and also an agreeably excessive glut of gory graphic violence (so it’s not for absolutely everyone).

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a self-confessed technophobe living in a near future of driverless cars, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and Cronenberg-esque body horror cybernetics. After he and his wife Asha (Melanie Vajello) are attacked by a gang, leaving his wife murdered and him quadriplegic, Grey is approached by rich scientist Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who offers a unique solution to his affliction. With a new revolutionary AI chip implanted in his spine, Grey regains the use of his limbs, but also inherits an AI voice in his head called STEM, who assists him in tracking down his wife’s killers. STEM is also able to take control of Grey’s body at his command, turning him into a flawless fighter. Lots of action ensues, some of it quite grisly.

Whannel’s direction is very good, particularly in fight sequences. Performances are decent, and the screenplay has many clever ideas that are mined for maximum thrills, rather attempting to offer anything particularly new in the cerebral debates on artificial intelligence found in less disreputable sci-fi. The film slightly loses its way in the finale, with the plot falling apart amid the carnage, but as a futuristic revenge thriller with zero pretentions, I still give it very high marks.

In short, Upgrade isn’t going to change the face of cinema, but it is a hugely entertaining blast of genre pulp, probably destined for cult status.