Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘J.R.R. Tolkien

A change of hobbit

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Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

When I’m working through my beloved special features on the Lord of the Rings box set, I sometimes need to remind myself that they aren’t the primary work, and that it’s the films themselves that should matter most. Yet it’s easy to get caught up in the supplemental materials—the richest I’ve seen on any home video release—to the point where you start to neglect the movies they’re supposed to document. And there seems to be something about Tolkien himself, or the world he created, that encourages this kind of attitude. When you look at the endless shelves of notes, discarded drafts, and miscellaneous backstory that Christopher Tolkien has published from his father’s archives, you begin to feel as if the original novels were just one possible manifestation of the author’s underlying decades of thought. That’s true of any work of art, to some extent, but the degree to which Tolkien’s creative process has been documented makes it seem as if the books were created to enable the work behind them, rather than the other way around. (Tolkien, who wrote the trilogy initially as an excuse to develop his Elvish languages, might have agreed.) And the same philosophy seems to have affected the Peter Jackson adaptations, which chronicle the production process so exhaustively that the movies themselves can come off as incidental. And while this might be unfair to The Lord of the Rings, it’s less so with The Hobbit, which still strikes me, to quote Bilbo, as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I still haven’t seen The Battle of the Five Armies, but I may need to check out the special edition, judging from a production featurette that was recently released online. Bryan Bishop of The Verge describes it as “the most honest promotional video of all time,” and in fact, it provides some startling—and discouraging—insights into why The Hobbit turned out to be so underwhelming. Even in the earliest footage released from the shoot, Peter Jackson looked tired and discouraged, and in this glimpse behind the scenes, we start to understand why. According to the featurette, Guillermo Del Toro’s abrupt departure from the production and Jackson’s equally sudden arrival left every creative department scrambling to catch up, and they never managed to get ahead of the game. The Weta design guru Richard Taylor, who is one of my secret heroes, says that they were constantly delivering the props needed for each day’s filming, and he waxes nostalgic about The Lord of the Rings, in which they had over three years to prepare, with entire racks of armor ready months in advance. In the words of production manager Brigitte Yorke: “Peter never got a chance to prep these movies. I can’t say that. But he didn’t!” Jackson came straight from Tintin, got sick for six weeks, and had only two months to restart the process from scratch before shooting commenced. For much of that time, he was operating on three hours of sleep a night, hoping to keep going in any way he could. As Taylor puts it: “You’re laying the tracks directly in front of the train.”

Peter Jackson

By Jackson’s own account, he was able to “wing it” fairly well—telling the crew to take a long lunch while he puzzled out problems alone on the set, even as the scripts continued to be rewritten—until he had to film the titular Battle of Five Armies itself, when his lack of time to think finally caught up with him. Andy Serkis’s second unit was banking entire rolls of generic fight elements when Jackson told them to stop, and production was halted, much to the shock of the crew, until the following year. Jackson says: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” And as much as this explains some of the problems that clearly afflicted The Hobbit from the beginning, it’s hard to understand why everyone is being so candid. (In The Verge, Bishop writes: “I’m frankly shocked that any promotional clip would be this straightforward about the problems the film had, but hey—whatever gets people talking about the movie.”) Part of it is probably due to the fact that documenting every stage of the production had turned into a habit itself, and it’s hard to stop that process even when the shoot itself goes sideways. It doesn’t go quite so far as such documentaries as Hearts of Darkness or Burden of Dreams, but as far as bonus features are concerned, the shift in tone captured here seems unique. Not even The Lovely Bones, which produced some of the most painstakingly assembled featurettes imaginable for a fatally flawed film, gives you quite the same sense of a movie spiraling out of control.

Yet there’s another explanation that gets closer to the heart of the matter. The video that we see here feels like the first half of a narrative familiar from all creative stories, cinematic or otherwise: the triumph over impossible odds. Despite formidable setbacks, the artist wins out in the end over all the constraints that time, money, and energy imposed, and the result vindicates the years he devoted to the acquisition of his craft. And for the first Lord of the Rings trilogy—which was beset by its share of production woes—that narrative made sense. (It also absorbs the myth that we find in the stories themselves, in which a ragtag fellowship triumphs over the seemingly invincible forces of Sauron.) If The Battle of the Five Armies had emerged as a masterpiece, the pessimistic tone of this featurette would more than satisfy the narrative function it was meant to fill, as Gandalf’s deep breath before the plunge. Instead, it gives us the first half of the cliché but not the second, and the mediocre quality of the resulting movie makes its candor seem bewildering. But that’s a lesson in itself. On this blog, I’ve often glamorized the role that constraints play in the creative process: “To achieve great things,” Leonard Bernstein is supposed to have said, “two things are needed—a plan, and not quite enough time.” But that’s usually as true of bad works of art as of good. We tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. That can be a hard truth to swallow. And if the example of The Hobbit has any value, it’s to remind us that not every creative road leads out of Mordor.

Is storytelling kid’s stuff?

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John Tenniel's illustration of the Red Queen

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. When you’re a full-time dad, you’re constantly in search of places where your child can romp happily for half an hour without continuous supervision, and our library fills that need admirably: it’s full of physical books, toys, activities, and new faces and friends, so I can grab a chair in the corner and take a richly deserved minute or two for myself while Beatrix goes exploring within my line of sight. Sometimes, when it looks like she’ll be staying put for a while, I’ll get up to browse the books on the shelves, both with an eye to my daughter’s reading and to my own. I’ll often pick up a title I remember and find myself lost in it all over again, and it’s a pleasure to discover that old favorites as different as The Way Things Work, The Eleventh Hour, and D’Aulaires’ Norse Myths have lost none of their fascination. There’s a considerable overlap between what kids and adults find interesting, and the best children’s books, like the best movies, can hold anyone’s attention.

I recently found myself thinking about this more intently, after discovering a shelf at the library that I’d somehow overlooked before. It’s a section devoted to classic literature for kids, and all of the usual suspects are here, from Anne of Green Gables to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—the latter of which is still the best children’s book ever written, and possibly, as Alan Perlis observed, the best book ever written about anything. But there were also many titles that weren’t originally written for younger readers but have been retroactively absorbed into the young adult canon. There was a generous selection of Dickens, for example, not far from Richard Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad and the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the same process has already gone to work on J.R.R. Tolkien. Novels of an earlier era that were written by grownups for other grownups start to look like children’s books: neither The Last of the Mohicans nor Huckleberry Finn nor To Kill a Mockingbird were conceived as works for young readers, but now we’re as likely to see them here as Laura Ingalls Wilder.

David Mitchell

There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, none of which are especially mysterious. Most of these books were four-quadrant novels in the first place: Dickens, like J.K. Rowling, was devoured by everyone at the time who could read. Many feature younger protagonists, so we naturally tend to classify them, rightly or wrongly, as children’s books, which also applies to stories, like the Greek myths, that contain elements of what look today like fantasy. And a lot of them are on school curricula. But there’s also a sense in which the novel, like any art form, advances in such a way to make its most innovative early examples feel a bit naive, or like more primal forms of storytelling that appeal to readers who are still working their way into the medium. Plato says that if the mythical sculptor Daedalus were to appear and start make statues again, we’d all laugh at him, and something similar seems to take place within literature. As the opening paragraph of James Wood’s recent review of the new David Mitchell novel makes clear, critics have a way of regarding storytelling as somewhat suspicious: “The embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” It feels, in short, like kid’s stuff.

But it isn’t, not really, and it’s easy to invert the argument I’ve given above: the books that last long enough to be assimilated into children’s literature are the ones that offer universal narrative pleasures that have allowed them to survive. Don Quixote can be found in the children’s section, at least in its abridged form, but it’s also, as Harold Bloom says, “the most advanced work of prose fiction we have.” A bright kid wants to read Homer or Poe because of the virtues that make them appealing to everyone—and it’s worth noting that most libraries keep two sets of each on hand, one in the children’s section, the other for adults. Every generation produces reams of stories written specifically for children, and nearly all of them have gone out of print, leaving only those books that pursued story without regard for any particular audience. The slow creep of classic literature into the children’s library is only a mirror image of the more rapid incursion, which we’ve seen in recent years, of young adult literature into the hands of grownups, and I don’t think there’s any doubt as to which is the most positive trend. But they’re both reflections of the same principle. Storytelling breaks through all the categories we impose, and the real measure of value comes when we see what children are reading, on their own, a hundred years from now.

In the country of the mind

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Super Mario Galaxy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional country would you most like to visit?”

On the list of books that have profoundly influenced my life, one of the more surprising is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. I no longer own a copy—although I’ve been meaning to get one for my daughter’s bookshelf for a long time—but when I first discovered it at twelve or thirteen, it quietly guided me toward a number of books and authors that have deeply shaped the way I think. It’s a big, handsome volume, almost absurdly rich and dense with content, that provides witty but essentially serious entries for upwards of a thousand different locations that were first described in fiction. All of the usual suspects are here: Oz, Narnia, Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga Stories, and of course the countless cities and countries that fill Tolkien’s pages. I have a feeling that for many young readers, their first exposure to this work led to a lifetime’s love of fantasy fiction, and in my case, the impact went even deeper. Two of the entries that intrigued me the most were those for the Library of Babel and the Abbey of The Name of the Rose, and as soon as I was inspired to check out Borges and Eco for myself, much of my life’s intellectual path was decided. And I have Manguel and Guadalupi to thank for this.

When we think of the process that has been come to be known as worldbuilding, we generally regard it as a preparatory stage for a work of narrative fiction, whether the author’s approach is that of a gardener or an architect. Recently, though, worldbuilding has become something of a pastime in its own right, with hobbyists lovingly creating maps, history, and languages for entire planets, like solitary versions of Borges’s mysterious Orbis Tertius, with no particular aim beyond the satisfaction of the act itself. On some level, this approach has an honorable history: Tolkien wrote his novels to provide a setting for his invented languages, not the other way around, and even if most readers are only tangentially aware of this, the origins of these stories go a long way toward explaining why the geography of Middle-Earth—and, by extension, the characters who populate it—is so persuasive. The Internet has also provided a way for these works to reach a wider audience for the first time. In the past, a diligently rendered gazetteer of an imaginary country might have come off as the work of a misguided teenager or an outsider artist, but now, it’s easier than ever to find others who can appreciate such efforts. (I sometimes feel that Henry Darger, whose work anticipates many of the more obsessive aspects of contemporary fan culture, was born a century too soon.)

J.R.R. Tolkien

The other great factor contributing to the surge in independent worldbuilding—along with the prevalence of scholarship and secondary works, like The Atlas of Middle-Earth, that put all of this background material in one place—has been the rise of video games as an art form. Games have been creating convincing worlds ever since the appearance of the first text adventures, but the real turning point may have been Miyamoto’s Hyrule, the first world on a console detailed and beautiful enough to inspire its own miniature atlas. Gaming is the purest way we have of traveling through an imaginary territory: in a novel or movie, we’re still following the story from one episode to the next, with only a few hints of the landscape at the edges of the frame, while a shrewdly designed game can seem open to endless exploration. Really, though, like the worlds that a novelist creates, this openness is a carefully sustained illusion, and the best games have developed ingenious ways of hiding their boundaries. There are times, in fact, when a game can seem richer with possibilities than life itself: a game rewards curiosity, risk, and investigation, while in our own daily routines, we tend to stick to the same familiar routes, to the point where we might as well be on rails. (It’s only on vacation that we start to regard the world with the same hunger that a video game evokes.)

That’s why, when I think of a fictional country I’d like to explore, I find myself unexpectedly turning to the Mushroom Kingdom, especially the version we find in the Super Mario Galaxy series. It’s true that when we visit it, it seems like a rather dangerous place, but I’d like to believe that we’re only seeing it during periods of unusual crisis. Otherwise, it seems like the kind of country where a nap under a tree would be followed by a swim, a treasure hunt, or a stroll through the clouds. It’s a testament to the genius and ambition of Miyamoto and his collaborators that a game that began as a simple side-scroller has evolved into a country charged with beauty and nostalgia, although none of this would matter much if the games themselves weren’t so enticing. And this may be the ultimate lesson of worldbuilding. The countries we imagine for ourselves are reflections of our wishes and desires for the real world, not so much in the level of detail they contain as in the sense of some higher purpose and harmony: in an imaginary land, we have the feeling that everything is there for a reason, and that the map leads to a genuine goal, however freely it allows us to wander. Real life, alas, doesn’t offer such guarantees—although if we saw it as an beautiful country that we’ve been privileged to explore, we might take more pleasure in the journey.

Why hobbits need to be short

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Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s never easy to adapt a beloved novel for the screen. On the one hand, you have a book that has been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest works of speculative fiction of all time, with a devoted fanbase and an enormous invented backstory spread across many novels and appendices. On the other, you have a genius director who moved on from his early, bizarre, low-budget features to a triumphant mainstream success with multiple Oscar nominations, but whose skills as a storyteller have sometimes been less reliable than his unquestioned visual talents. The result, after a protracted development process clouded by rights issues, financial difficulties, and the departure of the previous director, is an overlong movie with too many characters that fails to capture the qualities that drew people to this story in the first place. By trying to appease fans of the book while also drawing in new audiences, it ends up neither here nor there. While it’s cinematically striking, and has its defenders, it leaves critics mostly cold, with few of the awards or accolades that greeted its director’s earlier work. And that’s why David Lynch had so much trouble with Dune.

But it’s what Lynch did next that is especially instructive. After Dune‘s financial failure, he found himself working on his fourth movie under far greater constraints, with a tiny budget and a contractual runtime of no more than 120 minutes. The initial cut ran close to three hours, but eventually, with the help of editor Duwayne Dunham, he got it down to the necessary length, although it meant losing a lot of wonderful material along the way. And what we got was Blue Velvet, which isn’t just Lynch’s best film, but my favorite American movie of all time. I recently had the chance to watch all of the deleted scenes as part of the movie’s release on Blu-ray, and it’s clear that if Lynch had been allowed to retain whatever footage he wanted—as he clearly does these days—the result would have been a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, important, but ultimately a film that I wouldn’t need to see more than once. The moral, surprisingly enough, is that even a director like Lynch, a genuine artist who has earned the right to pursue his visions wherever they happen to take him, can benefit from the need, imposed by a studio, to cut his work far beyond the level where he might have been comfortable.

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Obviously, the case of Peter Jackson is rather different. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an enormous international success, and did as much as anything to prove that audiences will still sit happily through a movie of more than three hours if the storytelling is compelling enough. As a result, Jackson was able to make The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as long as he liked, which is precisely the problem. The Hobbit isn’t a bad movie, exactly; after an interminable first hour, it picks up considerably in the second half, and there are still moments I’m grateful to have experienced on the big screen. Yet I can’t help feeling that if Jackson had felt obliged, either contractually or artistically, to bring it in at under two hours, it would have been vastly improved. This would have required some hard choices, but even at a glance, there are entire sequences here that never should have made it past a rough cut. As it stands, we’re left with a meandering movie that trades largely on our affection for the previous trilogy—its actors, its locations, its music. And if this had been the first installment of a series, it’s hard to imagine it making much of an impression on anyone. Indeed, it might have justified all our worst fears about a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien.

And the really strange thing is that Jackson has no excuse. For one thing, it isn’t the first time he’s done this: I loved King Kong, but I still feel that it would have been rightly seen as a game changer on the level of Avatar if he’d cut it by even twenty minutes. And unlike David Lynch and Blue Velvet, whose deleted scenes remained unseen for decades before being miraculously rediscovered, Jackson knows that even if has to cut a sequence he loves, he has an audience of millions that will gladly purchase the full extended edition within a year of the movie’s release. But it takes a strong artistic will to accept such constraints if they aren’t being imposed from the outside, and to acknowledge that sometimes an arbitrary limit is exactly what you need to force yourself to make those difficult choices. (My own novels are contractually required to come in somewhere around 100,000 words, and although I’ve had to cut them to the bone to get there, they’ve been tremendously improved by the process, to the point where I intend to impose the same limit on everything I ever write.) The Hobbit has two more installments to go, and I hope Jackson takes the somewhat underwhelming critical and commercial response to the first chapter to heart. Because an unwillingness to edit your work is a hard hobbit to break.

“Sufficient art, cunning, or material…”

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Map of Middle-earth

I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really, stupendously long narrative and see whether I had sufficient art, cunning or material to make a really long narrative that would hold the average reader right through. One of the best forms for a long narrative is the adage found in The Hobbit, though in a much more elaborate form, of a pilgrimage and journey with an object. So that was inevitably the form I adopted.

J.R.R. Tolkien

As Tolkien knew, every novel, regardless of the scale or modesty of its conception, begins as a test that an author sets for himself. No matter how many times you’ve been through the process before, a novel always presents itself initially as a set of unanswered questions, both about the details of the actual story and about the author’s own talents and capabilities. And the only way of resolving such questions involves many months or years of sustained work that may, in the end, turn out to be fruitless or misguided. Reading the passage above, I’m fascinated by the fact that Tolkien’s original challenge to himself was simply to write a very long book that would hold the reader’s interest—an almost impossible proposition for most writers—and that his most crucial decision, to build the book around a pilgrimage or quest, was in some ways a technical solution to the problem of structuring this massive narrative.

And the key word here is cunning. Tolkien never had any reason to doubt his own intelligence, or his ability to generate extraordinary amounts of material for his imagined legendarium, but the tactical, tricky, flexible craft required to keep the pages turning was another matter entirely, and there’s no particular reason to believe that even a professor of philology at Oxford would have the skills required. (For one thing, they seem to have largely eluded Tolkien’s posthumous editors.) Reading Tolkien’s letters, you get a sense of a very shrewd storyteller who is well aware of the workings and practicalities of his carefully constructed fantasy, as in his treatment of those notorious eagles: “The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine,'” he writes. “I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.” Credibility, usefulness, cunning—these are the words of a writer highly attuned to the tricks of the trade. We’re all on a similar journey. And the road goes ever on.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2012 at 9:50 am

How far can a hobbit walk in a day?

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J.R.R. Tolkien

In constructing his lengthy saga, Tolkien freely borrowed from both experience and scholarship…Tolkien used technical points of reference from our world and applied them to Middle-earth. For example, the cycles of the moon in The Lord of the Rings are from the 1942 calendar. And when Tolkien had his characters walk or travel over any great distance, he actually used a British Army ordnance survey manual to find out precisely how far soldiers could move on forced marches.

Daniel Grotta, J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-Earth

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2012 at 9:50 am

The anxieties of influence

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Can a book be so good that it’s dangerous? As columnist Crawford Kilian has argued on NPR and the Tyee, there are, in fact, novels that offer such compelling examples of voice, style, and originality that they can seduce generations of young writers into following their lead, often with disastrous results. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, gave Kilian and his peers license to “essentially be a stenographer for [their] own teenage writing”—even though Salinger himself quickly moved in other directions. Other books that Kilian cites as bad influences include The Lord of the Rings, On The Road, and For Whom The Bell Tolls, and while one might argue with his choices—it’s certainly better to be inspired by Tolkien than by any of his imitators, and some of Kilian’s selections, such as Blood Meridian, seem motivated more by personal distaste—you certainly can’t say that he’s wrong. And Atlas Shrugged aside, in most cases, the better and more original the novel, the more dangerous it can be.

The problem, to put it as simply as possible, is that most highly original novels are the product of a long process of development, and when a writer imitates the result while neglecting the intermediate steps, he can miss out on important fundamentals. I should know. In my case, my dangerous book was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a wonderful novel, but as I’ve confessed elsewhere, I’ve come to agree with Tom Wolfe that it essentially represents a “literary cul-de-sac.” It gave me all kinds of bad habits, especially a tendency to indulge my characters in extended discussions of ideas, and almost twenty years later, I’m just beginning to escape from its influence, a process that required writing and publishing an entire novel that I’m hoping will exorcise it for good. And I can’t help but wonder where I’d be as a writer if I’d followed a less misleading example. As Henry James says, after comparing Tolstoy to an elephant carrying all human life: “His own case is prodigious, but his example for others dire: disciples not elephantine he can only mislead and betray.”

Since then, I’ve become a lot more cautious about my influences, especially when I’m working on a project. Now that I’ve finally begun to develop my own style, it’s probably less a problem now than before, but when I was first starting out, I found myself picking up the tics and habits of the writers I was reading at the time, always in a diminished, embarrassingly derivative form. As a result, as I’ve said before, I tend to avoid reading works by strong, idiosyncratic stylists when I’m working on a story of my own, and also works in translation, on the principle that it’s best to read good prose originally written in my own language. The trouble, of course, is that since I’m always writing these days, I’ve automatically excluded a world of good books from consideration. It took me forever to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, and even now, there are a lot of worthwhile books, ranging from Infinite Jest to, yes, Blood Meridian, that I’ve been avoiding for years for the same reason.

So what books should a young writer read? It might seem best to play it safe and follow the advice of T.S. Eliot, who notes that if a poet imitates Dante’s style, at worst, he’ll write a boring poem, while if he imitates Shakespeare, he’ll make a fool out of himself. The first thing any writer needs to master is simplicity and clarity, so of all contemporary authors, it might make sense to read only writers who embody those virtues—McEwan, say, or Coetzee. But it’s a mistake to start there as well. Like it or not, every writer has to go through a period of being misled by great authors, and perhaps it’s only by writing a bad imitation of Salinger or Jack Kerouac or even Eco that a writer can get it out of his or her system. Clarity and transparency aren’t virtues that are acquired by reading clear, transparent authors to the exclusion of everything else; one arrives at these qualities at the end of a journey that begins with self-indulgence and imitation and finally concludes with simplicity, with plenty of wrong turns along the way. In short, it’s fine to be misled by great books. Just keep the results to yourself.

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