Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Lord of the Rings

The thousand and one footnotes

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Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Francis Burton

In recent years, whenever I’ve bought a movie on Blu-ray, it’s been with as much of an eye to the special features as to the quality of the film itself. The gold standard remains the special edition of The Lord of the Rings, which is practically a film school in a box, but when I look at my shelves, I see plenty of titles—ranging from The Lovely Bones to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—that I don’t think I’d own at all if it weren’t for their featurettes and supplements. These days, with sales of home media falling everywhere, bonus content is one proven way of convincing consumers to pay for a physical disc, and it appeals to our natural interest in commentaries, ephemera, and glimpses into the creative process. In some ways, you could see them as an updated version of the original bonus feature: the footnote. Footnotes and endnotes originally evolved to meet a utilitarian end, but as everyone from the compilers of the Talmud to Nicholson Baker have long since realized, they can provide peculiar pleasures of their own, a kind of parallel narrative to the main work that allows for asides and digressions that don’t fit within the primary argument. A long footnote is often more interesting than the text to which it refers, precisely because it feels so superfluous, and an entire industry has sprung up around copiously annotated editions of our favorite books, of which The Annotated Sherlock Holmes remains the undisputed champion.

I got to thinking about this after scoring a copy of what amounts to the most extraordinary collection of footnotes in the English language. It’s the sixteen-volume translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the Arabian Nights, or rather The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which I picked up for a song this weekend at the Newberry Library Book Fair in Chicago. I’ve coveted this set ever since I first saw it in the library at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and when I see it in my office now, I feel like pinching myself. Much of the book’s fascination emerges from the figure of Burton himself, an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. He was a British adventurer, soldier, spy, and explorer who spoke close to thirty languages; he was among the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, under constant threat of discovery and death; he searched, unsuccessfully, for the source of the Nile; he survived a spear through the face in Africa. His legend tends to obscure his real achievements, but as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his fine essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” it’s the legendary Burton who survives. (Burton was clearly an enormous influence on Borges, and you see echoes of him everywhere in the latter’s stories, particularly in his lists of arcane facts and exotica.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And while I’m not sure I’ll make it through all sixteen volumes, I have every intention of reading every single one of Burton’s notes, which have a well-deserved reputation for raciness. Burton notoriously embraced the sexual and scatological elements of the original stories, to the point where the set was originally published in a private limited edition designed to get around the obscenity laws of the time. And there’s little question that his readers saw the annotations as a major selling point. Burton’s challenge, as Borges puts it, was “to interest nineteenth-century British gentlemen in the written version of thirteenth-century oral Muslim tales.” And in order to appeal to “the respectable men of the West End, well equipped for disdain and erudition but not for belly laughs or terror,” he loaded up his work with special features:

The text’s marvels—undoubtedly adequate in Kordofan or Bulaq, where they were offered up as true—ran the risk of seeming rather threadbare in England…To keep his subscribers with him, Burton abounded in explanatory notes on “the manners and customs of Muslim men.”

The result was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a deluxe box set with a commentary track and a fat disc of supplements, and I suspect that many of the set’s original purchasers, like me, were more interested in Burton’s special features—with their vast repository of sexual, ethnographical, and anecdotal material—than in the stories themselves.

As Borges concludes: “At fifty, a man has accumulated affections, ironies, obscenities, and copious anecdotes; Burton unburdened himself of them in his notes.” And boy, did he ever. Among the translation’s unique characteristics is an entire index devoted to the footnotes alone—presumably as a convenience to readers who just wanted to get to the good parts—and browsing through it feels like a trip to a bazaar of indescribable, vaguely dirty riches. (A few of the entires, chosen at random, include: “Female depravity going hand in hand with perversity of taste,” “Hymeneal blood resembles that of pigeon-poult,” and “Women, peculiar waddle of.”) Borges rightly observes that Burton’s commentary “is encyclopedic and seditious and of an interest that increases in inverse proportion to its necessity,” which is true of all footnotes, but especially here. A brief reference in one story to contraception, for instance, inspires two long paragraphs on the history of the condom, complete with prices and advice on usage, and the appendix includes what was then the longest discussion of homosexuality ever to appear in English. A lot of the material seems to have been chosen for its appeal to the idealized male reader of the time, in a sort of anticipation of the articles in Playboy, and as calculated as it all feels, it certainly works. It’s the richest collection of bonus features ever published, and thanks to Burton’s legacy, it comes across as even more. As Borges says, it’s like listening to a commentary track recorded by Sinbad the Sailor himself.

Hanging a lantern on it

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John Rhys-Davies in The Return of the King

For Christmas, I finally got my own copy of the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray. About a year ago, I’d laboriously worked my way through all the commentary tracks and special features on the discs I’d borrowed from my brother-in-law, and I realized that it was a real treasure trove of insights into filmmaking and storytelling—the closest thing I’ve found to a film school in a box set. Not surprisingly, I decided that I had to own it for myself. Playing it again now, I’ve started to see that part of the reason these supplementary materials are so fascinating is because they show us a director and creative team coping with a subject larger than they’d ever confronted before. The Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic, but not perfect, and much of the fun of the commentaries is hearing Peter Jackson and his collaborators discussing what they might have done differently, or analyzing problems that they were never quite able to crack. You’ll often get richer insights from a director talking about an unworkable project than about one in which the pieces just seemed to fall into place: I find The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo more interesting to think about than The Social Network, even though I vastly prefer the latter movie, and I have the feeling that I’d learn a hell of a lot from the commentaries to The Hobbit.

There’s one particular moment in The Return of the King that I’ve been thinking about recently. Aragorn has just succeeded in raising the army of the dead at the White Mountains, and with its help, he’s routed the orcs at the siege of Minas Tirith. Later, with an expedition looming against Mordor itself, the king of the dead asks Aragon to release them from their oath, leading to this aside from Gimli: “Bad idea. Very handy in a tight spot, these lads, despite the fact they’re dead.” Aragorn, of course, lets them go—and it’s a good thing he does, at least within the context of the movie we’re watching. As Jackson points out in his commentary, an invincible army of ghosts is a fatal narrative device: if they can’t be killed, there’s no suspense in any battle. He goes on to say that he hated the idea, but felt that he had to include it out of fidelity to the books, so he did what he could to delay their involvement and them out of the way as soon as possible. Even in its final form, their appearance still feels like something of a cheat, with all the prior action we’ve seen on the battlefield rendered more than a little irrelevant. But the movie buys back a lot of credibility with Gimli’s muttered observation, in which he basically speaks, as he often does, for the audience.

The Return of the King

In other words, the movie anticipates the viewer’s objection, and instead of ignoring it or rewriting the story to remove it, it calls attention to it. And while this may not be the best solution, it kind of works. In the past, I’ve talked about the anthropic principle of fiction, which briefly states that the most fundamental aspects of a story should be built around its least plausible elements. If the narrative hinges on a coincidence, a freak occurrence, or some odd fact of nature—as we often see in mystery and science fiction—it’s not too much to tailor the setting, the major beats of the plot, and even the primary characters to make a tenuous idea more credible when it comes. (My favorite example from my own work is my short story “Ernesto,” which ended up being set in the Spanish Civil War and featuring Ernest Hemingway as the lead simply so I could justify an undiagnosed outbreak of erysipelas.) This approach tends to work better in short fiction, in which every element can be introduced to ultimately serve a specific twist or pivotal moment. A longer work, like a novel or feature film, pushes back a little more: the story is so large that not every detail can be contingent on a single narrative problem. And in practice, you often end up with necessary but infuriatingly uncooperative moments that don’t quite track, but can’t be cut.

All you can do, in the end, is make it seem intentional, by spotlighting it to the point where the reader can’t accuse you of overlooking it through carelessness. In television, it’s called lampshading or hanging a lantern, while Brian Eno, in his Oblique Strategies, says: “Magnify the most difficult details.” Or, in the language of software development: “It isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.” You see it whenever a novelist points out that a plot point is exactly like the kind of thing you’d see in a bad novel, or when a writer claims that he’d hesitate to mention an improbable coincidence if he weren’t describing factual events, or when Bruce Willis simply says: “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” This isn’t anyone’s idea of a great solution, and it should only be used as a last resort. (If nothing else, it’s an example of authorial desperation masquerading as cleverness and then drawing attention to itself, none of which are enviable qualities in fiction.) Sometimes, though, the end justifies the means—even if it isn’t the kind of thing you want to do more than once per story, if at all. A novelist needs to be a good liar, and the greatest deceivers, as we all know, don’t press the point too much. When you’re called on it, there are times when you have to double down. But it’s better not to give yourself away in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2015 at 9:32 am

The holy grail of props

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Grail diary from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

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 movie prop would you love to own?”

Twenty years ago, when I first saw Jurassic Park, the moment that stuck with me the most wasn’t the raptor attack or even Jeff Goldblum’s creepy laugh: it was the park brochure that appears briefly onscreen before Laura Dern tramples it into the mud. We see it for little more than a second, but the brevity of its role is exactly what struck me. A prop artist—or, more likely, a whole team of them—had painstakingly written, typeset, and printed a tangible piece of ephemera for the sake of that fleeting gag. In a way, it seemed to stand in for the unseen efforts that lie behind every frame of film, those invisible touches of craft and meticulous labor that add up to make the story a little more real. Looking back, I recognize how showy that shot really is: it wasn’t captured by accident, even if it’s staged like a throwaway, and it calls attention to itself in a degree that most good props probably shouldn’t. And my reaction makes me feel uncomfortably like the hypothetical moviegoers that Pauline Kael imagined being impressed by Doctor Zhivago: “The same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.”

But it’s still delightful. I’ve always been fascinated by movie props, perhaps because they feel like the purest expression of the glorious waste of filmmaking: an object is lovingly crafted and aged by hand simply to be photographed, or to sit out of focus in the background of a single shot. My appreciation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy went up another notch after I watched hours of production featurettes last winter, many of which focused on the prop department. I learned, for instance, that the artisans who made the hundreds of sets of chain mail wore down their own fingerprints in the process, and that Theoden’s armor included a golden sun stamped on the inside of the breastplate, where no one but Bernard Hill would ever see it. Each touch is imperceptible, but in the aggregate, they add up to a vision of a world that remains totally convincing: even if we quibble over Peter Jackson’s narrative choices, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his determination to build up so much detail before an audience even existed to see it—if they ever noticed it at all. Props are designed to serve the story, not to dominate it, and I’d be inclined to call it a thankless task if I weren’t so profoundly grateful for the result.

Brochure from Jurassic Park

Maybe because I’m an author, I’ve always been especially taken by props that involve written text, whether they’re John Doe’s notebooks from Seven or the obsessively detailed newspapers of the future that we glimpse in Children of Men. I think I find such props so fascinating because they feel like a reversal of the way words and filmed images naturally relate: if a screenplay serves as the engine or blueprint of the movie as a whole, these words exist only for their visual properties, which can only be convincing if someone has taken the time to treat them as if they were meant to be read in their own right. When a movie falls short here, it can pull you out of the story even more drastically than most comparable mistakes: my favorite example is from The Godfather Part III, which prominently displays a headline from The Wall Street Journal with text that seems to have been copied and pasted from a computer instruction manual. (These days, movies seem aware of how much every shot is likely to be scrutinized, so they’re more likely to take the time to write something up for the sake of viewers and their pause buttons, like Captain America’s to-do list.)

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest prop of them all has to be the grail diary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We see it clearly for maybe a total of thirty seconds, but those few glimpses were enough to fuel a lifetime’s worth of daydreams: I sometimes think I owe half of my inner life to Henry Jones’s battered little notebook. As it happens, you can read the whole thing online, or some simulacrum of it, thanks to the efforts of such prop replica masters as Indy Magnoli, whose work goes on eBay for nine hundred dollars or more—and I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted, years ago, to pick up one for myself. Recently, the original prop went up for auction at Christie’s, and while I’ve love to be able to tell you that I was the one who shelled out $30,000 for it, sadly, it wasn’t me. Still, I’m probably better off. Up close, a prop rarely has the same magic that it had in the scant seconds you saw it onscreen; an object that seemed unbearably precious can turn out to be made of pasteboard and hot glue. If we believed in it for the brief interval of time in which it appeared on camera, it succeeded. Which is true of everything about the movies. And if we dreamed about it afterward, well, then it belongs to us all the more.

“And my bow!”

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Orlando Bloom in The Lord of the Rings

In the nine and more hours of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as directed by Peter Jackson, Legolas speaks to Frodo exactly once. Their sole interaction consists of three words: “And my bow!” (I owe this information to Reddit, which also notes that in the original trilogy, Legolas doesn’t say much of anything. All of Orlando Bloom’s lines could fit comfortably within a page of ordinary text, which speaks to both his charisma and his limitations: he makes an extraordinary impact here with minimal dialogue, but does less well when asked to carry, say, a Cameron Crowe movie.) Granted, Legolas and Frodo are separated for most of the story, and it’s only in the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring—and the last few minutes of The Return of the King—that they share any screen time at all. And the role of Legolas, is anything, is considerably expanded from his part in the books. But it’s still a surprise to discover that two characters who occupy a fair amount of mental real estate in one of the most successful franchises of all time have so little to say to each other.

That said, when you have so many characters competing for space, there are bound to be hiatuses, both here and in other ensembles. Edmund, incredibly, never says a word directly to King Lear, and the two men only occupy the stage together in the closing scenes of the play. In the film version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes only speaks once to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even respond. Yet we still tend to think of them all as pairs, or at least as counterbalancing forces in a narrative that propels itself forward through contrasts. Lear’s story runs in counterpoint to Edmund’s, and each gains enormous resonance from the other. Jack and Bud are opposing points in a triangle, with Ed Exley occupying the final corner, and the story is structured in such a way that we naturally draw comparisons. With Legolas and Frodo, the parallels are less pronounced, but there’s a sense in which the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is a dialogue between the kind of physical bravery required to take down a mumakil singlehandedly and the plodding, unglamorous courage that carries us step by step into Mordor.

Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins

And what this all demonstrates is the subtle way in which juxtapositions, and not just interactions, allow characters to inform one another as they follow their separate destinies. I’ve written before about the power of ensembles, which, by Metcalfe’s Law, grow correspondingly more potent as the number of players increases. It’s easiest to understand this in terms of potential pairings, each one of which offers possibilities for interest or drama. (The legendary Samson Raphaelson, whose The Human Nature of Playwriting is one of the most useful—and hardest to obtain—books on storytelling around, suggests that authors turn to such pairings when trying to crack the plot: “I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.”) But the pairings don’t necessarily need to take place within the action of the story itself. If the cast is vivid and rich enough, the pairings will naturally occur in the reader’s mind, even if the reader, or author, isn’t conscious of the process.

Which applies to more than character alone. We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other. (In a way, it’s the opposite of how we think about dreams, which seem to appear in the brain in short, compressed bursts of imagery, only to fit themselves into a more conventional narrative when we recall them after the fact.) It’s also how an author often thinks of a work in progress—and one of the hardest parts of writing is balancing that impression of simultaneity with the linear experience of a reader encountering the story for the first time. When I think of Lawrence of Arabia, the memory takes the form of overlapping moments or images that are really separated by vast distances of celluloid: the famous cut from the match to the sunrise, Ali appearing like a dot on the horizon, Lawrence slumping on his camel with exhaustion or collapsing in despair at the Turkish hospital. Legolas and Frodo, or other narrative elements, may barely interact, but they’re part of a fellowship of the imagination.

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.

Withered hardware, lateral thinking

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

If the word “Nintendo” is all but synonymous with video games—as in “I’m buying my grandson that new Nintendo from Sony for Christmas”—it owes this largely to the efforts of two men: Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Although he was less famous than Miyamoto, Yokoi was responsible for developing a number of hugely important innovations, including the Game Boy, the ubiquitous controller cross pad, and the game Metroid, but his most lasting legacy was a philosophy he called Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō, or “Lateral thinking with withered technology.” It focuses on finding radical new applications for mature technologies, rather than on inventing new hardware on the cutting edge, and it emphasizes gameplay over processing power. And as Lukas Mathis pointed out in a recent blog post, you can track Nintendo’s fortunes surprisingly well based to the extent to which it has followed this approach: consoles like the Gamecube or the Wii U represented a doomed attempt to compete on specs, while the Game Boy or the Wii triumphed as inspired transformations of creaky components.

The disadvantages of this philosophy are obvious—it means that you’ll always lag behind your competitors on graphics or computational speed—but its advantages are equally compelling. It opens up the use of cheap, readily available components, which allows you to compete, crucially, on price. As you force yourself to focus on the essentials, you start to discover which qualities really matter to the majority of consumers: playability, accessibility, convenience, and such mundane but essential factors as battery life, which allowed the Game Boy to remain dominant over more advanced competitors like Game Gear or Lynx. Best of all, by handing you a set of stark technological constraints, it obliges you to think more creatively about ways of delivering a satisfying gaming experience. Watching the evolution of Nintendo from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros. 3 is like witnessing the growth, flowering, and maturation of an entire art form, all squeezed from the same generation of hardware. Ingenuity and beauty win the day, and it’s unlikely that these games would have emerged in so elegant a form if they had been able to rely on more expensive technology.

Gunpei Yokoi

You notice this in other media as well. Movies are often compelling in proportion to the constraints they need to confront: when anything is possible, as in a film like The Avengers, even the miraculous starts to seem a little boring. Some of the most memorable visual effects in movie history—I’m thinking of works like Jean Cocteau’s Orphée or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which generate an entire fantasy world out of a handful of simple tricks—are the result of limited resources coupled with limitless resourcefulness. Even a work as amply funded as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy had no choice but to mine wit and beauty out of old-fashioned techniques. At the high end, you have the invention of new technology like the Massive software package, which allows entire armies of artificially intelligent soldiers to be generated on the fly; at the low end, you have shots making use of miniatures, forced perspective, or Billy Boyd shuffling around on his knees. That fusion of digital magic, polyurethane, and real leather and steel is a large part of what makes the trilogy so appealing, and it’s a model that other works could stand to follow.

For writers, the situation is a little different: we’re all operating with the same set of tools, and a novel or short story isn’t limited by budgetary concerns. Yet the struggle to do more with less, or to achieve effects of great complexity from the simplest components, is central to the art of storytelling. If there’s one parameter that more writers could stand to scrutinize, it’s length: I’m constantly asking myself if the story I’m trying to tell could be told in fewer words or scenes, and no matter how many times I cut a manuscript, whenever I go back for the next round, I always find places where the text could be tightened. These are constraints that you need to enforce for yourself, rather than having them imposed from the outside, but it’s necessary to treat them as if they were as inexorable as disk space or processing power. Constraints, on their own, don’t guarantee a good result: Nintendo has certainly released plenty of forgettable games on every console. But if I had to choose between having just slightly too little or a bit too much of a crucial resource, whether it’s time, money, or hardware, I know which one I’d prefer.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2014 at 9:27 am

The road goes ever on

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Cate Blanchett and Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

For the last few days, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through the commentary tracks for the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which sometimes feels like as long of a journey as any of the characters undertake. So far, we’re sticking to the primary commentaries for each movie, featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, which barely scratches the surface of the material available: each film has three other commentaries for members of the cast and crew, adding up to something like twelve hours of additional listening, not to mention the countless documentaries, featurettes, and galleries on the three bonus discs. (It’s a borrowed box set—my brother-in-law lent it to us over Christmas—and I doubt we’ll get through even half of it before it’s time to give it back.) It also makes me feel as if I’m a decade late to the party. The commentaries for each movie were recorded and released shortly before the following installments appeared in theaters, which serves as a reminder of how more than ten years can seem to slip by in a flash, as well as a fascinating glimpse into how Jackson and his collaborators felt about each picture at the time.

It’s obvious, for instance, that they regard The Two Towers as the weakest movie in the trilogy. Part of this is due to the fact, as Jackson notes, that it’s arguably the least interesting of the original three volumes, with quintessential second-act problems blown up to a massive scale, but it also appears to have suffered during the production process. Shooting began using a relatively early version of the script, and the filmmakers admit that if they had been given more time, they might have reworked certain elements, particularly Frodo and Sam’s interminable sojourn with Faramir. Postproduction and promotional duties for Fellowship also left them with a tighter working schedule than before. As a result, there’s a mildly defensive, even apologetic tone to many of their comments, which explicitly respond to criticisms that the movie received after its release. We’re repeatedly invited to let certain scenes “play out” in our heads with certain controversial elements removed, so we can see why, for instance, it was the right call to give Aragorn a fakeout death scene at the end of the warg attack, or why Faramir’s character needs to be rewritten to make him more tempted by the Ring.

Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

These are all valid points, but they also point to a weakness in The Two Towers that, in turn, goes a long way toward explaining why the two parts we’ve seen thus far of The Hobbit are so much less satisfying than their predecessors: it’s written from the head, not the heart. The Two Towers plays less like a story that demanded to be told in its own right than as an ingenious solution to a series of narrative conundrums. On paper, the calls that Jackson and the others made are absolutely right: the big climaxes of Shelob and the confrontation with Saruman were best postponed to the next movie—or, in Saruman’s case, cut out of the theatrical trilogy altogether—and other stories had to be pumped up to take up the dramatic slack. The result, though, is a movie where we can sense the pieces being assembled into a passably coherent whole, rather than one that unfolds under its own momentum. That’s true of The Hobbit as well, except that the seams are even more visible. Jackson and his collaborators deserve a lot of credit for pulling off these movies at all, but it’s a bad sign when we’re equally aware of the logic taking place behind the scenes as of the events unfolding on the screen itself.

And this makes me strangely hopeful about The Hobbit‘s final installment. The two movies released so far have been watchable but underwhelming, and that’s largely because they’ve been thought through rather than felt: a lot of their energy is devoted to inventing satisfying climaxes where none existed before, figuring out an approach to transitional material, and giving characters enough to do while keeping important parts in reserve. In theory, There and Back Again shouldn’t suffer from the same issues—its climaxes are already there, and most of the heavy lifting has been done by the earlier chapters. It’s even possible that the first two movies will seem stronger in retrospect. (I’m also looking forward to the inevitable fan edit that cuts the trilogy together into a single three-hour movie, which I suspect will become the version of choice for a lot of casual viewers.) That’s the funny thing about these films: because we have so much other material to draw upon, from the original books to the extended cuts to the vast amount of conceptual art, they still feel like works in progress. More than any other movies I know, they’re capable of being endlessly revised in our heads, or of allowing us, as Philippa Boyens says in her commentary, to dream of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2013 at 9:48 am

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