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When you play the Game of Thrones, you win(ce) or you die (inside)

When I was thirteen, my high school English teacher assigned Lord of the Flies to our class. At first, I enjoyed the book. After all, Flies begins innocently enough: grade school boys shipwrecked on a mysterious island. It almost felt like an outdoor survival adventure—still a favorite genre of mine.

But soon the tone—and my outlook—shifted drastically. By the time the eponymous “Lord” made his putrified appearance, my mood had darkened. When the island’s suddenly-savage boys started slaughtering each other, I felt downright depressed. Flies pulled me into a listless, discouraged funk that didn’t lift till I finished the book. After turning the last page, I threw open every window in my bedroom, hoping to let some light stream into my psyche.

Media affects mood; it’s an amazing—and sometimes awful—phenomenon. I love the hopeful, broadened perspective I’m left with after an epic film. On the other hand, darker content fouls my disposition and leaves me feeling depressed.

Case in point? Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit medieval fantasy series. Thones is notorious for its raunch and gore. In Westeros, everyone is cruel, rape is common, and main characters get offed in gratuitous showers of blood. Unlike Lord of the Flies, which used violence to comment on society’s hidden darkness, Game of Thrones revels in nastiness, seemingly without purpose.

That’s a major turn-off. I can’t bring myself to wade into the Thrones bloodbath. I did try reading the Ice and Fire series, upon which the HBO show is based. But once the only admirable character met his bitter end in the first book’s finale, I gave up. George R.R. Martin (Thones’ author and mastermind) seems to relish dousing hope wherever it arises. Why volunteer for that sorry slog, when it makes me so unhappy?

Plenty of others do sign up. Each spring, Thones dominates my social media feeds. Both geeks and non-geeks obsess over the show. Otherwise mild-mannered friends cheer on the throat-slitting and village-pillaging every Sunday night.

I can’t join them, for some reason. Maybe I’m squeamish. Maybe I hold my media to absurdly high standards. Maybe I can’t properly separate my internal life from my imagination. Whatever it is, I don’t plan to play the Game of Thrones any time soon.

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Jurassic VR

You will always have a soft spot for the films you loved when you were twelve. For me, 1993 was the golden era of film-making. The Fugitive, released that year, remains my favorite Harrison Ford movie—even besting my beloved Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. Similarly, I could watch Groundhog Day a thousand times and still laugh out loud.

But one 1993 film had a bigger impact on me than any other: Jurassic Park. Unlike most movies, I can remember seeing it in the theater with my older brother. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; how had they created such believable monsters? Afterwards, I bought (and nearly out-wore) the all-symphonic soundtrack on cassette tape. The newly-released sequel, Jurassic World, even intrigues me, though the reviews say it’s middling at best. I still day-dream about the “science” cited in Park—whether geneticists might clone dinosaurs within my lifetime.

Spoiler alert: they won’t. Not in my lifetime—not ever. DNA degrades too quickly to survive sixty-plus million years. And even if we could somehow sequence a species’ DNA, we have no way to bring that animal to term. A real-life Jurassic Park will never happen.

So… what about “un-real” life? The film may provide the blueprint for a convincing dinosaur experience—in virtual reality. As technology advances, VR’s limitations become more apparent. Moving our material bodies around a digital landscape is awkward. There’s no convincing, seamless way to interact physically with these virtual environments, no “Holodeck” tech that could convince us that a freely-explorable Mesozoic landscape is real.[1]

But Jurassic Park’s marquee theme ride—the automated Jeep safari—provides the perfect constraints for a fully-engaging dinosaur experience in VR.

Of course, it wouldn’t be so much a game as a themed experience. Imagine climbing into the familiar jungle-painted SUV, then donning a set of VR goggles. Then you’d experience an on-the-rails ride through of Jurassic Park itself. You’d be locked inside the car—not for your safety, but to preserve the illusion. Within the constraints of the Jeep, you’d be free to customize your experience. You choose which window to gaze through. You could crane your head to gape up at a brachiosaur through the sunroof. You could peer through the rain to catch a glimpse of a feasting T-Rex. You could track a pterodactyl’s soaring flight across the sky through the windshield.

It’s a far cry from actual, living, roaring dinos. But it’s also the closest we’ll ever get to seeing them with our own eyes. If Steven Spielberg could create convincing dinosaurs on-screen twenty-two years ago, surely today’s visual effects wizards could do the same in VR.

One last bonus? Virtual dinosaurs always show up and perform on cue.

  1. Is Mesozoic still a thing?  ↩

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Regendering bedtime stories

When Michelle Nijhuis reads The Hobbit aloud to her five-year-old daughter, she doesn’t quite recite Tolkien’s original prose. There’s one major change: Bilbo is a girl-hobbit. As she explains at Slate:

You know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

Someday, when my daughter is old enough, I’ll read her some of my favorite stories. Although Kat is just two months old, I’ve already started to plan. I’ve picked out a few beloved books: The Hobbit. Narnia. Harry Potter. I’ve even considered charting out distinct voices for each main character; if I get started now, I can perfect my dwarvish brogue.

And thanks to Nijhuis, I’ve made one more decision about Kat’s bedtime stories: Bilbo must change genders. Middle-Earth desperately needs girl power—in fact, there are no female characters of note in The Hobbit. I don’t want my daughter to detach from the hobbit’s adventure—or worse, downgrade her own—because the book’s heroes are all male.

This live “translation” poses some challenges. First, it requires quick thinking. When Gandalf tells Bilbo, “You are only quite a little fellow,” for example, I’ll have to improvise a revision. Something like “quite a little person” instead? In other places, Bilbo’s reimagined gender could cause confusion. In Tolkien’s world, female hobbits are typically named after flowers or jewels: Primrose, Marigold, Pearl. Why, my daughter might ask, is Bilbo so different?

Another problem: what will my daughter think when she inevitably discovers Bilbo’s true gender? Will the weight of the world’s patriarchy come crashing down on her head? I suspect not; for one thing, she’ll know that her papa cared deeply about her self-worth—and that counts for something. And second, I hope that adapting Tolkien will train her to “rewrite” a few other inhospitable details in the world around her.

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Bilbo > Frodo.

I’ve always preferred The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. The first book may be silly, but it’s fun. It doesn’t demand a fortnight to read. It doesn’t get bogged down in faux-history. Most importantly, The Hobbit boasts a more interesting main character.

Yes, Bilbo is ridiculous and stuck-up and pretentious. But he’s also likeable and interesting. Bilbo is someone special—someone worth Gandalf’s time, someone worth recruiting for an adventure, someone chosen by the gods to find the Ring.

Frodo, meanwhile, has none of that going for him. He strikes me as over-serious, un-hobbit-like, and somewhat aloof. His claim to fame? He happens to have an interesting uncle.

These distinctions show up on film. In Peter Jackson’s movies, Bilbo brightens up any scene he’s in. He’s delightfully quirky, self-conscious, irritable, and intriguing. Ian Holm (as older Bilbo) and Martin Freeman (as his younger counterpart) do fantastic work, but they’ve got a lot to work with. His evolution—from gentrified stick-in-the-mud to thoughtful adventurer—is a fun assignment.

Meanwhile, while Elijah Wood handles the role of Frodo admirably,[1] he’s restricted by the character’s arc. The actor seems quiet, depressed and exhausted because Frodo is quiet, depressed and exhausted.

Along these lines, it’s probably unfair to blame Frodo for his antiseptic personality. We’ve only just met him when his psyche starts disintegrating under the Ring’s corrupting influence. He declines from page one, and it’s hard to mourn someone we’ve barely met. In fact, we almost welcome his deterioration; at least it lends the character some bite.

As Tolkien himself explained the differences,

Frodo is not intended to be another Bilbo. Though his opening style is not wholly un-kin. But he is rather a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror—broken down, and in the end made into something quite different.[2]

Even after the Ring is destroyed and Frodo recovers a bit, he still seems dull. Tolkien has an explanation for that, too: “Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest.”[3]

As Tolkien observes elsewhere, Bilbo is “the genuine hobbit:” a resilient, plucky, naive homebody, thrust unwillingly into the wider world. Frodo seems more elvish: flat, steady, and over-wise. In short, he’s just a bit boring.

Give me the elder Baggins, any day.

  1. I’m no Wood-hater. When the cast was announced, some Anglophiles sputtered; how could an American play one of Britain’s most familiar characters? All things considered, Wood did well.  ↩
  2. Letter to Hugh Brogan, September 18, 1954.  ↩
  3. Letter to Christopher Tolkien, Christmas Eve, 1944.  ↩
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Lord of the Re-hash

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall [of Sauron], but it proved both sinister and depressing. … I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot [to overthrow Gondor] and its discovery and overthrow—but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.

J.R.R. Tolkien, describing “The New Shadow”, a potential sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Authors often fall victim to their own success. They create something beautiful: a world that stands on its own. A work that neatly wraps up its loose ends. A satisfying ending to a fantastic story. But once this imaginary world grows popular, the “imagineer” faces pressure from all sides. Agents lick their lips. Filmmakers chomp at the bit. Fans froth at the mouth. They all want more, artistic integrity be damned

Many fine writers can’t resist. They revisit (and dilute) their masterworks. For example, after the mammoth success of her Harry Potter franchise, J.K. Rowling (admirably) resisted the clamor for further sequels for years. Eventually, though, she gave in—then gave in again.

Let’s be glad that Tolkien had better sense.

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Not quite convinced

For decades, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered “unfilmable.” The Professor himself doubted that any director could successfully adapt the work. Chief among the challenges? Middle-Earth’s major races come in all shapes and sizes. Men and elves wouldn’t pose a problem, but how could an actor play a four-foot-tall hobbit? Or a dwarf—built like a tank?

To create the illusion of different-sized races for his Rings adaptation, Peter Jackson combined a variety of techniques: green screen compositing, forced perspective, and “little people” as body doubles. At points, he even resorted to the oldest trick in the book: make one actor kneel, or stand another on a box.

Considering all the different tricks used, the composite effect proved remarkably convincing. Most of the time, you forget that Elijah Wood isn’t four feet tall.

But every once in a while, things don’t quite jive. While the characters’ relative heights remain consistent, their girth doesn’t. When you “shrink” actors via green screen composition or forced perspective, they retain their natural proportions. The result is slender, miniaturized humans. But when you film “little people” (as Jackson often does in wide shots), you capture those body double’s stockier proportions. Finally, stand an actor on his knees, and you can dial in the appropriate height, but his head and shoulders don’t scale (compared to the other, “full-size” actors in the scene).

Ideally, Jackson would have selected a single proportion—in both girth and height—then adjusted each technique to maintain that ratio. Perhaps the lead actors could have packed on a few pounds (Elijah Wood always seemed too skinny for a hobbit). Or the film’s digital wizards might have “pinched” the stouter body doubles, slimming them down in post-production.

But given the tools available at the time, it’s understandable that Jackson couldn’t quite “hide the seams.” Fortunately, the technology has improved dramatically in the decade since Rings debuted. Jackson’s Hobbit films feature more convincing character scales.[1] The only hint of trickery? Dialogue delays and eye-line mismatches occasionally make me doubt that Gandalf and the dwarves were filmed together (they weren’t).[2]

  1. One happy side-effect of shooting The Hobbit in 3D? Many of the old techniques (particularly forced-perspective shots) don’t hold up. As a result, Jackson has opted for green screen far more often. Presumably, this allowed his digital compositors to dial in a single, consistent proportion.  ↩

  2. Ian McKellen (who plays Gandalf in both trilogies) found Jackson’s compositing techniques for The Hobbit to be frustrating. Since wizard scale differs from hobbit/dwarf scale, McKellen was forced to work on a smaller Bag End, separated from his fellow cast members. At one point, the actor even shed some tears and protested, “This is not why I became an actor!”  ↩

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You got Aragorn in my Bilbo!

Recently, Daniel Wood suggested that Peter Jackson’s next two Hobbit movies should feature cameos from Aragorn, Gimli, Denethor, Arwen, Merry, Pippin and Sam.

This is a terribly dumb idea. First of all, at the time of The Hobbit

  • Aragorn is 9.
  • Denethor II is 12.
  • Merry, Pippin and Sam are –40, –48 and –38, respectively.

But even leaving aside the impossible chronology, why not let The Hobbit be The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings be The Lord of the Rings? Peter Jackson’s first prequel, An Unexpected Journey, already suffers from too much cross-pollination. Take for example, the film’s recycled music (Jackson re-uses “Concerning Hobbits” from Fellowship rather than incorporate Howard Shore’s excellent new motifs) and recycled characters (the Frodo-and-old-Bilbo prologue never should have made the theatrical cut).

The Hobbit’s story doesn’t need filler. It stands quite well on its own two feet, thag you very buch. In fact, it’s more entertaining and better-constructed than its over-serious big brother. Here’s to hoping that Peter Jackson resists the temptation to stuff the next two films with fan service and Rings cameos.

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First things first (part 2): why Peter Jackson should have made Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit

Last time, I explained why, in an ideal world, Peter Jackson would have tackled The Hobbit first (before The Lord of the Rings). But what would this have meant for The Hobbit’s bigger, more serious older brother?

Of course, much depends on how well The Hobbit performed at the box office. But let’s assume that audiences responded as enthusiastically as they did to LOTR. Here’s the scenario, then: freshly flush with Tolkien Bucks™, the studio clamors for Jackson to adapt Lord of the Rings. The suits loosen their purse strings, eager to wring every penny from the franchise. They give the (now-proven) director more than three films to tell his Rings story.

Despite any naysayer’s complaints,[1] this is a Very Good Thing. Unlike the simple, spare Hobbit novel, Lord of the Rings boasts more than enough material to fill out multiple films. Even the shortest book of the trilogy—Return of the King—outweighs The Hobbit by some 40,000 words.

So… imagine Jackson has six films to flesh out his epic. Characters given short shrift in the current incarnation develop actual personalities. Two examples: Denethor’s more nuanced portrayal earns the audience’s sympathy (instead of its unmitigated scorn). Or Jackson offers some context for understanding why Faramir struggles to resist the Ring.[2]

Even the books’ main characters—the hobbits themselves—benefit from more screen time. Jackson can establish the hobbits’ relationships more organically (as things stand, Frodo has hardly a single conversation with Merry or Pippin). Including the excised Old Forest and Barrow-wight sequences provides an effective bridge from the Shire’s bucolic safety to the hobbits’ dangerous journey. Even old Bilbo gets one last heroic beat at the Council of Elrond, where he courageously offers to carry the Ring to Mount Doom himself.

Making Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit offers logistical advantages, as well. For one, it makes the actors’ ages an asset, rather than a liability. In An Unexpected Journey, efforts to de-age an eighty-year-old Ian Holm fail to disguise how differently he speaks and moves than in Fellowship. Ian McKellen, thought still quintessentially Gandalf, appears noticeably older (despite the character’s younger age). Even Elijah Wood, still a teenager during LOTR‘s production run, looks strangely angular in the Hobbit prequel. Watch the trilogies back-to-back, and these incontinuities can’t be ignored. If the movies had been filmed in order, however, these problems take care of themselves. Of course Gandalf looks older; it’s been sixty years!

Another logistical advantage to making Lord of the Rings last? Better handling of locations shared by both The Hobbit and Fellowship. Both books follow the same geographical path, after all: Bag End, the Shire, the Trollshaws, Rivendell, then the Misty Mountains. In An Unexpected Journey, the characters spend hours visiting locales the audience has already seen.

Flip the movies around, though, and the audience shares the characters’ emotional responses to these locales. Like Bilbo in *The Hobbit*, we look down, astonished, at Rivendell’s beauty. We better appreciate Gandalf’s satisfied smile when he pulls up to Bag End in Fellowship. And the Fellowship’s ordeal on Caradhras rings true—echoing as it does the dwarves’ failed attempt to scale the same mountain range.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. But had Peter Jackson filmed The Hobbit first, Rings could have breathed. In addition, the sequels could have built on the prequel’s events (rather than re-hash them).

Unfortunately, legal wrangling prevented this hypothetical scenario from unfolding. Still, it’s fun to imagine what might have been.

  1. Some non-Tolkienites consider Jackson’s Rings trilogy bloated and over-long. Adding (say) three more films would drive them batty. There’s no accounting for taste.  ↩

  2. Count me among the Tolkien fans who applauded Jackson for making Faramir more human. Still, his motivations weren’t entirely clear from theatrical cut. A deleted scene from Two Towers (Extended Edition) goes a long way towards giving an underdeveloped character like Faramir some much-needed depth.  ↩

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First things first: why Peter Jackson should have made The Hobbit before The Lord of the Rings

Back in the mid-nineties, Peter Jackson had a problem. He (and his creative partners) had unveiled plans to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s most celebrated novels, using their native New Zealand as a stand-in for Middle-Earth. They hoped to make The Hobbit—chronologically, the series’ initial book—first. But Jackson’s producers failed to secure rights for The Hobbit. Undeterred, Jackson shifted gears. Rather than start at the story’s start, his team would adapt Tolkien’s massive, rambling follow-up to The Hobbit: The Lord of the Rings.

The rest is history; Jackson & Co. convinced the studio to finance three separate LOTR pictures—one for each book. Each proved spectacularly successful (both commercially and critically). A decade later, The Hobbit finally escaped development hell; the first film, An Unexpected Journey, was released in December 2012.

What’s done is done. Still, I can’t help but wonder: what if Jackson had obtained the rights to The Hobbit, way back in 1996? What if he adapted that book first? How might this version of *The Hobbit* differ from the one now in production? And what effect might this have had upon the subsequent Rings sequels?

My next few blog posts address these questions. Next time, we’ll consider Lord of the Rings. Today, I explain why The Hobbit should have come first.

The Hobbit is a short book. Quick readers can plow through the entire novel on a long Sunday afternoon. So when Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation would span two films, fans scratched their heads. Would the material stretch that far? And then, just a few months before the first film’s completion, the studio agreed to a Hobbit trilogy. Fantasy nerds began to fret; the expansion felt like a cash grab, rather than a creative imperative.

The December release of An Unexpected Journey has done little to allay those fears. This first Hobbit film takes far too long to do far too little. Nearly every scene would have benefited from ruthless edits, and many sequences should have been cut altogether. To borrow Tolkien’s words, the movie felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

But if The Hobbit had come first, things might have been different. It’s unlikely that the film’s corporate backers would have green-lit two Hobbit films (let alone three). An unproven director like Jackson (whose earlier films were low-budget and small-scale) wouldn’t enjoy that sort of leeway. Instead, the studio would minimize its risk by demanding a shorter run time. Dependent on their funding, Jackson would have been forced to trim down his Hobbit, streamlining the narrative and paring down any excess.

What padding might Jackson have stripped? First and foremost, he’d face no temptation to stuff The Hobbit with Middle-Earth footnotes. In his ongoing Hobbit trilogy, Jackson extends his screenplays by mining the Lord of the Rings appendices for relevant subplots. A shorter Hobbit offers no room for such additions. Specifically, the entire Necromancer storyline would have been cut. Since this clunky subplot revolves around characters the audience has never met (Sauron, the Ringwraiths, Saruman, Galadriel, Radagast), including it makes little sense.

With this one move, Jackson drastically improves his movie, since An Unexpected Journey’s most cringe-worthy scenes never even get filmed.[1] And good riddance! Consider: Tolkien had reasons for banishing this material to the Rings endnotes. First, it’s tangential to the story’s heart (i.e., Bilbo’s wide-eyed introduction to the world). Second, it lacks the book’s charm and whimsical tone (Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for juvenile readers).

If this hypothetical Hobbit had no time for Tolkien’s canonical glosses, it certainly couldn’t have fit Jackson’s own plot inventions. Journey’s framing device—an older, nostalgic Bilbo, badgering his nephew Frodo—wouldn’t have made the cut. With no *Lord of the Rings* for context, the audience wouldn’t care about these characters. The “orc hunting party” wouldn’t make it in, either. Why bother resurrecting Azog (in The Hobbit book, he’s unmentioned and long-dead)? Smaug the Magnificent provides all the fierce villainy you need for a shorter movie.

Make these changes, and you’ve saved ninety minutes from the bloated first film. With a few deft rewrites, you’ve made room for an abbreviated, thrilling adaptation—all contained in a single film. Or, if Jackson somehow convinced his handlers to approve two movies, these cuts set up an epic final act: the barrel ride to Lake-town, the glorious, dragon-centric climax, and the Battle of Five Armies as a stunning, poignantly tragic denouement.

Had Jackson secured the rights and made The Hobbit first, fans would’ve enjoyed a tighter film that better respected its source material. But what might this have meant for The Hobbit’s vast, sprawling sequel? Next time, we’ll explain why The Lord of the Rings would have worked better as a follow-up to a successful Hobbit adaptation.

  1. I expect that we’ll see fan edits of these films emerge soon after each DVD release. It’ll be interesting to see how well the film holds together when Jackson’s excesses are excised.  ↩

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Christopher Tolkien on Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies.

The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the esthetic [sic] and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.

Christopher Tolkien, describing how Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth adaptations have tarnished his father’s legacy. From an interview in Le Monde. Translated by Sedulia’s Translations. Via

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?