Ivor Update: November

It’s been a while, but my D&D character, Ivor, has finally hit seventh level. He’s multiclassed too, taking a level in Warlock (which makes him Bard 6/Warlock 1). Eldritch Blast is awesome – so awesome that our DM tonight decided to nerf it, via making it a Level One spell, rather than a cantrip.

Ivor’s spells are now as follows:

  • Cantrips: Friends, Minor Illusion, Vicious Mockery, Eldritch Blast*, Chill Touch
  • 1st Level: Faerie Fire, Unseen Servant, Dissonant Whispers, Healing Word, Hex, Inflict Wounds [Magical Secrets] [Dropped – Heroism, Sleep, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter]
  • 2nd Level: Invisibility, Suggestion, Silence
  • 3rd Level: Hypnotic Pattern, Major Image, Animate Dead [Magical Secrets]

*Treated as 1st Level

Stats:

  • Strength: 12
  • Dexterity: 15
  • Constitution: 15
  • Intelligence: 10
  • Wisdom: 10
  • Charisma: 18 (incl +1 Boots of Charisma)

The Warlock deal is with the Fae.

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Curiouser and Curiouser: the Tolkien TV series

When news broke earlier this month that a Tolkien TV series was potentially in the works, I jumped to the obvious conclusion that this was another stab at Rings. How could it not be? It’s the most famous of the works, some fourteen years had passed since the Jackson adaptation finished (twenty-four since the obscure Finnish small screen version), and a TV series seemed a plausible route for doing something different. Besides, the rights had already been sold back in 1968, so there was no haggling with the Estate required.

But it seems I was wrong – it’s an intended multi-season series set before Rings. Which raises as many questions as it answers.

You see, the next obvious conclusion would be that this proposed TV series would be largely fanfiction, set in the Middle-earth universe. There have been fan films made about the Hunt for Gollum, or Aragorn’s background – you can find them on youtube (I really recommend the Hunt for Gollum one). But that conclusion too might be off, since the article refers to the involvement of the Tolkien Estate and Trust (I had previously thought this was a mistake, and that it was actually Middle-earth Enterprises, who own the rights to Rings). If the Tolkien Estate actually is involved here, then someone has done the impossible, and gained Christopher Tolkien’s approval for an adaptation – and would Christopher Tolkien, who has nothing nice to say about the Jackson films, want to have anything to do with televised fanfiction – which a multi-season Rings “backstory” would have to be?

Purely speculatively, given that (1) it is a substantial proposed adaptation, not a one-off, (2) pre-dates Rings in setting, and (3) the Tolkien Estate is involved, it is not impossible that we might actually be looking at a stab at The Silmarillion or Second Age material – which is something I had not thought likely or even possible for decades. As to what may have inspired Christopher’s potential change of heart (I’m hedging my comments here, because it really is speculation) – perhaps he wants to be in a position to dictate terms for any adaptation (he is, after all, over 90)? Maybe he has got the Estate some sort of veto over objectionable changes? Your guess is as good as mine.

Jatkot – accepted

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Another good bit of news on the short story front. My Finnish-flavoured Ghost Story, Jatkot, has been accepted by an audio magazine, The Centropic Oracle.

The Lord of the Rings on television – again?

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Something is in the water. No sooner do I watch and review the 1993 Finnish television series, than the internet is abuzz with talk of a a new series from Amazon. It’s worth repeating that things are in very early stages, and I would also be sceptical about the involvement of the Tolkien Estate in this – since Tolkien sold the rights in 1968, the Estate gets no legal say here. More likely, it is Middle-earth Enterprises.

But let’s imagine what a series would look like. Assuming that we’re talking the Game of Thrones route, this would be a multi-season endeavour, rather than wrapping the entire thing up in a single season, like the Finnish version. If it’s multi-season, that immediately suggests three, one each for Fellowship, The Two Towers, and Return of the King.

Again, going off Game of Thrones, we are potentially looking at 45 minute-ish episodes, potentially with six to eight episodes a season (Thrones generally has more, of course, but it has more to play with). Six episodes would be four and a half hours; eight episodes would be six hours. So potentially twice as long overall as the Jackson films – which raises the question of whether the extra length would allow a more purist adaptation (including Tom Bombadil and the Scouring), or whether the adaptation would insert invented material. It really could be either, though in either case, I think the television version would want to avoid simply becoming a Jacksonian rehash.

There is significant scope for differentiation between film and television Rings, I think:

  • Plot elements. Tom Bombadil, the Old Forest, and the Barrow-Wight lend themselves to television’s episodic framework, whereas they are more problematic in a film setting, due to the interruption of the narrative flow. Same with the Scouring – and the inclusion of the latter would actually demonstrate (in contrast to Jackson) that the Shire is not utterly cut-off from the happenings of the outside world. Oh, and there’s the Woses too.
  • Treatment of character. The obvious one here is Denethor, who can actually be developed properly, rather than reducing him to the status of maniacal madman, but there is potential for Saruman (making him more of a free agent, rather than Sauron’s puppet), and Treebeard (making him less of an idiot, who is unaware of what is going on in his own forest). Aragorn and Faramir are further options too, since Jackson’s interpretation deviated so significantly from the book.
  • Thematic issues. It would be nice to have warfare treated from a more nuanced perspective than Jackson. Mind you, the inevitably smaller budget might well lead to a distinctive treatment of the battles anyway.
  • Stylistic choices. No particular need for Sauron to be a lighthouse. The Balrog could perhaps be less flame and more shadow, Legolas could have dark hair. And so on.

There is also the question of how to go about adapting the more problematic elements of the story:

  • Jackson basically hand-waved the eagles. What about a television adaption? The problem with bringing in more background is that the adaption can’t touch Silmarillion material, so it’s possible we might see some invented explanation for their activities.
  • Jackson cut Tom Bombadil. It’s certainly possible to include Bombadil while also making him less inherently silly. The Finnish version does this pretty well.
  • Jackson cut Gildor. So did the Finnish version. Perfectly understandably, since having Gildor behave sensibly plays merry hell with the plot – unless you have Frodo meet him before the Black Riders show up?
  • Jackson wrote Weathertop with weak Ringwraiths. It’s a problematic scene, since the alternative is making them look incompetent, but perhaps it is possible to fudge one’s way through.
  • Arwen. Fudging her is a good deal tougher – you are going to have to invent something to keep her in the picture, and Jackson did his best. This is one area where a purist adaption simply isn’t viable.

All this is pure speculation, of course, and until more information emerges, it really is a case of wait and see.

50/25/5 Reading Challenge: October

Completed reads for October:

  • Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The Ice Schooner, by Michael Moorcock
  • Swords of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Too many distractions, I think…

The Hobbit Law to be repealed [New Zealand Politics]

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A truly lovely bit of news:

The forcible de-unionisation of the New Zealand film industry is about to end.

As a bit of background, in 2005, New Zealand’s Supreme Court decided a case called Bryson v. Three Foot Six Limited – which clarified that Peter Jackson’s so-called contractors were really employees, with all the rights that came with that. Then in 2010, during the industrial dispute over the production of The Hobbit, one of the sops the National Government made to Jackson and Warner Brothers was a passage of a special law, the Employment Relations (Film Production) Amendment Act 2010, aka the Hobbit Law – which overturned Bryson. This legally redefined New Zealand film workers as independent contractors, and so ended the right of collective bargaining within the industry.

To add insult to injury, it was subsequently revealed that a deal between Warner Brothers and the union had already been reached, and that the Government knew about this when it passed the legislation. Basically, this wasn’t about saving The Hobbit from being taken off-shore, it was straight-out union-busting. Oh, and did I mention that the Hobbit Law was rammed through under urgency, without any capacity for public input? Classy.

Anyway, that’s the law that our new Labour Government is repealing, and it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Never mind the actual movies themselves, this really has been another reason to loathe Peter Jackson – in the event I ever get asked by local media about a Wise Phuul adaptation (a man can dream…), I’ve long planned to say that Jackson wouldn’t be interested, seeing as I’d require any such adaptation to be made under collective bargaining.

Ranking The Mighty Boosh

I’ve just finished a re-watch of The Mighty Boosh (fingers crossed there will eventually be a fourth series). Since I’ve already tried my hand at ranking all of classic Doctor Who, I figured I’d try ranking Boosh episodes – less daunting in the sense that there are far fewer things to list, but also tougher in that there are no “bad” Boosh episodes (classic Who, of course, being all over the place). So here goes:

  1. The Call of the Yeti (S2)
  2. Tundra (S1)
  3. The Nightmare of Milky Joe (S2)
  4. The Legend of Old Gregg (S2)
  5. Bollo (S1)
  6. Jungle (S1)
  7. Charlie (S1)
  8. Nanageddon (S2)
  9. Fountain of Youth (S2)
  10. Hitcher (S1)
  11. Journey to the Centre of the Punk (S3)
  12. The Priest and the Beast (S2)
  13. The Strange Case of the Crack Fox (S3)
  14. Party (S3)
  15. Electro (S1)
  16. Mutants (S1)
  17. Eels (S3)
  18. Killeroo (S1)
  19. The Chokes (S3)
  20. The Power of the Crimp (S3)

Based off this, I give Series Two a slight edge over Series One, with Series Three lagging behind. I realise there are people who regard Old Gregg as the iconic Boosh episode, but while it is excellent (and, yes, I do have a fondness for Baileys, or at least cheaper imitations thereof), I give the crown to The Call of the Yeti.

In terms of the best songs of the series, I’d vote for the Charlie Song (The Hubba Bubba Nightmare…), closely followed by the Yeti one, then Nanageddon.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Synopsis

The British Library is currently holding a Harry Potter exhibition to mark the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (has it really been twenty years?). We can now see the first page of the Synopsis Rowling typed up to accompany the first few chapters:

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JK Rowling Harry Potter synopsis

To clarify, it is normal to have a Query Letter (featuring the so-called “elevator pitch”, which communicates the idea of the story), as well as a Synopsis (a 1-2 page outline), to accompany the first 50 or so pages.  If the agent or publisher like what they see, they can request the full manuscript.

I should mention that writing a Query and Synopsis isn’t easy. It can be damn hard to boil your 400 page novel down to a page or two, never mind squeezing the essence of the thing into a mere paragraph for the Query. My first attempts were miserable failures, and only through looking at other examples did I get a better understanding of what agents and publishers were looking for (Wise Phuul was rejected thirty-five times; I suspect my Query had a fair amount to do with that). I still don’t pretend to have remotely mastered the art, which is a very different one from actually writing the story itself.

With that caveat – what to make of Rowling’s effort? Put yourself in the shoes of a publisher – you see multiple submissions across your desk every day, and you want to process them as fast as possible to concentrate on the rest of your job. You want a Query and a Synopsis that will grab you, and make it clear, up front, what this story is about. Time is of the essence here. With that in mind, Rowling’s Synopsis is really problematic. It spends way too much time with the Dursleys (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone isn’t about them!), and doesn’t even arrive at Hogwarts until the fifth paragraph. Say you only had time to read that first page – do you know anything about the story? About what sort of character Harry is? Would you be tempted to just shrug, and move onto the next submission?

Remember that Harry Potter was rejected by twelve different publishers before Bloomsbury said yes. We now know what Harry Potter became, but those publishers didn’t know that – they only had the Query, the above Synopsis, and the first few chapters to work with – and we have now seen the Synopsis. Add in the fact that the first few pages of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone don’t actually introduce Harry (they introduce the Dursleys, with emphasis on how boring they are), and one can see that the publishers were at least behaving understandably when they rejected Rowling’s work. It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where Potter never saw the light of day at all.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

The Devil’s Advocate was an officer in the Catholic Church, tasked with opposing and criticising evidence for an individual’s canonisation (Pope John Paul II changed this in 1983, which led to a lot more saints). Today, I’m going to take a stab at the role, in response to the outright silly suggestion that J.R.R. Tolkien be granted sainthood.

Yes, as covered here, this is actually a subject of discussion, complete with a Traditional Low Mass being held at Oxford on 2nd September for the opening of a Cause for Beatification. There is now a website too.

Why do I think such a suggestion is silly? Simple – being a popular author and devout Catholic is, by itself, not enough to actually qualify for this sort of process. Pretending for a moment that he had never written The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings – would anyone outside of philology and Beowulf scholarship be familiar with him and his life? Probably not. This isn’t an attack on Tolkien’s decades of sincere devotion towards his Catholic faith, but there were (and are) plenty of people out there who show every bit as much the same spiritual commitment to the Church as Tolkien did, and who yet will never receive this kind of attention. The Tolkien Canonisation Movement ultimately does not come from a genuine belief that Tolkien worked miracles, or even (in my opinion) a sober consideration of his life. It really comes from the misplaced notion that writing awe-inspiring works of literature is somehow a qualification for sainthood.

Yes, Tolkien’s work was heavily shaped by his Catholicism (emphasis on “shaped,” rather than “determined”. I would argue that he was wrestling in large part with reconciling a Christian view of salvation with the gloominess of the pagan myths and legends that inspired him). However, in this case, if we are focusing on the “saintliness” of the work, rather than the man himself, we are really putting Things before People, which ironically is what nearly all of Tolkien’s work warns against. The man himself led a largely mundane life, once he returned from the First World War, and unless you count converting C.S. Lewis to Christianity, there is little in his biography that really stands out for canonisation purposes. I have never seen any suggestion that Tolkien worked miracles, either during his life or after his death – The Silmarillion is a staggering literary achievement, but writing it is hardly a miracle.

Indeed, if one is looking for saints in the Tolkien family, there is a stronger case for Tolkien’s mother, Mabel. Mabel Tolkien suffered severe hardship and social ostracism for her conversion to Catholicism, prior to her death at 34 from diabetes, and John Ronald certainly considered her a martyr for her faith (which played a significant role in his subsequent attachment to the Church). The woman unquestionably went above and beyond anything that could be expected of a widowed mother of two boys in 1900, but Mabel Tolkien did not write best-selling fantasy novels, so there are no websites devoted to her. The only reason her suffering is remembered at all is the subsequent fame of her eldest son – which, again, reinforces the notion that sainthood should not be a popularity contest.

In concluding, this piece of Devil’s Advocacy, I can only emphasise again that I am not disputing the strength of Tolkien’s faith. He was committed to the Catholic Church to an extraordinary degree, and his thoughts on matters spiritual do seep into his works. If one is inclined to read them, there are plenty of letters and quotes out there, where Tolkien discusses this. I am, however, merely saying that canonisation is not appropriate under these circumstances, and strikes me as a case of misplaced fanboyism. The man himself was uncomfortable enough with his 1960s fans (whom he called his Deplorable Cultus) – I hate to think what he would have made of this.

Hobitit (1993) – The Lord of the Rings on television

I seem to be acquiring a taste for obscure Tolkien adaptations. Yesterday, I took a look at the Soviet adaptation of The Hobbit. Today, I worked my way through Hobitit (‘The Hobbits’) – the 1993 Finnish television adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I stand to be corrected, but think it might be the only example of The Lord of the Rings ever being adapted for the small screen.

Like the Soviet Hobbit, Hobitit has a framing narrator, in this case an elderly Sam telling the story of his adventures to a group of young hobbits. This has the advantage of allowing significant jumps between scenes, and this adaptation isn’t shy about doing that – since the story is literally focused on Frodo and Sam, the entire War of the Ring gets narrated away, in favour of showing the action in Mordor. There is no Denethor or Faramir, no Théoden or Éowyn, no Helm’s Deep or Battle of Pelennor Fields. We are told about Aragorn becoming King, but we never see it (in fact, he literally disappears after Boromir’s death). Same with the destruction of Isengard – the Ents (whose nature is never actually explained) defeat Saruman off-screen. The latter third of the series (there are nine 20-25 minute episodes) really is a case of taking the heart of The Lord of the Rings – Frodo/Sam/Gollum – and dispensing with the rest, in a way that would probably make it confusing as hell for any non-book-reader.

If Hobitit leaves out so much, what is actually in there? A surprising amount. In contrast to both the 1978 Bakshi version, and 2001-2003 Jackson, this version of The Lord of the Rings features the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil (who has a vague Native American vibe about him), and the Barrow Wight. That Tom hands out the Barrow blades becomes all the more odd, given that we never get to see Merry use his against the Witch King – it’s a plot-element that becomes a loose-end, because of the cuts elsewhere. This TV Rings also gives us The Scouring of the Shire, if not the actual Grey Havens.

I mentioned that there is considerable focus on Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. The famous Gandalf-Frodo dialogue (“many who live deserve death, and many who die deserve life…”) is here given to Frodo and Sam. Gollum’s internal debate is featured in full, complete with contrasting voices depending on which side of his personality is speaking. Finnish Gollum, in contrast to Jackson’s, is very well-fed, and basically comes across as an insane and solidly-built cannibal in a loincloth, rather than the skeletal figure we generally associate with the character. Gollum’s backstory, including his transformation, is also featured in full.

Part of the charm of Hobitit is the low-budget nature of the production. We see Gandalf falling into a hole in Moria with accompanying narration, but we never see the Balrog (which is named later). We see Frodo caught in a web, but we never see Shelob – I’m vaguely disappointed there, since even the Soviets at least gave us plastic spiders. The journey down the Great River doesn’t actually feature a boat – it’s our actors sitting in the studio, with Aragorn pretending to row, intercut with some quite pretty stock footage of waterway and forest. We never see the Dark Tower – Sauron is a floating eye (an actual eye), and Mount Doom’s eruption looks more like a munitions explosion than a volcanic eruption. Speaking of Mount Doom, it rather takes away its impressiveness when Gollum is climbing up it, since it is clear we are dealing with a model a few metres high (he and Frodo climb to the summit, incidentally, rather than having the Sammath Naur scene).

Then there are the funny little side quirks. I’ve already mentioned plump Gollum, but there is also Galadriel as a Face in a Lake, Legolas never speaking (why bother with him?), and Narsil being reforged in record time. Barliman Butterbur looks like the lovechild of Boris Johnson and Meat Loaf, the Shire looks decrepit, dark, and vaguely slum-like, Tom Bombadil has a greater screen presence than Gimli, Bilbo isn’t kept young by the Ring (he grows a truly impressive moustache, by the way), and most bizarrely of all… Boromir is given something resembling a Japanese samurai costume, complete with top-knotted hair. If Bakshi’s Boromir is mockable for his Viking get-up, this Boromir could pass for Kai from Lexx, complete with unsmiling demeanour.

So is Hobitit worth watching today? For sad Tolkien geeks like myself, the entire story being wrapped up in around four hours makes it a reasonable time-investment; if you actually want to see Tom Bombadil on-screen, there aren’t too many other options, and as a Finnophile, hearing Gandalf tell Frodo that he has ‘sisu’ makes me smile. Objectively, what screws this adaptation even more than the budget is the pacing: if you include the Old Forest, but cut all the Rohan and Gondor action, you are left with a nine episode series where Bree takes up the majority of the fourth episode, and where the Fellowship only leaves Rivendell in the sixth(!) episode. You can rationalise it as Old Sam’s faulty narration, but even then – Moria is surely more important to the story than the Old Forest? Couldn’t we at least see Gandalf fighting with something dark and shadowy before falling? Oh well, there’s always Boromir to laugh at, and some surprisingly catchy musical numbers.