Writing in the Film Generation

If I’m to be brutally honest, I don’t really read that much – particularly not as much as I think I should, as a writer. This isn’t a new problem for me, but I haven’t always been this way – in my youth and young adulthood, I used to read voraciously, devouring book after book with gusto. In fact, I would argue that I stopped reading so much around when I started writing (an odd coincidence, to be sure), but it also occurs to me that I stopped reading quite so much when I started watching.

I’ve always loved movies, film and TV, and there was a time when I would be excited about all the newest movies in theaters, or the latest TV show to grace cable networks (I’ve also come to realize that, as I get older, I kind of just want to watch the same stuff over and over again, a kind of comfort in familiarity). And if I’ve never said as much outright, I find that film and literature are really two sides of the same coin – namely, storytelling.

I think that’s what I really enjoy more than anything – a good story. Something that triggers the imagination, that gets the creative juices flowing, or simply makes you feel. And I don’t particularly think that any given story ‘needs’ to be told through any particular medium; the core essence of the story can be just as valid as a book, a poem, a photograph or a full-length movie. However, the way in which the story is told is more important to the medium, and this is where I think that, as I write more and more, I’m slowly realizing the influences that are guiding my storytelling.

You see, reading in the past – wonderful books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Great Expectations, or even Salem’s Lot – got me feeling in a way that, in my experience, only a book could. When Scout and her brother are being stalked through the dark, or when Magwitch is waiting in the staircase for Pip, I remember feeling a deep unease, a fright and terror that no movie could ever instill in me – something that came from a deep caring of lovingly crafted characters, and the words on the page painted emotion as much as they did images.

Film, on the other hand, is (obviously) a heavily visual medium. And whilst some films don’t necessarily explore this in depth, others manage to convey the story in a way only visual imagery could. The Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, or even the manufactured but highly enjoyable Marvel movies … these are all prime examples of stories that, I feel, are absolutely best told through film. The grandeur, spectacle, and beautiful blending of sound and light simply wouldn’t work as words on paper (ironic, that all of these would have started life as scripts – or in some cases, actual books).

But as I delve deeper into writing my own novels, I’ve come to realize that I’ve become more influenced by these visual stories even as I put digital ink onto screen. When I write The Redemption of Erâth, I see the story in my head, almost as a film playing before my eyes; I write it as if I were describing a movie. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m really writing movies – 400-page movies, to be sure, but movies nonetheless. My inspirations aren’t the books of my past, but the films I’ve watched and adored.

It’s interesting, because in some of the reviews I’ve read, people have actually said that they would make great movies – perhaps because of the visual element I’m trying to instill into black and white text (not always successfully, of course). And it makes me wonder – is there room for a different kind of story in me? Can I even write a book that toys with emotions and thoughts in a way that film can’t do justice to?

In any case, I enjoy writing these stories – whether they’re primarily visual in my head or not – and I suppose I’ll carry on for now in the way I always have; after all, I don’t particularly want to see a great change of style halfway through the Redemption of Erâth series. But as I continue through my literary journey, perhaps I can try to include a little more of the written story in my books, as well.

What do you think? What books have made you feel things that you couldn’t imagine from a film? Or vice versa?

Revisiting The Lord of the Rings

It’s hard to think that The Fellowship of the Ring first came out in theaters nearly nineteen years ago. It’s even harder to think of a world in which these masterpieces of cinema didn’t exist, and nobody knew what they were in for before their first-ever watch. It’s particularly difficult to imagine that Peter Jackson et al had the most immense difficulty getting these films green lit, filmed, produced, and realized, in an era where CGI was only just starting to take hold of blockbusters and our only experience of motion capture was Jar Jar Binks.

I want to revisit these films in light of their imminent release in 4K, as I am (like many fans the world over) simply dying to see scenes such as wandering the halls of Moria, or the battle of the Pelanor Fields, in even higher quality than ever before. I’m even more excited for the news that remastered editions are coming next year, but 4K will have to do for now.

Like the best of cinema, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic visual feast, from the bright and colorful renditions of the Shire to the overwhelming sight of ten thousand soldiers on horseback running down an even greater number of orcs, and every scene and shot is filled with visual magic – both practical and CGI.

Given that we’re discussing these films in the context of their technological improvement (upscaling, re-rendering, etc.), it’s worth noting that the timing of these films was perhaps a key to their visual success: the burgeoning rise of computer-assisted imagery was vital to Peter Jackson’s vision, yet an enormous number of shots were achieved through much simpler – and much cleverer – practical effects. When comparing these films to later blockbusters – including The Hobbit prequels – it really is the seamless blend of practical and digital effects that allowed this movie to achieve the visual successes that it did. When we see great panning shots around the stone city of Minas Tirith, or witness the breaking of the dam above Isengard, we’re actually watching 100% practical shots, achieved with excessively large miniatures (‘bigatures’, as Jackson’s team would come to call them), enhanced only by the subtle CGI addition of things such as people wandering the streets, or orcs being thrown into cascading rivers.

At the time, audiences were used to CGI being used for very obvious, impossible to visualize effects; think the liquid metal of Terminator 2, or the tracking shot of the bug in the opening to Men In Black. Most other blockbusters of the time – even huge visual-effects-laden hits such as Independence Day – relied primarily on practical effects, sometimes superimposing multiple practical shots with green screen. It was much less common – and at times disastrously obvious – when CGI was used to render entire landscapes, create inhuman characters, or add dazzle to otherwise normal shots.

This means that Jackson was, at the time, at a crossroads of technology; anything was possible with CGI, but it still wasn’t alway the best choice. To create creatures such as Gollum – which, as opposed to Jar Jar Binks, was necessitated by the original source material – Jackson had no choice but to rely on motion capture and an army of digital artists to create his vision. But to create many of the epic landscapes and cities, he relied on something much simpler: the majestic and wildly varied countryside of his native New Zealand. So much of the grandiosity of The Lord of the Rings comes not from CGI, but from the real-life locations in which he chose to film. When we watch Gandalf, on the back of an eagle, soaring high over snow-drenched peaks, we’re watching a small blip of CGI against a completely real world.

In some ways, these are the scenes I’m most looking forward to seeing in 4K: not the crazy, CGI-laden battles of ghosts and oliphants, but the sweeping, majestic landscapes that deserve to be seen in the highest possible quality.

Of course, style is nothing without substance, and whilst there are small moments that detract from the overall interpretation of Tolkien’s original vision (I’m looking at you, Legolas-surfing-down-a-staircase-on-a-shield), the faithfulness of the adaptation, and the clear love Jackson had for the source material, make for one of the most thrilling, and emotional, stories to be put to film. When The Lord of the Rings first came out, many people were concerned at its runtime, and what seemed to be incredibly slow pacing. And arguably, they are a long, slow set of movies; it’s nearly forty minutes into the film before we even leave the Shire, and there’s still half an hour of film to go after the destruction of the One Ring. But this pacing reflects the detail of the film, which in turn reflects the detail of the world-building that Tolkien put so much effort into.

Die-hard purists will complain that the reluctant king trope Aragorn plays in the films is contrary to the original story, or bemoan the loss of Tom Bombadil in the opening chapters, but the other thing Jackson had an uncanny knack for (which he has yet to replicate to such a degree) was knowing what worked well, and what wouldn’t work well, when translated to film. As slow as the films are, they are a masterpiece nonetheless in tension, character- and world-building, and even in the extended editions, nothing is present without reason. Sure, Aragorn doesn’t set out from Rivendell with Andúril in hand, knowing he is to be crowned king, as he does in the books, but this would have worked against the audience’s empathy for him had Jackson stuck hardcore to the text. Modern audiences expect character arcs, and arguably Tolkien was less a master of character-building than he was world-building.

Even when Sam (albeit temporarily) abandons Frodo in the passages above Cirith Ungol (a thing that never happens in the books), it works to the emotional tension of the film, serving as a breaking point, and moment of darkness before moving into the final climax of the film. These changes, I would argue, are for the better – at least in the telling of the story cinematically – and these three movies remain to this day my favorite works of art ever committed to film.

I can’t wait to see them in 4K, and when the remastered versions come out next year, I’ll be first in line!

What are your favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Do they stand the test of time, visually and content-wise? Let me know!

Unintentional Parallels in Storytelling

One of the great things about writing fantasy is the amount of research needed to write a convincing story: i.e., very little. I don’t necessarily need to learn about how medieval feudal society worked in detail, because I can always just say that, well, my society is different.

Of course, even in fantasy there are advantages to research nonetheless; depending on how convincing you want your fantasy to be – and in particular how close to a real-world setting you intend it – it can be worth seeing how you can parallel ideas, concepts and actions from the real world in your own writing. For example, in The Redemption of Erâth, there is a lot of travel involved between towns, cities and countries, over vast distances, often by foot or by horse. It was important to me to set realistic timescales for these travels, so I looked into average paces for wilderness walking and riding to estimate how long it would take to travel, say, a hundred miles.

Similarly, when discussing things like ships, or sailing, I wanted to keep to a realistic sense of being on a sailing vessel, so I researched terminology, techniques and concepts when on the water.

However, the story and plot itself – in any fiction – is pure invention, of course; except that it really isn’t, because it’s impossible to deny the influence that other writing has on your own. In writing The Redemption of Erâth, I knew I would be drawing heavily on influences from classic fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings – more stylistically than anything – but within the realm of my own imagination. When I invented giant, dark wolves called fierundé, I knew of course they were a parallel to Tolkien’s wargs. The starting point of the series, Consolation, is a parallel for the Shire. Even the great city of Erârün, Vira Weitor, is a parallel for Minas Tirith.

But those were conscious decisions I made, drawing on what I held dear in my love of fantasy, and paying homage to the great ideas of the past. What I’ve discovered over time, though, is that there are often unintentional parallels, too – similarities between my writing and something else that I was entirely unaware of. The parallels, of course, can be between my fiction and another fiction, but sometimes something in the very real world crops up and makes me remember that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

For example: this morning while browsing Reddit, I came across an article about a disease called African trypanosomiasis – also referred to as ‘sleeping sickness’. It’s passed on by tsetse flies, and amongst the symptoms are disrupted sleep cycles, fever, aches and pains. For those of you who’ve read the first part of book three, Ancients & Death, you’ll be aware that in the world of Erâth there is a disease called the ‘Sleeping Death’, which – you guessed it – comes with fever, aches and pains, before the victim ultimately passes into sleep and never wakes up.

Now there are significant differences between the two diseases – one real and one fictional – but the parallels are nonetheless uncanny. And would you believe, I had never heard of sleeping sickness before this morning.

In the time since I’ve been writing, I’ve come across other parallels, too. In writing my YA novel 22 Scars, I thought a story focusing on depression and self-harm would be pretty unique. After finishing and publishing it, I discovered many others: Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield, Cut by Patricia McCormick, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, and quite a few others as well. I hadn’t heard of any of these books before writing my own.

It’s a funny thing, and can be a bit discouraging sometimes, because of course we all want to think our ideas are the most original, unique ones out there that nobody else could have thought of. Of course, real life isn’t about that; when you really break it down, every story has already been told in its base essence – tragedy, comedy, etc. – but the details are what make it your own. Because with nearly eight billion people in the world, the likelihood of two individuals’ stories being similar is pretty high. On the flip side, it also means your story – the one you have to tell – is one in eight billion. And that’s pretty unique.

So in the end, I try not to worry about the parallels, or the things that seems like influence, copying or even plagiarism, because I know my influences and I know my inventions. I’m quite open about the deliberate parallels, and have nothing to hide; I just find the unintentional ones fascinating, because how can my mind invent something that, as it turns out, already exists?

The world is a strange and wonderful place, indeed.