The Lord of the Rings and its Extended Movie Universe

I was talking to a colleague the other day about movies, and he revealed to me that he and his roommate are making a concerted effort to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety for the first time ever. After I got over my initial shock that there still exist people in the world who haven’t seen these magnificent pieces of cinematic history, we started talking about some of the scenes he had seen so far (he hasn’t yet got to The Return of the King), his immediate impression of the characters and ideas within, and how he felt overall about the films.

He loved Gandalf, and how he straight up gets blazed with Bilbo right at the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Tolkien wouldn’t have meant it to be actual ‘weed’); he also told me how he was ROFLing at the Gandalf the Grey/Gandalf the White scene where he forces Saruman out of Théoden’s head, but that he nonetheless recognized it as an important scene.

One of the things my colleague revealed to me, however, was how it took him some time to get over the clichés of the movies, until he took a moment to recognize that virtually every medieval/fantasy film ever was in actual fact inspired by The Lord of the Rings, and that the clichés are there because it’s really the originator of so many of them. And he was thinking of it from a filmic perspective of the last two decades – never mind the near-century since Tolkien first started writing about Middle-Earth.

His enthusiasm, however, has made me want to revisit these epic films again (I usually watch the trilogy from start to finish at least two or three times a year) with a naive eye, if possible, and try to remember what it was like when I first saw them back in the early 2000s. Whilst some of the CGI has aged better than others (Gollum: yes; Legolas fighting an oliphant: no), and the more I watch them the more critical I become of everything – despite still loving them to death – there is to this day something magnificent, incredibly epic, and almost magical about these three movies that has (so far) transcended time and allows them to remain as one of the most unlikely successes of modern cinema.

But I find myself also – perhaps in anticipation of Amazon’s extended Lord of the Rings TV series – wanting to revisit a trilogy that has not done as well, and that I have certainly not watched as much: The Hobbit films.

Where the scenes that stick out to me in The Lord of the Rings are usually the ones that are epic, magnificent and truly grand, the ones that stand out the most from The Hobbit films are more often the ones that drag it down into an abyss from which even Amazon may struggle to rescue the franchise from: the barrel scene, or Legolas defying gravity, or even the fact that they completely failed to bookend the trilogy properly (it starts with a flashback from which we never actually return). Whilst some of the scenes are simply poorly adapted from the book, some of the more egregious and unforgivable parts include the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili – two of which were never even in Tolkien’s original work.

That being said, I have a soft spot for these films – in descending order of softness as the films go on – partially because, like them or not, they’re what we have as a cinematic adaptation of one of the most beloved books in history, but also because I understand the difficulties and pressures that Peter Jackson et al were under to pull off something that even approached the grandiose heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy: a foreshortened filming schedule, disastrous reshoots, cast and crew that were in despair of being unable to share sets with each other (Ian McKellen in particular was devastated that he was almost entirely alone in green screen for the entirety of the shoot), and a change of director halfway through all contributed to a project that Peter Jackson would later say nearly destroyed him.

Besides, if we can forgive Legolas surfing on piles of Orc corpses in The Two Towers and Aragorn and crew diving through cascades of skulls in The Return of the King, can we really object so strongly to a CGI orc that didn’t need to be in the film, or side plots that were extended beyond need just to fill time? There was plenty of silliness in the original trilogy, and plenty of deviations from the source material, and in some ways I would argue The Hobbit films are actually more faithful to the book: in order to flesh out three lengthy movies, there’s virtually not a single thing in the book that was omitted from the films.

At the end of the day, I still believe we’re fortunate to not only have all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings adapted into high-budget films, but to have them done (in the end) by the same team of writers, producers and directors such that they at least have a consistent feel and tone, and feel very much like part of a single cinematic universe (something Marvel took a page from when creating their own magnificent cinematic universe). I don’t know how necessary Amazon’s billion-dollar TV series will feel when it eventually comes out, but I remain hopeful that it will take heed of these thoughts and make it feel like it fits with the films themselves (the fact that it’s being filmed again in New Zealand is a positive thing in this regard).

I think I may re-approach this set of films in the near future (hey, maybe even tonight!), starting with An Unexpected Journey and going all the way through to The Return of the King. This way I can get a feel for the entire story from start to finish, and still end on the strongest film of the six. I feel The Hobbit films deserve a second chance, at least from me, and I want to experience the good parts (the Misty Mountain song near the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, or the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug in The Desolation of Smaug) despite the worse parts, many of which I’ve broached already.

And of course, I feel for Peter Jackson. He’s personally one of my favorite directors, and not just because of his work on The Lord of the Rings; I adored his take on The Lovely Bones, and even the more recent Mortal Engines was a decent film, despite the logical fallacies of the entire concept, which of course is more to do with the original book than anything Peter Jackson did. I just think that his career and reputation were ruined by The Hobbit films, and it really wasn’t his fault; when he took over the helm from Guillermo del Toro, the studio refused to allow him any additional time for rewrites and reshoots, meaning some of it was filmed without even a basic storyboard.

What are your thoughts on the entirely of The Lord of the Rings cinematic universe? Do agree that The Hobbit films ruined it, or do you think that – for what they are – they should still be respected as the best cinematic adaption of Tolkien’s masterpiece that we likely will ever get?

The Perils and Potentials of Pastiche

When I was a young composer in high school, I thought the pinnacle of musical genius to aspire to, the composer to emulate and copy and write like, was Beethoven. I had a deep love also for Sibelius, and Liszt, and Dvorák, and sought to write music along their styles, too. Little did I realize as I was cutting my compositional teeth that I understood their music’s beauty, without understanding its importance.

It wasn’t until I got to college and had my first compositional tutoring session that my world collapsed. I proudly placed in front of my professor the culmination of my childhood work – a full-length orchestral symphony that could’ve been written by Schubert – and watched in mounting horror and deepening shame as he methodically tore it apart. It was, in a word, a pastiche.

I had never heard the term before, and had never been presented with its concept as a negative thing; I had never been exposed to the idea that imitating art is not in fact worthwhile, but instead misguided flattery and a twisting of influence into something derivative and necessarily ‘less-than’.

It crushed my spirit.

But from the ashes of my early compositions rose something far, far better, and I am to this day indebted to my early composition professor for what he taught me about originality. You see, I had been laboring for years under the impression that the best works of art I could create would be in the same style as my influences. It never occurred to me to think otherwise; after all, shouldn’t I be writing the music I wanted to hear? And if what I wanted to hear was Dvorák’s ‘New World’ symphony, then shouldn’t I rewrite it with my own notes?

What I learned instead was the ability to see a work of art for its context, and not just its enjoyability. The dissonances and unsettling cross-rhythms of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony are beautiful, uplifting and inspiring, yes – but they are far more important than that, because they represented a moment in musical history when people heard something they had never heard before. But Beethoven didn’t simply create a symphony that was entirely atonal or arhythmic; he wrapped these special moments in a musical tapestry that in other ways harkens back to Mozart, and Haydn, and Bach before them. It was new, but it wasn’t unfathomable.

And this is where I learned the difference between pastiche and originality. You see, I could write a symphony that would sound like Beethoven’s tenth … but why should I? Where’s the value in recreating something that won’t have sounded ‘new’ for 250 years?

Instead, I started working on a style all my own, borrowing from what I enjoyed in others’ music and molding it into a shape that was recognizable, yet (almost) entirely new. I wrote clarinet solos; I wrote elegies for voice and string quartet. I wrote a 14-minute musical essay on the canon form for full orchestra. (To this day this remains one of my favorite compositions.)

And this is something I’ve learned to translate from music into writing, as well. When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I more or less wanted to write a story that would read like Tolkien. I realize now that this was misguided (I have nowhere near the mastery of the English language to even place in the same league as Tolkien), and as the series has progressed, I feel I’ve begun to develop my own linguistic style.

When I wrote my young adult novel, 22 Scars, however, I refused to read anything in a similar genre. This story was important to me, and it was important that I write it in a way that really could only have come from me. With short, often incomplete sentences, multiple points of view, and little to no emotion in third-person scenes, I was able to create a literary world that (hopefully) embodies the spirit of numb depression, draws the reader in and puts them squarely in the shoes of a suicidally depressed teen with a tragic upbringing.

The tonal difference between The Redemption of Erâth and 22 Scars is distinct, to say the least; I suspect most people would not assume they were the work of the same author. But there’s a reason for that; the entire world of Erâth is derivative of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and so it makes sense that the tone of those stories would match. The world of 22 Scars, however, is bleak, numb, and highly personal – it is my world.

Now, this isn’t to say necessarily that all pastiche is worthless; I believe there is a value in being able to recreate the style of your favorite artists whilst recognizing that what you’re creating isn’t necessarily meant to stand on its own without context. For my second YA novel, The Broken, I needed to write a few songs to get in the heads of the band members described in the book. However, these songs would be from the early- to mid-nineties, and to write songs that I would write today wouldn’t have fit. Instead, I listened to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and even through to System of a Down and Slipknot, and wrote five songs that, to my ear, could have been the bastard children of these bands.

If I were to write a soundtrack to a period film, I would want that soundtrack to sound like it came from that era. The same rules apply. I wouldn’t bill that soundtrack as art in its own regard, but rather to be considered against similar works of the era.

Ultimately, I think that there is a fine line between influence and pastiche. It’s fine to be influenced by other artists, but the moment what you create could have been made by that same artist, you’ve lost the most important thing in art: your own soul.

Elric and the Advent of Sword and Sorcery

I probably don’t need to remind anyone that there are a lot of genres of literature out there. Sometimes, of course, books can be forced into categories that they truly don’t match, but for the most part, the reason we have genres is because a lot of stories tend to fall into those categories fairly neatly.

And for every genre of writing, there are endless sub-genres, too. Look no further than Amazon’s ranking system, where The Redemption of Erâth falls under “Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Epic” as equally as “Literature and Fiction > Horror > Dark Fantasy”. (I don’t make up these categories, nor did I place my books into them; there’s precious little horror in The Redemption of Erâth.) The goal of this, of course, is to make accessing literature easier, so that the reader knows what to expect. After all, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are both considered fantasy, yet they have about as much in common as The Wheel of Time does with A Song of Ice and Fire.

But then, every once in a while, something comes along that redefines a genre. Or, if you’re lucky, creates a new one. Within the world of fantasy, which typically governs stories with alternate worlds, magic and medieval-type settings, the gamut runs from high fantasy – set in an entirely alternate world – to urban fantasy – set in a cross between a fantasy world and the real world. And whilst Tolkien is typically regarded as the master of the first, with C.S. Lewis arguably pioneering the second, today I want to talk about a genre that is sometimes unfairly dismissed as ‘easy’, or less serious: sword & sorcery.

Sword & sorcery fantasy, as the title implies, typically deals with the heroic adventures of a sword-wielding hero as they go from battle to battle, traveling the length and breadth of whatever world they’re set in, often pitted against dark sorcerers or magicians. Whilst there are obviously many possible crossovers between sword & sorcery and other fantasy sub-genres, some of the key elements are that the hero often knows they are the hero, and may even embrace that fact; also, that those same heroes typically live for adventure, and may go seeking for the glory of battle.

The term “sword & sorcery” was first coined by author Michael Moorcock in a letter to the magazine Amra, looking to describe the works of Robert E. Howard, and in particular, his Conan adventures. He was looking for something to distinguish these tales from other, similar genres, whilst focusing on the supernatural/mythical element that is so often prevalent in the genre.

Michael Moorcock himself became one of the best-known names in the sword & sorcery genre with his ongoing tales of Elric, the last emperor of Melniboné, and his adventures through lands of danger and deception. One of the lynchpins of sword & sorcery – the sword – makes a prominent appearance in these stories in the form of Stormbringer, a weapon that both confers strength to Elric (a physically weak antihero) whilst also eating away at his soul.

I remember greatly enjoying the tales of Elric and Stormbringer when I was young, primarily because they didn’t necessarily come with the deathly-serious world-saving implications of books such as The Lord of the Rings. It was adventure, pure and simple; there were stakes, yes, but they were always personal to the hero, and the world was just the world in which these adventures took place. For me it was refreshing, as so many of the tales I had read unto that point revolved around a reluctant hero that had to save their entire world (too many stories today, I fear, follow this tradition – including my own!).

It’s an interesting sort of idea, I think, to have a story whose sole purpose is to entertain; a story that has no allegory or moral, no lesson to be learned, and no great consequences for the world should the hero fail is something that provides a delightful escape from the realities of the ‘real’ world around us. And whilst there will always be a place for the Harry Potters and the Brandyé Dui-Erâths, there should equally be room for the Elrics, too.

What are your favorite sword & sorcery fantasies, and why?