Writing and Marketing

Category: Essays and Thoughts Page 2 of 3

A category for personal writing, featuring reviews of fantasy and science fiction books, films, shows and games.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just in case anyone is following these posts, this is a heads up that there will not be a post made today, nor on Thursday. I’ll be busy traveling for Canadian Thanksgiving. Keep safe during the festive season!

(Fun fact – both American and Canadian Thanksgivings were put into place through progressive legislation at the end of the 19th Century. However, both were inspired by historical events. The American Thanksgiving traces its lineage back to the Pilgrims in the 17th Century. Canadian Thanksgiving, however, has its origin point in the explorations of Frobisher in the 16th Century. Guess that means the Canadian one can be argued to be the original!)

“Have You Tried Not Playing DnD?”

I might be going a little off the beaten path today, away from my usual ramblings about books, so I thank you for sticking with a vent out of left-field. However, as someone who greatly enjoys pen and paper Roleplaying Games, I’m constantly faced with the dreaded phrase “RPGs? Oh, you mean Dungeons and Dragons?”

It’s hard to think of any creative medium so deeply entwined with a singular product. In a way, this does make sense. Roleplaying games, tabletop or otherwise, are in many ways designed as a toolkit to help build story and gameplay, more akin to a method of creativity rather than a finished creative product. At the same time, they flirt with being a creative endeavour all of their own, when you take into account world-building material and adventure modules. Still, no matter how you view RPGs, this tight relationship is impressive. Imagine, if when the term “movie” or “book” came up, everyone thought of the single, same example. “You read a book? Oh, you mean Harry Potter?”

While I have nothing against Dungeons and Dragons as a game, nor against (most) of the people who have it as their first and only choice of RPG, it is frustrating to have something you enjoy being constantly boiled down to a singular talking point. This is only more frustrating because I feel that Dungeons and Dragons and its close derivatives (you can assume Pathfinder fits here as well) are not particularly good at their job – or are, at least, being forced into roles that they were never meant for.

At the moment, this total control probably just comes down to excellent marketing on the part of Hasbro and the lucky coincidence that “nerd chic” became a fashion statement. Everyone is desperate to seem a little bit quirky to avoid accusations of being “normal”, and Dungeons and Dragons instantly leaps to mind as that perfect offbeat fashion accessory. Once live streams of carefully scripted games became popular, Dungeons and Dragons roared back to life and seems destined to hold its dominant position in the market.

I think the reason why this dominance rubs me the wrong way is that it feels so fundamentally backward to me. For those with less experience with RPGs, I’ll do my best to explain my thought process. An RPG is, generally, a toolkit for collaborative storytelling or gameplay. I often say that it’s like telling a story, but you manage to trick your friends (and the element of chance) into helping you with your storytelling. The players take the role of the main characters of the story, and the chance is provided normally by dice or some other method of randomization. With the addition of independent agents and the uncertainty of the dice, the exact outcome of the story is a mystery when it starts. Good gamemasters simply create a stage with a determined setting and non-player characters (NPCs), perhaps with some prepared events to keep things moving. Then it’s up to the players to navigate this world and set things in motion. The fun of the RPG often comes from not knowing how things are ever going to exactly pan out or develop.

However, not all players and gamemasters enjoy interacting with their created worlds in the same ways. RPGs tend to fall into a spectrum from narrative to “simulationist”. More narrative games put more emphasis on freely telling the story and on discussion. The dice are only brought out when there is a question over how successful an action might be, or two characters are competing against each other. Simulationist games tend to have some portion of their gameplay expanded into a more robust gaming system. Normally this is the combat, as these kinds of situations are often of high risk to characters and are a great place to introduce more “gamist” content, the tactics of which are appealing to many players. Some games go so heavily into the simulationist angle that they become closer to wargames, with players taking the role of soldiers or commanders in a complex campaign.

Sounds like a lot of moving parts, doesn’t it? And that is exactly why there isn’t just one RPG on the market. For a good gamemaster, all the RPGs that he knows how to play are like tools in a toolkit. He thinks of the sort of story that he wants to tell and then picks out the tool closest to the kind of experience that he wants – the tool that will put more simulation on the parts of the game that will be focal points and less simulation on details that will be less necessary. If there is no specific tool appropriate, the gamemaster will instead look for a more flexible tool that he knows can be adapted for what he needs. Let’s say that our gamemaster has been watching a lot of old samurai films and thinks it would be fun to put his players in a similar situation – plenty of quick-draw swordfights and musings on duty and honour. He could then go to his set of RPG books and pick out, say, Legend of the Five Rings, a game that features rules specifically for simulating high-risk duels between samurai. The book also includes a lot of worldbuilding for a fictional faux-Japan setting, with useful information for gamemaster and player alike for gaming in such a world.

This gets to why Dungeons and Dragons is so strange to me, because so often people pick it up just to “play an RPG” and then try to make it do all kinds of things it was not designed for. If the gamemaster playing Legend of the Five Rings is analogous to a man who needs to turn a screw and pulls a screwdriver out of his toolkit, many Dungeons and Dragons players are like someone who takes a hammer out of their toolkit and then starts trying to think of things that might need hammering.

This is not to say that Dungeons and Dragons does not have its own role as a tool, although I do think that its purpose has become rather convoluted through age. Briefly, Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy game focused around simulationist combat, in which characters eventually rise to superhuman levels of durability and skill – think fantasy, but with superhero characters. If those are the kinds of games you want, that’s great, but why limit yourself to just that one experience? A long-running joke among the online RPG community is the refrain of “Have you tried not playing Dungeons and Dragons?” – the response given to those expressing frustration over problems that develop when they try making the system do something it was not meant to handle. In other words, trying to use that hammer to screw in screws or saw planks of wood.

I’ll also go out a little further and argue that Dungeons and Dragons isn’t even particularly good at what it sets out to do. This is mainly because it tries to expand its core set of ideas (e.g. differing classes) over a wide set of in-house worlds. Throughout the editions, this has always led to major issues of balancing between players, issues that aren’t considered when just looking at fantasy as a genre. Look at it this way – if you were playing something like Lord of the Rings as a game, how do you make everyone who isn’t Gandalf not feel redundant? How can a high fantasy style wizard be balanced against low fantasy style warriors in the same system? When things became very unbalanced players tended to complain that certain classes were essentially obsolete. When things were more balanced, players complained that everything felt too “similar”. A better game would either allow fantastical magic for all players or deny it to all of them. But Dungeons and Dragons has been around for so long, and become so iconic, that many odd game design choices have become enshrined as sacred and inviolate. (Compare this to the modern set of Star Wars games, which have separated out the mystical, superhuman Jedi into their own game, as the experience is on such a different scale.)

I think another problem is that Dungeons and Dragons has been so preeminent for so long that it’s starting to eat its own tail when it comes to style and themes. Historically, as far as fantasy roleplaying games went, people would read a particular sort of fantasy work, get inspired, and try to recreate that through a roleplaying game. However, Dungeons and Dragons has been massively influential on pop culture, especially video games, early iterations of which copied a lot of the gameplay concepts. This, combined with increasingly visible pop culture appearances, catapulted Dungeons and Dragons into the mainstream. The result is that many new players want to play Dungeons and Dragons to recreate the experience of…. Dungeons and Dragons. The process has not only become backward but circular – a trap that is difficult for many to break out of and allow themselves to enjoy the genre from different perspectives or enjoy a differing genre altogether. And, most frustrating from my point of view, they never get to enjoy the other wonderful systems, worlds, and adventures created by the dedicated and imaginative RPG designer community outside of Dungeons and Dragons. 

Of course, my goal isn’t to stop people from playing what they enjoy playing. I’ve heard a lot of people swear that the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has fixed many of the balance issues mentioned, and if it’s working for them – great! I simply wanted to point out that there is a wide and diverse array of amazing content that should also be appreciated, even if it doesn’t have a massive corporation backing its marketing and advertising.

So, to end on a more positive note, I want to give a shout-out to what is becoming a favoured system of mine – Reign, by Greg Stolze, a variant of the One Roll Engine (ORE) system. A fantasy game with a focus on more narrative play, and on wielding more political power than your standard “murderhobo” Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I’ve found the system very flexible for adaptation into what I need it to do. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re a gamemaster who’s gotten some campaigns under their belt and wants a tool that they can modify and tinker with. It’s the most modern of the ORE systems as well, and the author has self-published a lot of fun additional content. If you are like me and enjoy games that are a bit heavier on politics and intrigue, I’d advise giving it a look.

Tribute to The Venture Bros.

The word just came out that Adult Swim has cancelled their long running (if not exactly prolific) animated show, The Venture Bros. While in today’s day and age a cancellation doesn’t necessarily mean that something is gone forever, with the show in such a precarious position, I found myself thinking back to it over and over. It may be that myself, and others, simply took The Venture Bros. for granted. Due to a very slow release schedule, with new seasons coming out two or three years apart, it was perhaps too easy for the show to be put at the back of peoples’ minds. We should remember, however, that the slow release schedule was mostly due to the incredibly intricate scripts, plots and animation being worked on for every season.

Trying to talk about The Venture Bros is difficult for me without simply falling into trying to explain why so many scenes and characters are so memorable. The original premise of the show is an amusingly dark take on Hanna-Barbera era cartoons, particularly Jonny Quest. (A thinly disguised Johnny actually shows up in the show as a washed-up drug addict). The show focuses around the family and employees of Rusty Venture, who was a child adventurer with a “super-science” father, similar to Jonny. The constant encounters with danger, an impossible to live up to father figure and an emotionally abusive upbringing have left Rusty as a bitter, narcissistic underachiever with two dimwitted sons, coasting on his father’s achievements and money. While he shows little skill at the “super-scientist” life, he still goes through the motions with half-baked inventions, and suffering the attention of various super-villains, most notably the obsessive Monarch. Few of these villains ever manage to do much permanent damage, however, due to Rusty’s murder machine of an assigned bodyguard, Brock Sampson.

The show was famously described by its creators as being “about failure”, with the various characters inheriting the broken dreams of the optimistic Space Age cartoon era. And yet, if this was all the The Venture Bros. was, I don’t think it would have had as much charm as it did. Many shows present “incomplete” characters to attract audience sympathy, but then proceed to never give them any sort of development or growth, constantly retreading the same lessons and mistakes. The Venture Bros. manages to find meaning in failure, even if in small and incremental steps, and part of the fun of the series is watching the excellent character arcs play out. It’s not only the characters who get development however, but the world. The heroes and villains are shown to operate under a strict set of rules and guidelines, ensuring that their escapades can continue through to the modern day with minimal impact. The combination of comic book antics with the minutiae of awkward personal lives makes the series feel like a sweeter hearted Watchman at times.

These are the broad strokes of what makes the show so watchable, but the success is really in the details. Even with the great character development and worldbuilding aside, The Venture Bros. is flat out hilarious, especially once it hits its stride after a season or two. A stellar voice cast manages to make even minor characters memorable and often hilarious, and a hallmark of the show is gag characters turning into important parts of the series. It would be too long to explain all of the varied cast, but I have to say my favourite is the avuncularly villainous Dr. Henry Killinger, a demented but charming combination of his namesake (down to the accent) and an evil Mary Poppins.

The show thrives off of references like that but, unlike other “reference humour” based shows, they never feel like an impediment on plot or the humour of the script. The show might toss out visual, dialogue and scene replication gags at a mile a minute, but the story nearly never slows down to for a laborious explanation. The references feel more like Easter eggs for the attentive viewer, and range so widely as to have something for everyone. My personal favourite running gag is that the leader of the main villain organization is David Bowie, and the shows milks those lyrical references for all they are worth. The fact that the references go above and beyond obvious “nerd” ones are part of the charm. Sure, the show will pull out references to The Empire Strikes Back – but then blends in a healthy dose of Barbarella at the same time. It’s the perfect salve for the soul for those of us stuck with the pain of living in a post Big Bang Theory world.

This is all building up to the fact that the scripts and delivery are absolutely on point, and the comedy manages to feel both tightly designed and improvisational at the same time. When combined with the excellent voice actors, simple dialogue between characters becomes hilarious. This is aided by the fact that the characters are so endearing, even the side ones, and watching them play off of each other is fun in its own right.  You can tell that the slower release schedule is well used to get the comedic timing fine-tuned to perfection. This attention to detail also allows for very clever call backs and self-references, further rewarding the attentive viewer.

As far as adult animated television goes, I can confidently say that The Venture Bros. should stand up there with the like of The Simpsons and Futurama. Arguably it may be better than either of those overall, as it never really developed the issue of later seasonal rot. The biggest disappointment is that the cancelled eighth season was supposed to be the last, the one that would have brought closure to certain lingering questions and character arcs. Even without this final season, I would still heavily recommend the show. Hopefully my prayers will be answered, and the eighth season will find a platform for release. Here’s hoping!

Star Wars: A Lost Hope

In my previous post, I mentioned that I believe that the current set of Star Wars sequels, under Disney, have been poor continuations of what came before. Now that enough time has passed that people are looking past the hype that Disney built in order to drive profits, the general consensus among those unlucky enough to care is that the films were, on a whole, a waste of time.

I don’t really want to go into a lengthy analysis of the many failures of Disney-era Star Wars. Partially this is because I feel like my appreciation for the franchise is of a much milder and more limited form than found elsewhere. Mostly it’s because there are already many fantastic movie reviewers who have, through articles, podcasts, and video reviews, picked apart all of the various shortcomings of the films.

What I find more interesting are what I consider some fallacies that pop up over and over again in discussing these films. Since these have been on my mind, I’ve decided to put down my thoughts on them. These fallacies are less about the films themselves (though they do touch on their content) and more about the context that the films find themselves sitting in.

The first assumption I see a lot of is that the sequels have managed to vindicate the prequels. The Star Wars prequel films were often considered the worst things to happen to Star Wars, until the sequels. However, that era has a good deal of nostalgia for many people as well, and there seems to be growing belief that the issues with the sequels somehow exonerates the prequels, showing that they had some kind of method to their madness.

Sadly, something being flawed does not remove the flaws from another thing. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say. What is very striking to me is that the two series actually seem to suffer from many of the same issues. The sequels promised to be a “return to form” for Star Wars and yet copied many of the worst aspects of the prequels, but without any of the charming parts.

Both series have a painful lack of editing on their scripts, with plenty of quite frankly terrible dialogue and bizarre story choices. In the case of the prequels, this is because Lucas had no one to reign in his poor choices – his scripts for the original films were also notoriously bad until they had some helpful editing and feedback from his wife and others. Lucas was a great idea-man but went off course without constraints. The new films seem to have no excuse except for a lack of imagination. The prequel films are filled with awkward attempts at conveying emotion (think “I hate sand”), while the sequel films are filled with worse than awkward attempts at self-aware humour  (remember that we live in a world where a major Star Wars movie essentially began with a “your mom” joke”).

The scripts have similar issues beyond simple dialogue, however. Both prequel and sequel have a hard time sticking to an interesting villain, like the originals did with the mysterious Darth Vader. The prequel films make the mistake of keeping their best asset, the delightful evil Senator Palpatine, from doing much until the final film. Between that, there is a revolving door of villains who are continuously killed off before they can make much of an impact. If it can be believed, the sequels handled this even worse, having to pull back Palpatine in a truly ridiculous twist in order to have any sort of a real villainous presence in the final film. Both sides also undermine the protagonist side of things as well. A major aspect of Star Wars are the Jedi, who wield the mysterious power known as the Force, a unifying energy in the galaxy that can allow for fantastical powers through training and discipline. The prequels caught a lot of flak for “demystifying” the force, trying to give unneeded explanation for its manifestation in characters, as well as hinging far too much on overbearing prophecy. The sequels finish this deconstruction by removing the idea that you need any sort of training at all, with truly outlandish feats (including curing death) being fairly easily attained.

Perhaps most frustrating is how often both series rely on the idea that out of movie material can be used to justify their own missing parts. In the prequel, late addition villain General Grievous does not have nearly as much impact as he does if you watched the accompanying cartoon and read his books. In the sequels… well, absolutely nothing about the set-up of the films makes any sort of sense without a highly convoluted set of circumstances that are explained elsewhere. Is it too much to expect films to stand on their own? Good or bad, the expanded universe material for the original films were organically grown out from what was a completed story. Expecting audiences to pay more money to patch the holes in the narrative smells suspiciously to me like patching incomplete or buggy video games – and no one should be aspiring to copy the companies in the major video game industry.

Beyond just the plot, the sequels were supposed to avoid the overreliance on CGI that plagued the prequels. However, a few practical effect creatures here and there don’t change the fact that most of the “spectacle” scenes in the sequel rely nearly as much on CGI as the prequels did. Both films feel rather cold compared to the intimacy many of the best scenes in the original films provide. The directing in the prequels suffer because Lucas, a normally at least competent director, gets lost in his own labyrinth of CGI, using it is an answer to everything. In the sequels, CGI is used more as a gimmick or distraction than as an overbearing backdrop, bright and kinetic displays being used to try and divert attention from issues in script and editing.

A second and more insidious fallacy is that the sequels are bad because they are “political”,an assertation that normally comes with a lot of buzzwords attached – “SJW”, “woke”, “leftist” etc.

This is laughable to anyone who knows anything at all about Lucas’s very liberal political leanings. The original films were about combatting imperialism and fascism in the service of democracy and had a very Eastern philosophical outlook. You could even argue that Lucas viewed the evil Empire as America and the Rebels as plucky anti-imperialists like the Viet Cong. The prequels were very much made with George Bush-era America in mind. You cannot take issue with the new Star Wars films adding in minority actors without also taking issue of Lucas doing the same with characters like Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu.

That said, I fully admit that every attempt by the sequels to add in politics come off as embarrassing and bungled, particularly in the second movie, The Last Jedi. What Lucas made feel natural or heartfelt, the new films make feel token and tacked-on. The second film raises the point that the “real villains” are war profiteers and capitalists, which then has promptly nothing to do with the rest of the series at all and is never brought up again. I think when space Nazis are breaking the laws of physics to blow up multiple planets, you may have a larger problem at hand. In a meta context, the film doesn’t really do much to advance any sort of cause in the way that a character like Princess Leia did in the originals – utterly subverting previous conceptions about princesses and female characters in fantasy and science fiction. Compared to the male leads in the originals, Princess Leia always comes off as the most competent and confident, though not to the detriment of other characters. She gets captured and injured but fights just as hard for what she wants as anyone else, eventually triumphing over her enemies in the end. In the new films, the female lead is seemingly perfect from the get-go, with truly superhuman powers and no real clear stake in anything, her triumph over whatever the script leads her into being assumed. In short, the problem is with the script of the sequel, not the politics of the creators – similarly to how it was Lucas’s lack of a restraining hand that doomed the prequels, not his own political outlook.

In the end, the Star Wars series seems to be less on a continuous decline, and more in the strange state it has always been – massively culturally relevant due to the influence of its original films and media based on them, but unable to ever really recapture their magic. That said, I actually do understand why the prequels are looked at much more fondly, and I don’t think it’s just pure nostalgia. The prequels and sequels are both massively flawed but in different ways. The prequels are bad in bizarre and often amusing ways and there is a reason that many parts of the prequels have become staples in meme culture. I wouldn’t feel too pained about watching the prequels if I was forced to, honestly. At their worst they’re funny, and at their best, they do have some interesting new ideas and situations. The sequels really feel like films made by committee. At their best, they are only blindly aping the original films. At their worst, they are almost physically painful to sit through. I will always remember The Last Jedi as my absolute worst theatre-going experience, bar none. In short, the prequels are one man’s vision that he failed to realize. The sequels are one corporation’s plan to start milking a newly acquired franchise as fast as possible. Lucas overthought a lot of the prequels. Disney gave none of its creative team nearly enough time to properly plan.

There are also the contexts that the films were released in to consider. While the prequels themselves may not have been that good, they came at a time when there was a wealth of Star Wars content being released, much of it quite popular. This was a time many remember growing up in, with plenty of excellent Star Wars video games and, later, related shows. If you were interested in Star Wars material, it was a good time, and the fans had much to be excited about to balance out the disappointment of the films. The sequel era began with Disney essentially removing all of the existing expanded universe materials from canon, wiping the slate clean. Star Wars video game releases under Disney partner EA became remarkably scarce and often controversial, such as with Battlefront II  – EA seeming more interested in creating methods to hook children on gambling than on creating a good game. While Disney and EA both seem to be trying to course-correct with new products, it feels like too little, too late.

So, in the end, while I think it’s a little premature to declare the prequels now “good”, I do understand why they have more supporters and fans. The great analysis and criticisms of those prequels are just as valid as the criticism we have today about the sequels, however. As for me? I’m not particularly bothered – I still quite like the originals (particularly Empire) and they’re not going anywhere. That is unless Disney tries to copy Lucas’s “special edition” idea….

Review: Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how much the phrase “Next Game of Thrones!” both frustrates and amuses me. It’s excessive over usage during the heyday of the Game of Thrones television show was truly ludicrous, with every rumoured fantasy or historical series being awarded the term. This was, of course, entirely independent of the level of actual similarities to Game of Thrones. In general, I find such trend chasing a little irritating. We already have a Game of Thrones. Why would we need another? (And after the Game of Thrones finale, why do we want another?)

With this pall of expectation hanging over any fantasy related product, when I watched The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, I can say that I was absolutely delighted by its desire to forge its own identity. The show is wonderful in its willingness to do its own thing, and it’s an utter shame that there will not be a second season. I highly recommend checking out the single season that exists on Netflix.

The show is a prequel to Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, a fantasy film released in 1982. The film has developed a cult following for its imagination and gorgeous practical effects, but was not readily accepted by audiences due to having no visible human actors, all the characters being portrayed by puppets, as was Henson’s specialty. The puppets in The Dark Crystal are much more intricate in design, however, than Henson’s colourful staples in the Muppets, and inhabit a richly detailed and strange fantasy wilderness. The philosophical themes, deliberate pace and lack of much grounding in our own world make The Dark Crystal not the easiest watch, but a rewarding one. There is a lot to enjoy in the original film, perhaps most memorably, its villains, the baroque and repulsive Skesis, a decayed and twisted nobility living in the ruins of their splendour.

When I heard of a revival of a nearly forty-year-old cult film, I was generally hesitant. We seem incapable of grasping the appeal of some of our most popular properties, as the recent dismal entries into series like Star Wars and Star Trek demonstrate. If we can’t get those right, what hope would there be for a cult puppet movie? I was very pleased to have been proven absolutely wrong. In fact, my thinking on the matter was probably entirely backwards. The Dark Crystal was such a sleeper success of the film that the stakes were likely considered low and the creative staff had more room to be, well, creative.

Age of Resistance is everything that a sequel should be, which is especially impressive given the shift in format from film to television. The attitude of the creators seems firmly rooted back in 1982, with a focus on wonder, mystery and likeably characters, over violence and shock. And yet, the series is not just a retread of the first film, instead building on its ideas and taking them in new directions. What truly amazed me is how the series manages to be a prequel, with certain information certain to the audience if they’ve seen the movie, and yet still manages to be surprising and intriguing. We know how things must eventually end up, but there was enough blank space in the film to add in plenty of questions and twists. The show is also very good at making every development seem natural, instead of simply tossing out ‘mystery boxes’ that will never be opened.

The series also manages to strike an excellent balance between old and new content. Too often sequels feel either like they are retreaded the same ground or are so divorced form the details of the original as to feel like a separate world to the original. The Dark Crystal may be the new gold standard in how to treat a fictional universe. Nothing is needlessly destroyed or undone, and so much great new detail is added. The series manages to celebrate the first movie without repeating it. A major benefit of the series being a prequel is that the villains, the Skeksis, are allowed to return in a combination of familiar characters and new additions.

In fact, all the characters are a major highlight of the show. Despite everyone being puppets, they feel like they have a lot more life to them than many “real” performers! The voice cast features a wealth of talent that is a delight to listen to. A particular favourite for me was Mark Hamill voicing The Scientist. The voice actors help propel a script that is often surprisingly witty, deftly balancing the light and the dark, the humorous and the serious. The world itself is gorgeous, and a character all of its own (figuratively as well as literally in the context of the show). New technologies have been added, but the series never devolves into distracting “CGI soup”, with deliberate and interesting artistic choices made throughout.

It’s very sad that the series, having done everything with such loving care, won’t be returning for a second season. That said, the first season is a satisfying watch all on its own, with a good ending point that caps off a full arc. I was, in fact, very impressed with how quickly the show moves along while keeping coherent – nothing is dwelt on to the point that it becomes overdone. If you’re the sort who likes your fantasy, well, fantastical, it’s a series well worth a watch.

Fantasy in Films – Lord of the Rings and Beyond

It cannot be overstated what a landmark set of films The Lord of the Rings were. At the time they were a phenomenon, beloved by audiences and critics alike. To this day I’d argue that the films hold up quite well. You can tell the love and care that was put into every moment of them, and the enthusiasm of the cast and crew for the product. It really feels like a set of films that someone really wanted to make, a sad rarity these days. One would think that The Lord of the Rings would usher in a new age of similar fantasy films, and yet, I’m not sure anything has even come remotely close. The question is then – what happened?

I should start by saying that the post-Lord of the Rings fantasy film landscape is not entirely barren. Guillermo del Toro has bravely been keeping the fantasy spirit alive through his work, and there have been many sleeper classics such as 2007’s Stardust. But none of them have won the critical and popular acclaim as Lord of the Rings – with the exception, perhaps, of the contemporary Harry Potter series. In fact, if we count by sheer money earned, Harry Potter outstripped Lord of the Rings, its 8 films raking in roughly 8 billion dollars, neatly comparable to the Lord of the Rings raking in 3 billion dollars for 3 films. I don’t wish to be overly critical of the Harry Potter films (and will leave books and author right out of this discussion), but I can’t help but wonder if it was Harry Potter that had more of a part in directing the future of fantasy films then Lord of the Rings – and if the lessons learned from it were all beneficial ones. After all, while Harry Potter started at about roughly the same time as Lord of the Rings, it ended nearly a decade later.

While there are many who will decry the suggestion that Harry Potter is “just for children”, I can’t help but suspect that it was a major impact on the emergence afterward of a storm of “young adult” oriented fantasy films. While I’m sure that these all had their fans at the time, very few of them seemed to have had the staying power of Harry Potter. Trying to age target so aggressively also did little to help the longevity of these followers in the public consciousness. I’m not sure that anyone is really going to fondly look back on the Percy Jackson series. And absolutely no one remembers Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

These series all hold the similarity with Harry Potter in that they take place adjacent to “reality”, with characters slowly learning about a “hidden” fantasy world. This kind of fantasy is of course as valid as any other, but I have to wonder if it made producers wary about dropping people into a truly and completely different world such as in Lord of the Rings. This effect may not have been a significantly negative one, but I must ask if it was perhaps a more limiting one, restricting the number of screenplays that actually made it to production.

Harry Potter also taught that bigger was better. Three movies making a billion dollars each is good, but what about eight movies making a billion dollars each? What about more? Unfortunately, this may be the most major reason why Lord of the Rings has had some of its impact stolen; namely, the blatant attempt to copy Harry Potter’s franchise size by releasing the severely lackluster and uninspired Hobbit trilogy, which featured a single slim book scraped over too much screen time (ironically, The Hobbit should have been the one film in this era to try for a more whimsical, innocent tone) and may have actually undid all the work that Lord of the Rings had begun. Harry Potter went even further with spinoff films, and other genres altogether took the idea to new heights, finally crystallizing in the total domination of Disney with its multiple money printing franchises. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these films on their own, there has arisen the unspoken idea that the new is obsolete when the retread is now the cutting edge. In this paradigm, there is little room for the sort of evolution I discussed in the first half of this piece.

Whether it was the success of Harry Potter, the failure of The Hobbit, or other factors, the fantasy landscape after Lord of the Rings seemed to be defined by this skew into the morass of young adult adaptations – and then, the reaction to it. The next landmark in the genre on screen was certainly Game of Thrones, which was as much a pseudo-historical drama as it was a fantasy work. The choice of a work noted for gratuitous sex and violence, adhering to “gritty” sensibilities, may have been reactionary, but it was surely a winning formula, Game of Thrones arguably being as big a phenomenon as Lord of the Rings despite never hitting the big screen. It would seem that the muted impact of Lord of the Rings wouldn’t matter – here could be the real start of a fantasy renaissance.

And yet I think that the failure of the fantasy genre to have a major cultural impact after Lord of the Rings is connected to a dirty secret behind Game of Thrones’ ultimate fate of irrelevancy. While adhering to the story laid out by book writer George RR Martin, the series flourished. And yet the writers who took over in finishing the story, Benioff and Weiss, took an attitude that seemed to suggest that they viewed the fantasy genre in the same way that it had been seen before Lord of the Rings, claiming that they did not want to appeal to “(fantasy) fans” but to “mothers, NFL Players…”. The unspoken assumption here is that to be a fan of fantasy is to be a strange exception. In short, fantasy is not viewed within Hollywood as having had its “arrival” yet. But how could Game of Thrones ever been that homecoming, I wonder, if it was being designed by its writers to reject its very nature?

The money Game of Thrones made still has many seeking to be its successor, to various levels of success. Given the directional choices, I think that maybe those Game of Thrones successor dollars will be better found in historical dramas than in works that delve deeper into the fantasy genre. But honestly, the phrase “The Next Game of Thrones!” was pretty ridiculous when the show was well-liked, suggesting that success comes through emulation. After the finale of Game of Thrones, the phrase becomes hilarious.

In the end, my point here has to chart how odd the evolution of the fantasy genre in film and television has been as a cultural force when compared to other genres, with consistent “false starts”, lapses into obscurity, and constant chasing of its own tail. This does not mean there have not been many great fantasy films and shows, and nor that there will not continue to be many in the future. Indeed, out of North America, the genre may have very different paths. Europe always seems to have room in its heart for the genre, and China’s filmmaking industry seems to have dived into the concept with full gusto when they discovered the special magic of awful CGI. In Japan… well, let’s not talk about the fantasy genre in Japan until the isekai craze is well and truly buried.

As for me, I’m quite happy with the situation. I don’t get upset by a bad adaptation of something I enjoyed, as I consider the adaptation a work that stands on its own. At the same time, I don’t really feel the necessity of an adaptation as a “validation” as some seem to need. No matter what Hollywood is doing at any given moment, there is a rich and expansive world of fantasy literature that is never going away. And maybe, sometimes, things are better left to the imagination anyway.

Fantasy in Film – An Unloved Genre?

I have mentioned before that we often draw our lines too thickly when it comes to defining the various genres that sprung up from early speculative and weird fiction – traditionally dividing them into science fiction, fantasy, and horror. At the same time, I fully understand why these distinctions have become important as groupings, as those genres themselves have splintered into more and more subcategories and evolved to suit changing tastes and styles.

These diverging paths have taken these genres into very different places over the years, having their own highs and lows. What is interesting to look at is the relationship between these genres in the written format comparative to the film format. I had this particular subject on my mind after a heard a friend mention the complaint that the fantasy genre gets underserved in film compared to science fiction and horror.

Having been brought up on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies my first instinct was to protest this, but further reflection made me wonder if there wasn’t some truth to this. At the time, there was an expectation that Lord of the Rings would serve to “legitimize” fantasy, in the same way that The Exorcist “legitimized” horror, and 2001: A Space Odyssey “legitimized” science fiction. Obviously, I believe that this is too much of an oversimplification, but it does feel that fantasy has had a start that was both delayed and stumbling compared to its sister genres. The aforementioned films did not radically change their entire genres but did leave the door open for films to be to be more ambitious within the scope of their genre. More so, they turned their genres into a worldwide phenomenon that helped shape the popular culture in the Western world and beyond.

The fantasy genre seemed to be on track for a second chance at a major breakthrough with a different approach with the wide popularity of Game of Thrones. However, decreasing quality once the writers had to go off the notes of book author GRR Martin, followed by a last season that has become best remembered as a punchline, Game of Thrones looks doomed to quickly fade from its previous impactful heights. I suspect its legacy will be overall a more damaging one to the fantasy genre in television. I cannot count the times I’ve read in news articles the excitement about “The Next Game of Thrones!” This initial burst of popularity has so warped perception of the fantasy genre that a plethora of shows have been twisting themselves to try and become Game of Thrones imitators. (One of the most hilarious examples I can think of is the recent show Carnival Row which started in concept as a Guillermo del Toro headed steampunk fantasy series. While elements of this remain, the show we got quickly leaps off the rails as soon as it hits the Game of Thrones inspired incest and half-baked political plots.)

It may simply be that we have to be patient. Science fiction and horror filmmaking had what felt to be much more organic growth, though each did have its periods of stagnation. This history does strengthen both those genres, however – even during their bleaker eras, they have a solid foundation to return to when things look bad. Popular director Denis Villeneuve clearly takes inspiration from older, more contemplative science fiction films when crafting his own modern takes. Rising horror director Ari Aster clearly looks to older horror based around family dysfunction, such as Carrie or Rosemary’s Baby. His second film, Midsommar, is highly reminiscent of the horror classic The Wicker Man (no, the first one, not the remake. I know you were about to make a comment about bees.)

I think a clue is that these genres have had a flexible evolution that is deeply tied to their audiences. Our concept of the future and of what scares us changes incrementally over time, and these ideas can be constantly updated to what might interest an audience. 2001: A Space Odyssey appealed to those interested in space travel within our solar system, with the space race well underway at the time. In the 70s, science fiction often pivoted to political and social commentary, reflecting more uncertain times, with films like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green. Science fiction even arguably managed to appeal to a desire for fantasy better than the fantasy genre even did with Star Wars and Flash Gordon, and found itself comfortable intertwining with horror through films like Alien and The Thing. The changing concepts of what technology was and meant to us resulted in the growth of cyberpunk, with films like Blade Runner. Horror was also able to change with the times, atomic monsters and gothic horrors giving way to satanic conspiracy and supernatural terror, eventually transitioning into the modern slasher icons, who were almost comically flexible in their timeliness. (Remember Jason heading into space? Michael Myers killing contestants on a reality TV Show? Freddy Krueger using the Powerglove? Actually, does anyone even remember the Powerglove at all?)

Fantasy, meanwhile, by its nature is in many ways disconnected from our current time, and from its trends. While certain styles of fantasy come in and out of fashion, it is much more difficult to pin down exactly why this is without pointing to a particular work that others sought to emulate – fantasy, essentially, often sets its own trends. This timeless nature is part of the appeal of the genre to many, I think, but translating it to film often involves a constant risk of not connecting with wide general audiences, a risk that not many are willing to take. There was also the unfortunate assumption by many that while science fiction and horror can be made to appeal to all ages, that fantasy was best targeted towards children. This is not to knock many of the fantastic fantasy films aimed at family audiences, but it did put another self-imposed limitation on the number of fantasy films that could be greenlit, and the number of them. Frustratingly, one of the most promising mediums for fantasy, that of animation, itself managed to suffer from an association with being “mere” children’s entertainment, despite many valiant attempts to break from this mold. These included directors as diverse as Ralph Bakshi, who made adult-oriented films like Fire and Ice and Wizards (not to mention his own take on Lord of the Rings) and Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, who has produced brilliant works that make a mockery of the idea that family, fantasy and animated films cannot be high art.

This is not to say that there were not any great live-action fantasy films before The Lord of the Rings arrived – far from it. The original Conan the Barbarian and The Princess Bride are particular favourites of mine, as well as the works of Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam. There is also the issue that fantasy is a rather fluid term on its own – many films with very fantastic elements to them tend to be grouped into other genres, or simply declared to be “magical realism” or “surrealist”.

However, for many fans of fantasy, Lord of the Rings surely seemed like a 2001 or a Star Wars, something that would carve out a new space for their genre to compete alongside others on equal and respected footing. But was that really the case?

Talking Tolkien – Part 2

Previously, I had written about the position that Tolkien’s fantasy works had found themselves elevated to within the fantasy genre, and how the weight of his influence has a warping effect on people’s perception of the genre, starting to see everything through the Tolkien lens. In short, Tolkien has become more of an idol to be blindly worshiped, rather than being treated as a skilled writer on his own unique merits.

However, whenever an idol is erected, there are those who feel the urge for desecration. For many, trying to tear Tolkien down is how they can “prove” that they have discovered some secret to fantasy unknown to the masses, or to show that they have surpassed him.

I must make it clear – I do not think that Tolkien is exempt from critique of his work, or even that he is the undisputed “best” fantasy author. Nor am I suggested there is a “right” or “wrong” method to fantasy. I am more amused that in the consistently cycling rush to tear down Tolkien, I see the same flawed and, frankly, disingenuous arguments being brought up again and again. I would like to touch on some of my favourites of these absurd repetitions, and often refutation. In short, while I feel Tolkien is more than open to critique, I am frustrated when that critique is so often reduced to parroting of old arguments that either miss the point, or are absolutely flawed to start.

I don’t intend to call out any singular author or essayist here – when you recognize these arguments you’ll see them pop up all over the place, and its unclear how often this is a repeat of another point of view, or an original concept. They are universal canards. However, I must give special mention to author Michael Moorcock, who, if not the first, really got the ball rolling with his famous “Epic Pooh” essay, which is worth a read to get a better context for exactly what I’m talking about.

Too keep this concise, I’ll focus simply on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s most expansive work, and the focus of most critique. One of the most common complaints I hear is that The Lord of the Rings is too simplistic in its morality, in presenting everything as “good against evil.” Supposedly it is lacking in necessary “shades of grey.” Partially I think this is just a symptom of changing times. Good against evil is one of the oldest narratives humanity has come up with. Tolkien was heavily influenced by his Christian faith and experiences in WWI, which coloured his approach to the work. As time moved on, general audiences began to feel that they had heard every sort of variation on this theme and began craving something of nuance. This is especially true once many of the “good guys” of WWII began to partake in some very “bad guy” sorts of operations across the world in service of counteracting the “worse guy” of Communism. The obvious ‘evil overlord’, widely popularized with Sauron, began to become something of a punchline, when real evil seemed so pervasive and yet slippery.

I don’t think it’s exactly fair then to criticize Tolkien for something that was based on his own personal feelings and morality examining his specific moment in time. More so, I feel this critique is a gross oversimplification of how questions good and evil are handled within the books. The “evil” characters and entities are not given as much development simply because they are not the focus. The Lord of the Rings is less about a dualistic “good vs. evil” as it is a study of goodness under the pressure of evil. The evil provides challenges and temptations, but what is the engaging part of the work is how the “good” characters handle this. I will go further and say that simply calling the characters within the books “good” is also an oversimplification. The characters often fail and must be redeemed, or have others take on their burdens. Many cannot handle the burdens of responsibility or the temptation to fight evil with evil. These are the most important struggles for the characters within the book, not those against the physical forces of Mordor.

Often those who decry the “simplicity” of Lord of the Rings also conclude that it is an “unrealistic” work, too divorced from the realities of life in a setting of its kind. The most famous example of this is the by now memetic “What was Aragorn’s tax policy” raised by George RR Martin. The first problem with this of course is – realistic in relation to what? There has arisen an unfortunate belief in a “generic” fantasy. This has variable descriptions to it, but generally seems to be believed to be “medieval Europe.” For starters, most people have very little understanding of what medieval life actually entailed. Secondly, there is no indication that Tolkien was trying to pin Middle Earth to any specific year in earth’s history in regard to technology or society. Indeed, a strength of Tolkien is the uniqueness to his world. How in the world can you set up comparisons to reality, when there is no singular point of reality to be compared to? And why would you want to?

The obvious rebuttal to the question as to why Tolkien did not go into the minutiae of kingship or other aspects was that it simply was not his goal. However, there is another factor at play that many overlook. The book that is The Lord of the Rings is supposed to be an adaptation of the fictional Red Book of Westmarch (a play on the real-life manuscript the Red Book of Hergest), written by the hobbits after the events of the series. The series therefore has a very clear viewpoint (the hobbit characters), and focuses on events from their point of view, specifically what left the greatest impact on them from their perspective. The books are not intended to operate as an objective history. Actually, this adds to the realism of the series being a hobbit history, as Tolkien is more closely mimicking the styles of older historians, who were more concerned with narration and storytelling than presenting an impartial report.

I could go on into even more misconceptions, but I think you get the idea. (I also don’t want to dive into the more wild and vitriolic political theories brought up, which are generally personal to the one making them). There is the incorrect assumption, that I discussed in my last piece, that Tolkien is in some way a “basic” form of fantasy – from that incorrect assumption comes further conclusions that therefore his work has an inherent simplicity to it or lacks in nuance. I think that the idea that there can be a “generic” sort of fantasy is a troubling one at that, and more indicative of the commercialization of the genre in the present day, than anything to do with Tolkien.

In summation, I feel that placing Tolkien as the “lynchpin” of all fantasy does a disservice both to his legacy and to the legacy of other fantasy writers. The Lord of the Rings is by no means a perfect work – but what is? There is nothing else like it, and it has earned its reputation. At the same time, much can be said for other great fantasy works. It seems unfortunate that anyone who wants to say anything about fantasy has to either praise Tolkien as their one and only progenitor or try to take misaimed shots at him to prove their street cred as a radical force in the genre.

I simply don’t believe that any one work deserves to be the singular loadbearing stone in this particular house – it’s one that has many rooms, each with their own purposes and styles limited only by imagination. We should not expect one room to be like any other, but enjoy our time spent in all of them as unique experiences.

Talking Tolkien: Part 1

The impact of JRR Tolkien on the fantasy genre is a massive one to be sure. For many, he would be one of the only fantasy authors they can name, which is very impressive given the age of his works. I’m not here to give any sort of analysis or review – there’s very little I could say that hasn’t already be said on the matter of The Lord of the Rings.

I do find myself in the rather odd position of finding The Lord of the Rings to be simply good books and a great achievement in fantasy. Not my favourite works of fantasy, nor, I would say, the best I have read – but that does not make their accomplishments any lessened. Indeed, while many will praise Tolkien as the be all and end all of fantasy, there is also a continual trend stretching back many decades, where Tolkien is held up as a useful target for those trying to make their mark in fantasy. True, there is little that gets my eyes rolling faster than the phrase “The Greatest Fantasy Since Tolkien!”, but at the same time, I much of the criticism leveled at Tolkien throughout the years comes across as alarmingly disingenuous to me. In a way this does make sense – to gain attention via vandalism you have to perform your vandalism on something visible.

In short, my point is that Tolkien is an author whose legacy is surrounded by a good deal of nonsense of all kinds. This is a natural consequence of being such a benchmark within a genre. What is impressive is how this nonsense arises from both those seeking to bolster Tolkien’s legacy and those seeking to undermine it.

There are those who consider Tolkien to be the Omega of Fantasy – which, fair enough, that is a matter of personal taste, and I am not so crass as to start attacking that in this forum. What does cause me to gripe is the idea that Tolkien is the Alpha of fantasy as well. In this view, fantasy “really” begins with Tolkien, who then influenced countless inferior knockoffs as well as Dungeons and Dragons, which provided the main thread of fantasy development until the modern day when thankfully we began to receive some variation.

This view either pretends that fantasy before Tolkien did not exist or assumes that it was somehow of lesser importance – essentially relegating things from the Pulp era and beyond to historical footnotes, before Tolkien came and made fantasy “serious”. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether Tolkien was objectively or subjectively “better” than absolutely everything that came before him. But this outline of the history of fantasy is, I believe, a gross oversimplification. Tolkien’s genius lay in taking existing mythological elements and weaving them into an entirely new framework. His work was less of a foundation stone, and more of a, at the time, unique shifting of fantasy to a more European context. It seems strange, when many consider fantasy synonymous with “Medieval Europe” in their minds, but previously, much weird fiction could be argued to have looked more to the exotic within history, being attracted to Greek, Roman or even Arabic sources.

For example, the locations in Conan the Barbarian’s “Hyperborea” hold more with Ancient Mediterranean culture than Medieval Europe, and Conan ranged far and wide beyond his homeland into ever more exotic cultures. Tolkien was unique in bringing fantasy to a more European setting without relying on the purely historical or the fairy-tale. He also focused much more on aspects of cosmology and what we now call “world building”, at least in a more structured way than what had come before.

But how much did Tolkien affect the “mainstream” of fantasy after this? Many point to the reoccurrence of the same fantasy races in Tolkien. However, that I would attribute more to Dungeons and Dragons. True, Dungeons and Dragons may have aped Tolkien in this regard, but for the most part, the context of these races is nearly entirely changed. The Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Hobbits of Tolkien all had very specific roles to play within his narrative which are not generally found outside of his work, or only copied at the most surface level. Beyond that, fantasy of the Dungeons and Dragons era is marked more by bizarre and imaginative monsters that have little to do with Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the creators of Dungeons and Dragons in mentioning their inspirations put Tolkien as only one among many. Though Tolkien was a landmark island in the river of fantasy, the water had started flowing long before him, and would continue on long past.

Indeed, I feel that trying to paint Tolkien as simply a fantasy “template” does a great disservice to his work as making it seem more prototypical and “basic” than it actually is. His linguistic work has rarely been matched (M.A.R. Barker is the only name who comes to mind as a challenger on that scale), nor has his dedication to winding together fictional histories and mythology. At the same time, it is also a disserve to later writers to automatically reduce their varied inspirations and styles to simply another measurement against Tolkien. The fantasy genre has a much deeper history than that which, I feel, deserves acknowledgment.

Chronicles of Amber

I discussed in my last post on fantasy books what I considered to be, in literary terms, the best work written in the genre. However, I understand that answer might seem like an overly technical one – too clinical for something with a good degree of subjectivity to it. So, to be perfectly subjective, today we are going to ask what my favourite fantasy series is. That’s a difficult question on its own, but if had to ever take just one collection down from my shelf, it would probably be the Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny, particularly the five books that make up the “Corwin Cycle.”

It’s difficult to discuss just what the series is about without revealing important details of the plot, so this will be a fairly short review. Essentially, the Corwin Cycle is about Corwin himself, a man who awakes in a hospital after an accident with a severe case of amnesia. It soon becomes clear to him that he is not a regular accident victim, and he must use guile and bluster to fake his way through encounters with his scheming family to relearn his heritage and his identity.

The setting of Amber encompasses the entire universe, from its shining core to the chaotic wilderness of its very edge. The reader is dropped into all this with no context, with only Corwin as narrator to explain things – and he, of course, may be biased. This is the greatest strength of Amber, as Corwin is one of the most intriguing and enjoyable narrators I can recall within the fantasy genre. He is a character who mixes wit, humour and nobility with melancholy, ambition and a touch of arrogance.

The books do feel like you are letting a very interesting character tell you their story and are one of the breeziest reads I can recall in the genre, dancing along from witticism to anecdote. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can do more with less and Zelazny is an absolute master at this. Equally impressive is how effective he is at making memorable characters. Other members of Corwin’s family play key roles in the plot, and we only really see them through Corwin’s eyes. Many of these family members we don’t see much of at all, and yet each of them is vividly distinct and memorable. The plot is intrinsically about these characters – there is no grand prophecy or fate. The horrors and triumphs are all because of action and reaction by the cast, our narrator included.

Most impressive of all is how much emotion, meaning and thought is packed into the wild ride. Corwin and his family are nobility – though it may be better to term them the nobility. Of course, princes and princesses have long been a staple of fantasy, from the earliest days of fairy tales up through Tolkien and on to our current obsession with A Song of Ice and Fire. A common theme throughout these stories is of the “rightful heir” – that there is someone who best deserves the throne, the crown and the power they entail.

Corwin very much starts off as a character in this vein, with an implication of even greater cruelty in his forgotten past. He is in many ways a god among men, and it is understandable how his desire for the greatest power of all could be intoxicating. And yet, over the course of the story, something strange happens. It seems that even gods have room for maturation. Corwin begins to understand that responsibility is perhaps the greater virtue than power – that there is more value in creation than in taking.

Too often I feel that media that deals with people in power turns towards cloying pity for the competition that such power engenders, and glorification of the accumulation of said power, with perhaps some hollow platitudes about corruption tacked on at the end. The Chronicles of Amber is such a tale in reverse, about a character who begins with great power being denied it, and then learning that empathy and responsibility are, in the end, more meaningful attributes. Truly grand in the scope of its imagination and utterly engaging to read, The Chronicles of Amber arrives with no limitations on what it believes fantasy can be, and leaves you wanting to reread it as soon as you are finished. I’d highly recommend taking a look at anything Zelazny does, and Amber stands out as my personal favourite work of fantasy fiction.

Page 2 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén