Hutts, Hobbits and Hogwarts

It’s difficult to have a fantasy-themed blog and ignore the Hobbit movies.

I rewatched the first two within the last month. As of this post, I saw the third and final one a few days ago.

As any self-described fantasist, it is more than a movie-going experience.

It’s research!

And with the release of the final Prequel movies, it is only natural to be reinvigorated to experience the Lord of the Rings trilogy, again, shortly afterward. With the full set of six movies viewable to the public, the only other serieseseseses to rival it might be Harry Potter, or Star Wars.

Seeing as the Imperials were held up by a bunch of ewoks, giant war elephants might actually pose a problem.

Star Trek doesn’t count here because 1) It was a television series and as such in a different category of storytelling, and 2) I never got into it, so I don’t know enough background information to compare.

I’m not here to tell you which of these are better, as they each have their merits. Sometimes I’m in a Star Wars mood, and while I’m in the camp of people trying to ignore the existence of the prequels, there is something nostalgic about it that fills me with wonder and excitement. Most distinctly I recall losing a few hours to the Angry Birds: Star Wars edition.

Really, Jesse? Angry Birds Star Wars?

This is inherently stupid, I know. It is a simple game, made all the more interesting with its various themes, but what struck me most was the sound, and music clips, among the silly squawks and simplified storyline.

The bloody sound effects and music clips made the Star Wars universe feel more real, in a strange way. They evoked a sense of Star Wars that I never got from watching the movies – the vastness of it, which no doubt is explored in the novelizations and spin-offs as well. I’ll look into those, as Star Wars is really considered more of a Fantasy than Science Fiction anyway.

Though some call it “Science Fantasy.”

Harry Potter, on the other hand, is a significantly more personal story than either mainlines to be found in Middle-Earth or the Galactic Republic. There are clear reasons for this; Harry Potter centers around the life of one person, and is not an Epic Fantasy so much as it is the story of personal growth. The target audience is itself hard to pin down, as well. The earlier books/movies appear geared towards children, with the usual tropes of friendship and “making the right choices” obvious themes, but the Harry Potter stories get noticeably darker as time passes. They mature with the audience.

I remember being in 7th Grade, around age thirteen or fourteen, when Harry Potter first came out and exploded in popularity. At three years older than Daniel Radcliff, it was interesting to seemingly grow and mature alongside the release of those movies. There is a very, very large following of people who are affected significantly more than I was by these stories, but the simple parallel of growing up, seeing the world differently, around the same time Harry Potter gradually lost any rosy views of the world, sticks with me.

I feel like this one has been done to death, but I like it.

But in the end, of the three, I think I am Middle-Earth kind of guy, despite why I stopped reading Tolkien. Star Wars is fun, and while the mainline movies are accessible to all ages and are quite family-friendly, I’m aware that the spin-offs — games, books, and the like — touch on dark subjects, yet I find myself not drawn in the same way.

The Harry Potter universe has a distinct British flavor to it, for obvious and unremarkable reasons, which can also be seen in Lord of the Rings (just not quite as prominently) … and this is not so much of a detriment, as it is just something of a barrier. As an American, there’s a certain Britishness to Harry Potter that is distinctly foreign to me, making it just a little bit harder harder to relate to.

For example, a lot of American movies will portray the situation as dire, threatening the city of New York or Los Angeles, and I get that as someone who’s spent considerable time in New York. But having never been to London, having the name more or less just mean “a big city across the ocean,” I find the Harry Potter series to be very Anglo-Centric. At most, it is Euro-Centric.

Is that bad? Not necessarily. No more than if I were to weave you a story about the imminent conquest of Sai Gon by a trio of wizardly sisters.

So why Middle-Earth? Or Azeroth? Or any incarnation of those worlds seen in Final Fantasy or the Legend of Zelda? What makes those worlds – who have been inspired by all kinds of cultures, and in some cases invented by Japanese or American writers – so much more relatable to me?

Let’s try wording it this way.

When I want an inspiring story about personal growth and the value of loyalty and friendship, I turn to Harry Potter.

If I’m looking for something a bit more whimsical in terms of suspending my disbelief (lazer swords and sonar bombs in outer space are a bit more difficult for me to grasp than magic wands and sorting hats), then I’ll turn towards Star Wars.

But when it comes to quintessential fantasy — the kind of places I dream about dying and being reborn in — we can start talking about the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. And I don’t even count myself as an expert on Tolkienien Lore — or even a hardcore fan. I did see each and every movie in the theaters though, eager to gain a sore butt in exchange for an epic adventure such as never before portrayed on film.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s worlds, however different and remastered as they might actually be from today’s popular recreations, are far from the only ones available to us, and I’ll be among the first to tell you that as much praise as I’m offering here, they’re not my favorite settings. There’s Azeroth ([World of] Warcraft), or Ravnica (Magic: The Gathering), or Toril (D&D), or even The World of Balance/Ruin (Final Fantasy 6).

But the movies are delightful. I could rant on and on about how the one book was stretched into three movies, but frankly I’m tired of that. The fact of the matter is that three spectacular movies exist now, and while I might have my disagreements, I’m glad they exist. They’re fun to share, discuss, and experience.

And besides, Peter Jackson’s supposed obsession with threes could learn a thing or two to Gabe Newell, if you ask me.

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Prehistoric Fantasy

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for things prehistoric. Childhood fascination with dinosaurs aside, it’s more the primitive man pit against the raw elements type of scenario that intrigues me.

When I sit down and think about it, I sometimes find myself amazed that humanity as we know it survived at all. They often play on this theme well in a variety of works of fiction, and while I refer to these as fantasy, a bit of what we see depicted is grounded in anthropological fact. We’ll get to that as we cover each case-in-point.

So lets get to it: a few of my favorite pieces depicting events and characters that take place long, long ago, before primitive man developed writing and, in some cases, even before fire and speech.

First on the list is a novel – which I know was adapted into a 1986 film of the same name, and apparently some kind of series will air in 2015. Regardless, I more fondly remember the book. Jean M. Auel depicts the struggles of a certain titular Neanderthal clan, and things get interesting when they adopt a Cro-Magnon child. It’s a little Tarzan-esque, as the “normal” human grows up among rougher people than her own kind. We as readers can only further liken it to a Tarzan story in that Ayla, the child, while by no means weak, is beset with a number of challenges overcome with her unique set of problem-solving skills that set her apart from her Neanderthal clan.

The ability to count higher than four was a big deal.

As if looking completely different didn’t already make things hard enough.

This isn’t a particularly fun and kid-friendly story, but it gets deep, gritty, and explores the daily life of peoples who walked our world around 28,000 years ago. Jean M. Auel’s descriptions of the environment paint vibrant pictures in the mind of the reader as we explore a world that is all but lost to us in our modern, busy lives.

I loved this book as much for its attempt to dive into deeper history as much for its descriptions, and of course the story itself.

A lot more creative liberties were taken when making Quest for Fire.

It was also based on a book, written in 1911 (though it appeared in English for the first time in 1967), though this one I did not read, so we’re going to be talking about the 1981 film.

The first thing the viewer may notice about this movie is the lack of dialog. The opening begins with a short couple of lines meant to catch us up on recent events; the world is harsh, early man had yet to invent fire, and as such fire had to be stolen from nature. Those who possessed fire, possessed life.

Early one morning, after some character-establishing shots of various people in a clan of Neanderthals, we find people we’ve barely come to distinguish by face (let alone by name) beset by an aggressive tribe of Homo Erectus. They’re basically guys in hairy gorilla suits, who in comparison are noticeably more brutal and animalistic. Our Neanderthals manage to kill many of their attackers, but are forced to flee their cave-home and take to the woods, where wolves (first seen in the first few seconds of the movie) await with salivating jaws.

Some survivors make it to safety only to discover that they lost their fire, and thus the wiseman of the clan – probably pushing thirty – sends three young men off to go find fire.

Maybe the earliest movie in which I saw Ron Perlman in action. Double-plus good for savings on make up effects.

This movie is awesome for a number of reasons. For one, the plot is simple, yet it expands to become quite the adventure, complete with mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and two more clans (bringing the total “kinds” of people seen up to four). We have our own Neanderthals from the beginning, depicted as your typical Fred Flintstone “cave man,” we have the ape-like Homo Erectus attackers, then another Neanderthal clan of people that all have red skin, red hair and a penchant for cannibalism, and finally a tribe of Cro-Magnons — early modern humans.

The scientific accuracy of this story is questioned, and there are a few of those “80’s” moments that kinda remind you it’s a movie (like with the mammoths). But the story, for the most part, is pretty straight-forward, and I can appreciate that because, like I said before, this movie has absolutely no dialog. Sure some characters speak, but not in any modern language and totally without subtitles.

This means that the movie told its story visually, which in my book is a successful use of the medium. Humor, sorrow, and drive are all conveyed through what we see the characters doNot what we hear them say.

Besides, the film does a great job in showing us that the world is a harsh, cold, unforgiving place, and my thoughts are always drawn to how our ancestors perceived the world. Life sucked, and people made do with what they could and did not complain, simply because they lacked the capacity to feel ungrateful. Or, conversely, were so grateful to find whatever advantage they could that there was simply no time to think about anything else.

Which brings us to today’s last example.

10,000 BC is one of those movies that I know is bad, but I still like.

I won’t defend it’s utter lack of historical and archeological accuracy. It’s full of anachronisms, and critics generally gave it negative reviews. The ending kind of screws with things as well with a dose of deus ex machina. Not to mention the actors and actresses all look strangely … modern.

Probably something to do with everyone having perfectly straight, white teeth.

Pluses include the visuals, such as battle sequences with mammoths or giant terror birds, along with a saber-toothed cat shoehorned into the plot.

It’s a more modern movie which means, to any cynical viewer like me, that the story follows cookie-cutter tropes and story elements we’ve all seen far too many times before. The hero’s quest is not to gather fire or his clan, but to save his girl. The girl dies at the end, but not really. The giant prehistoric animals are cool and dangerous, but you never really fear for characters – not to mention they seem placed there just because it would be fun (rather than plausible. The animals existed at different times in different parts of the world). The bad guys are one-dimensional and easy to hate — though in fact it is the antagonists of this story I find most intriguing.

We have a pair of slave drivers who are depicted as ruthless and ambitious, but its their masters I find more interesting. The backstory lore of this film plays on an idea that is revealed to us in small portions from the beginning, and while the characters of the film do not fully realize the connotations of what they’re affecting, the audience does.

Basically it’s this. There was a land that sank into the “great sea,” echoing of the legend of Atlantis. Three survivors came to what starkly resembles Egypt, and with their influence they somehow rose to power among the more primitive peoples of they encountered. By the time the story of this movie rolls around, there’s only one “god” left, and his desires are unclear to the audience, though a number of pyramids are being built, utilizing the slavery system that ancient Egyptians are rather famous for implementing.

Or possibly a desert in South America…?

Mammoth slaves in Egypt, eh?

Draped in concealing silks and attended only by blind servants, the lone ‘god’ commands incredible fear over the locals, and we as the viewers never really get a good look at him.  The idea of an Atlantean coming and starting an empire has my attention, and I would have liked to learn more about this backstory.

But the movie doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, we have – much like in Quest for Fire – the protagonist making his way home with a gift from a more advanced tribe. In this case, it is not the ability to make fire, but the gift of agriculture.

Which is cool, too, I suppose. It’s best enjoyed not as a historical movie, but as a simple fantasy in an earth-like past.

Review and Impressions: The Hunger Games

So I had the opportunity to catch up on the first two Hunger Games movies. There is a spoiler or two.

No, I haven’t read the books.

Yes, I’m sure the books are better, or at least different.

Therefore my perspective will come from someone who is not comparing and contrasting the books and the movies.

I will simply be sharing my impressions.

I am a mostly peaceful person. I do not like or promote violence, but I do enjoy a horror flick or action movie with plenty of swordplay, gunshots or straight up bludgeoning with fists. Double plus good if the film has all these (like certain choice martial arts movies). That’s not why I like the Hunger Games, though.

The Hunger Games is a story about a person facing conflict of both her heart, and of course the more visceral conflict that accompanies killing people to stay alive. I watched The Hunger Games one day, and then caught up on Catching Fire the day after. As of this post, Mockingjay: Part 1 is in theaters, and I plan to see that fairly soon.

Consider me invested.

The drama between characters – fun as they are at times – is not what holds me though, to be honest. I have heard it said, and often I will recite to other people since I believe in it, that “Characters make stories, not the circumstances they find themselves in.” I believe I read that in Stephen King’s On Writing.

I book I would recommend to anyone pursuing the craft.

Anyway, I’m finding that what has me interested in The Hunger Games is, in fact, not so much the cast but, in direct contrast to that recitation, the setting and the circumstances.

Granted there are holes. “The System” in place feels crafted out of convenience; while we have a glimpse of the history and a rudimentary understanding of why things are the way they are, it seems like quite the jump. This is a “what if” book, much like Brave New World, or any number of dystopias, where we the situation, but not – to me – a clear or feasible reason for how it came about.

The films do not give much of an in-depth depiction of how each of the districts contribute to the plutarchy / plutocracy (take your pick); we have glimpses of what appears to be a Mining District, a Black District (though we don’t know what they do there except remain under very obvious segregation), and a bakery somewhere. I’m willing to let myself believe that the books go into more detail, or perhaps provide some descriptions, of how big these districts are and some more economic insight into how this system is plausible. The rich folk need droves of poor people to do dredge work, and the poor folks need the rich because… oh.

Well, this’s how revolutions start.

[The next line is a spoiler.]

Besides, the final moments in Catching Fire left me scratching my head. Was that really part of their master plan, the “flaw in the system” they were going to exploit? To have Katniss fire a lightning-charged arrow into the sky?

Why would the government green-light sending techno-geniuses into a technology-controlled environment?

Because Plutarch let it happen?

Seems a bit flimsy, as some of these movie-adaptations tend to be.

There’s plenty of criticism for The Hunger Games being some Battle Royale clone, and when you distill the plot down to one or two sentences, on the surface the two stories might seem quite alike. I wondered that myself, having known the basic premise of The Hunger Games since it came out – as people I’d known read it and shared summaries with me. Having seen Battle Royale, I can tell you that the only thing these two stories have in common is: a pile of unwilling people, many of whom are teens, pit against each other in an arena-like harsh environment.

Old relationships are strained, new relationships are formed, and you might go so far as to say that a person’s true self is revealed under such conditions.

After all, I am a firm believer in the human animal as just that. Another animal.

In any case, here’s what they say about the Hunger games being a copy of Battle Royale over at T.V. Tropes:

“The term has been used to refer to The Hunger Games — a book series with a similar premise to Battle Royale — in a derogatory manner by those who feel the later series was a rip off (the author of The Hunger Games maintains she knew nothing of Battle Royale when she wrote her books, and at any rate, there have been works before Battle Royale which use similar themes – even Stephen King has written two).”

So, with all that said, I’ll tell you what I do like about it.

I get fired up watching this. Revolution is something with which I’ve always had a fascination. It’s easy to hate the government in The Hunger Games, but considering these works are considered Y.A., so the generalization of a Bad Government is easy to allow. No worries there. Therefore it’s easy to feel sympathy for the characters under such a regime, but I find myself sitting there and wondering:

Why is it taking three-quarters of a century for people to rebel again?

Chances I would end up as one of the first people out of whom such a government would make an example to the rest.

That happens when you’re stubborn, you’ve got a big mouth, and have a problem with authority.

So in spite of the teen melodrama and love triangle stuff that – honestly – I get tired of watching really fast, it factors into the plot in a way that only would ever happen in a book. Or a movie. All I can tell you is that I’m thoroughly stoked to see the Capital burn.