Parade’s End Book 1 Review: Some Do Not…

(beta.anobii.com)

(beta.anobii.com)

The best thing about pretty much anything set in the World War I period, be it books, movies or TV programs, is what you might call ‘the set’, or ‘the world’ the characters inhabit. Breakfast rooms and drawing rooms and dining rooms with shiny wooden paneling, fashionable wallpaper, chandeliers and gilt mirrors, Chippendale armchairs, fresh lilies, trips to the theatre, trips to the Opera, trips to the country, servants answering doors, servants bringing the car out, servants serving three different varieties of tea at breakfast. Yet it’s in these surroundings that the most brutal human drama is played out; people so frustrated and angry and hopeless that they feel like their emotions are going to burst out of their chest at any moment, people being slowly suffocated and sometimes killed by their most basic feelings being unable to escape through buttoned-up, meticulously starched shirt fronts, high collars, cravats, corsets. On the rare occasions that hate, or love, or anger is conveyed, it’s through a single glance, or a politely-spoken word: no noise, no fuss. It’s a world populated by people who want to scream, but can’t. It’s a recipe for great storytelling.

Hence my decision to embark on a readathon of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy after being utterly seduced by the epic BBC adaptation that nobody, most recently the Hollywood Foreign Press, seems to be paying the slightest attention to.

Many sources credit Ford Madox Ford with being one of the pioneers of the Modern novel. Apart from its somewhat hilarious insistence on censoring the word ‘bloody’, Some Do Not… is a very modern novel indeed, not just in its themes but in the way the story is told. Ford loves starting a chapter at the end and telling it backwards; his characters are frequently struck by powerful flashbacks in the middle of a conversation and some of the book’s most intense emotional moments are played out in a beautifully disorienting stream of consciousness narrative in which it is not just the immediate past and the present that intermingle, but various concrete, yet uncertain, dimensions of a single moment in time that are conveyed to us. Even from the first page, one can’t help feeling that Ford was seriously anti-Romanticism, and nothing makes this clearer than his protagonist, a tall, thick-set, rather overweight employee of the Imperial Department of Statistics called Christopher Tietjens who thinks Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s language resembles congealed bacon fat. Let’s start with him, and see where else we end up.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the 2012 BBC miniseries. (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbnalpfE0Z1qb2jedo5_1280.jpg)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the 2012 BBC miniseries. (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbnalpfE0Z1qb2jedo5_1280.jpg)

Christopher can be reasonably confident of being the smartest person in whichever room he walks into and is consequently incapable of tolerating any form of idiocy that might present itself: he’s not afraid to be rude, and often finds himself not much caring whether he is or not. Christopher cleaves to an idealistic form of Toryism that stresses a stringent sense of duty to society and to family life: ‘monogamy’, ‘chastity’ and above all, ‘not talking about it’, these latter characteristics all being grouped under the broad heading of what he calls ‘Parade.’ This admirable if old-fashioned philosophy being incompatible with a changing world is a central theme in the novel and leads to the first of many disasters in Christopher’s life, namely his wife Sylvia, whom he finds himself chained to for life after a rather uncharacteristic (for him, not her) sexual encounter on a train leads to a pregnancy. Thanks to his persistent belief in Parade, Christopher is quite content to act the gentleman and marry Sylvia despite the possibility (well, probability) of the child not being his at all, not to mention her vindictiveness, lack of education, neuroticism and worst of all, Catholicism (gasp!). Each makes the other absolutely miserable, Sylvia with her screaming, Christopher with his steadfast belief that screaming back would constitute ungentlemanly conduct. Sylvia leaves him, he refuses to divorce her. She gets bored, she asks him to take her back, he does. It’s one big misery business from start to finish.

It’s at this point that young suffragette Valentine Wannop enters the fray. The daughter of Professor Wannop (Christopher’s father’s late friend) and his wife, a novelist that Christopher credits with having written the only novel since the eighteenth century he hasn’t had to correct in the margins, she marches up to Christopher at a golf course and asks his help in rescuing a fellow demonstrator from some golfers intent on beating her up, before making an impressive escape based on her proficiency in long jump. Once the connection between them is established, she proves herself to be his intellectual equal and it is on this level that most of the affinity they feel for each other flourishes. Valentine is good in a fight and is not afraid to contradict Christopher or question his arguments: in his turn he gradually realises that while he finds many of her opinions to be indicative of her age, she is probably the only truly intelligent person he knows and does not automatically find himself talking down to.

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop. (http://www.benedictcumberbatch.co.uk/_Media/15965.jpg)

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop. (http://www.benedictcumberbatch.co.uk/_Media/15965.jpg)

Valentine’s passion for Christopher is impregnated with Romanticism of a rather medieval kind. Having spent a year as a domestic servant in order to support her mother following the death of her father, and having witnessed first-hand all the unsavoury occurrences that often accompanied such a position at that time, she’s come to regard sex as being a rather repulsive occurrence and sees chastity, waiting and longing as an integral part of love. Her views on the matter fluctuate as her opinion of Christopher fluctuates: when she suspects he has a mistress, she can see no objection to sleeping with him, when she finds out that he doesn’t, she resumes her former views with relief. Christopher and Valentine seem to wax and wane with each other like opposite sides of the same coin, and a key image in the book is that of their relationship resembling a carpenter’s vice: they are pushed together by an invincible force.

And then there’s the role society has to play in all this, a cruel and hypocritical beast hiding behind crystal champagne glasses and polite conversation that can, in the eyes of the public, transform a good, faithful man into a debauched maniac through the planting of a few good rumours by people with agendas as pitiful as mild jealousy or boredom. Christopher doesn’t need to be debauched for this to happen: it suffices for enough people to think he is to bring about his ruin. Yet out in the country, old, agricultural England still exists and it’s there that Christopher finds it easiest to delude himself that change hasn’t happened and probably never will. Then the war comes along, and peoples’ class or reputation doesn’t stop them from being blown to smithereens, and the beastliness continues: men sent home due to shellshock are suspected of being cowards, the symptoms of shellshock being easy to fake, and previously decent people become hard, selfish and uncompassionate. The novel is populated by an impressive cast of supporting characters that seem to stand for each kind of person you could meet during your life, but are well-constructed enough so that they don’t automatically stand out as types (though those that are meant to, do). There’s Christopher’s best (only?) friend MacMaster who’s life’s ambition is to welcome all the geniuses of the world into his home through a series of fashionable tea parties, and his beautiful mistress (later wife) Edith, who is so bent on helping him accomplish that goal that she makes an alarming but entirely realistic metamorphosis from being a modest, good sort of woman to a society bitch reminiscent of Mrs Merdle. Valentine’s mother Mrs Wannop is absolutely charming, and Christopher’s brother Mark reminds you of a spindly spider scurrying about trying to be quintessentially English.

Ford weaves his narrative against the background of all this contrasting, contradictory mess that is just as indicative of his society as it is of ours, and I believe that it’s the effect of this, all this external nonsense, that is responsible for the stream of consciousness character of his character’s thoughts. People sink deeper into their minds and into their emotions, and therefore don’t concentrate so much on externals, when they can’t express themselves, but then it’s also the other way round: when the externals force their way through, the character’s distress is increased. It is Ford’s knowledge of this kind of response on the part of human nature, and his ability to convey it in all its devastating complexity, that makes him a great writer and that makes this a phenomenal book. I did feel, however, that we spent rather too much time in Christopher and Valentine’s heads and not enough in Sylvia’s, so that when it came to the mention of Sylvia being soppily in love with her husband, I laughed till I cried. Fortunately, we’ve got three books left to go, so plenty of time. Secondly, having seen the miniseries, I think we’ll see a lot more of Sylvia in the future and come to understand, if not to sympathise with, her bullshit.

Everything is here for someone who loves books: beautiful, challenging writing, characters that actually engage with you, and above all, act like human beings, which is the highest compliment one can pay to any writer.

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Kick Ass: Tyrion Lannister

Take every cutesy or not-so-cutesy stereotype about dwarves that you can possibly imagine, from Gimli son of Gloin chopping up orcs to Mulch Diggums unfastening his bumflap and chuck them in a heap: Tyrion Lannister sends them all packing in a towering inferno of Lannister crimson with a decent rally speech thrown in for good measure. Played by the glorious Peter Dinklage, he’s complex, charismatic, cheeky, hung like a donkey and far too smart for his own good, characteristics that make him rather overqualified for this second installment of Kick Ass.

Name: Tyrion Lannister
Show: Game of Thrones
Played by: Peter Dinklage

A central theme of A Storm of Swords is that of how out of all the younger Lannisters, Tyrion resembles his father Lord Tywin the most in terms of his brilliant mind for strategy and his unfortunate preference for the company of prostitutes rather than that of noble ladies, similarities that Tyrion only discovers moments before he ascertains that Lord Tywin does not, after all, shit gold. This is an example of GRRM’s titanic feel for poignancy, because the relationship between the two men is disastrous. Tywin’s grief for his dead wife has metamorphosed into a blinding hatred for his youngest son, to whom he speaks these appalling words: ‘You are an ill-made, devious, disobedient, spiteful little creature full of envy, lust, and low cunning. Men’s laws give you the right to bear my name and display my colors, since I cannot prove that you are not mine. To teach me humility, the gods have condemned me to watch you waddle about wearing that proud lion that was my father’s sigil and his father’s before him.’ Deep down, Tyrion still maintains a desire to win his father’s love, but constant rejections and innumerable humiliations have led him to adopt his customary armour of sarcasm and insolence not just in his relationship with his father, but in his interaction with most people he meets. It is this side of Tyrion that first wins him the affection of the audience, because his insolence is very witty, but our admiration comes from his true self. His true self is the shrewd politician and the filthy-mouthed, silver-tongued conversationist with great compassion for the downtrodden and excluded, as well as utter ruthlessness when it comes to his enemies. He uses the inevitable occurrence of people seeing his height rather than him (which happens 99 times out of 100) to his own advantage by managing to spectacularly deceive those he (often justifiably) has his knife in for, but this unique camouflage is also responsible for turning him into an emotional volcano that spews sorrow, loneliness, and of course, guilt, in his weaker moments. His sister Cersei believes that he is infected by the ‘sickness’ of wanting to be loved, something he’d never admit to in a million years despite the unusual astuteness of Cersei’s observation.

Tyrion is not exactly battle-trained (perhaps for obvious reasons) and has spent his life refining his mind by reading every book he can get his hands on. While he did once impressively kill a guy with a shield and get knocked out by a club before a battle even started, his crowning achievement is his spectacular rally speech at the Battle of the Blackwater that succeeded in convincing an entire garrison of gold cloaks half-paralysed by fear to follow him into the mouth of Hell. His aforementioned adoption of books rather than swords has also turned him into a master tactician despite his lack of hard experience and is directly responsible for the grand wildfire scheme that stalled Stannis Baratheon’s attack on King’s Landing by setting the entire river on fire (see the view from Sansa Stark’s bedroom window for confirmation). His reign as Hand of the King was probably one of the most successful in recent Westeros history, despite its cruelly unceremonious end, boasting a significant balancing-out on the political scene (i.e. keeping Cersei in her place), more efficient spending of money and strategies to defend the capital that are slightly more efficient than shouting ‘the king can do as he likes’ at anyone who’ll listen.

To both literary and TV buffs, Tyrion is absolutely irresistible because you never stop finding new stuff in him. Sometimes he’s in such a black pit that you think he’s utterly lost, other times he’s so dazzlingly brilliant that the idea of him turning out to be the greatest statesman in the history of the world isn’t far-fetched at all. The minute you think you’ve seen each facet that exists in him, another one appears and you plunge into all that glorious complexity and fierce intelligence all over again and begin from scratch. He is the true Faceless Man, I think.

Kick Ass: Elizabeth Bennet

Kick ass is a new series of stuff I’m going to be writing in praise of people from TV who, well, kick ass, from BBC to HBO and everyone in between. I will start with a classic.

jennifer-ehle-pride-and-prejudice-jennifer-ehle-16177700-1986-1980Name: Elizabeth Bennet
Show: Pride and Prejudice (1995, BBC)
Played by: Jennifer Ehle

Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of every thinking woman from about the age of five and up (it’s about then that kids can put DVDs into players by themselves, isn’t it?). Lizzy is the second (and by far the most intelligent) of five sisters who don’t have the right to inherit any of their Dad’s shit because of a loathsome thing called an entail that happily doesn’t exist anymore, so the only major expectation Lizzy and her sisters have in life is to get married and have kids, though that probably won’t happen either because her Dad isn’t exactly rich. So, while her dotty and scatterbrained Mom devotes her life to humiliating herself in any kind of way to get her daughters married, and her younger sisters have nothing but what Lizzy calls ‘love, flirtation and officers’ on the brain, Lizzy pledges that she’s not going to just marry any arsehole for the sake of getting married and that ‘nothing but the very deepest love will induce [her] to matrimony.’

If somebody was writing this story in the 21st story, they’d probably turn her into some kind of bookish version of Arya Stark so as not to confuse viewers. Refreshingly, however, Lizzy manages to maintain these extraordinary views while still being graceful, polite, witty, sensible and perfectly ladylike. She knows how to tell idiots off in a way that is so seethingly well-mannered that the average person would probably prefer a simple ‘fuck off’ to one of her tirades. She also engages in a number of very admirable activities, like scampering about the country because her sister has a cold and improving her mind by extensive reading. She’s a compulsive people-watcher and prides herself on being able to read people a lot better than that black market copy of Tom Jones that I’ve always suspected her of hiding underneath her pillow. She adores her Dad, as well as her elder sister Jane, whom she admires deeply for being able to think well of everyone and for always trying to find the good in people, no matter how repulsive they may be. Dear Lizzy finds the latter impossible for a number of reasons, the most poignant of which is ‘the more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it.’ Furthermore, instead of shutting up or turning red as a beetroot when in a tight argumentative spot with Mr. Darcy, she either throws his shit right back at him or simply smiles enigmatically, something the divine Fitzwilliam doesn’t quite know how to respond to. And then there are those absolutely delicious scenes with Lady Catherine (who is by all accounts a snobbish pain in the ass) in which Lizzy stuns the great lady and delights us with numerous examples of respectful irreverence, from politely refusing to confess her age to kicking Lady Catherine out of the house. All of this is accomplished with the demeanor of a highly-bred woman who would almost certainly have had her own salon had she lived in Paris rather than in Hertfordshire.

One of the many great things about Jennifer Ehle’s performance as Lizzy is that she portrays all of these things the way Miss Austen meant them to be portrayed and understood. Lizzy is a perfect Regency lady, but without any of the silliness, naivety and willful lack of education or desire to improve that often bear the brunt of Miss Austen’s satirical side. Lizzy’s intelligence, education and naturally outgoing personality have led to all the characteristics described above. Fortunately, however, they haven’t turned her into a stereotype: she is what this kind of person, belonging to this class in society, would have been at that period in time, something that Ehle plays to perfection and something that later interpretations of the character just don’t seem to understand, probably because in the 21st century we have difficulty imagining independent thought and general awesomeness wedded to dresses, curtseys and good behaviour.

There is something irresistible about an intelligent woman who never forgets her manners. She’s smart enough to know when she’s surrounded by fools and annoyed enough to know that she can’t put up with them with too long, but as a child of her time, she knows that being taciturn and insolent will probably land her in the same boat as Mr. Darcy, who shares both her intelligence and her intolerance and isn’t shy to express either one, making him a willful social exile on more than one occasion. For Lizzy, staying put is a lot more fun. It’s through her politeness and her wit that the Mr. Collinses of this world find themselves shaking their heads long after she’s gone, unable to ascertain whether they’ve been insulted or praised.

(Image credit to http://satoriandsilence.files.wordpress.com)

Musings on the new trailer of Star Trek Into Darkness.

star-trek-into-darkness-teaser-19There hasn’t been as much speculation flying around the many great kingdoms of Science Fiction since River Song’s reign of awesome on Doctor Who that (sadly) came to an end last year. No sooner had the Star Trek franchise been so incandescently reborn in 2009 that a veritable deluge of debate started about the sequel, all boiling down to one thing: is it Khan, or isn’t it? I’ll spare you all the various stages of this sometimes-tiresome saga, like Karl Urban’s maybe-maybe not faked slip of the tongue and the leaked fight scene in which Chris Pine appears to be clobbering the shit out of Benedict Cumberbatch and just talk about the new trailer, which admirably creates more questions and gets us praying more fervently that Sheldon Cooper might take inspiration from Admiral Kirk and find a way to transport all trekkies to May 17th so we don’t have to be subjected to this kind of torture.

startrek2trailer_620_120612In the announcement trailer, which came out a while back, all we got was a perfectly-constructed series of Doomsday images and intermittent shots of Kirk, Spock and Uhura looking shocked and battle-worn (I won’t mention the blonde with the bob, who looks rather sinister), together with Cumberbatch’s beautiful voice telling us to ‘enjoy these final moments of peace, for I have returned to have my vengeance.’ In the teaser, that reached us late last night in South Africa, we have a lot of the same thing, but with all kinds of interesting goodies to keep us occupied for the time being.

QnJIbFFVWEZ6Zncx_o_star-trek-into-darkness---extra-footage-japanese-teaser-This time, we’re treated to a minimalist but moving monologue by McCoy (I think) promising that the hubris of the divine James Tiberius is going to get everyone on the Enterprise killed, after which Benedict takes over again, and we get our first good look at him as prospective baddy from his cell in the brig. He appears to be human. He’s wearing a Starfleet uniform (oh, the potential in that choice of wardrobe!). We get some new Doomsday-type scenes and a few old ones that he appears to be responsible for (all of which promise tons of destruction, fighting, spectacular landscapes and impeccable CG), before cutting back to the brig and him somewhat mournfully asking ‘Is there anything you would not do for your family?’ Cut to something that was allegedly featured in the extra-footage Japanese trailer: (someone’s) hand attempting to touch his from the other side of the glass, fingers doing ‘live long and prosper’. Cue hysteria.

Star-Trek-Into-Darkness-ImageI must confess that my heart sank at this point, possibly because I haven’t quite recovered from the absurd cloning mishap that formed the central plotline of that awful, disappointing mess of Star Trek: Nemesis. About two seconds later, I changed my mind: the producers of this film have learned from the experience of that one. Then there’s the unknown identity of the hand on the other side of the glass: yes, yes, I know it’s either Kirk or Spock (see image), culturally, it’s probably Spock. So is this guy Spock’s brother? (I hope not, he was dreadful enough the first time round, plus Spock got all the revenge stuff last time). Does all this ‘I will have my vengeance’ stuff have a family twist to it? Who says this is connected to Spock at all? It could be connected to Kirk, hence all this talk about getting his crew killed. Or maybe the guy just lost his family. But that’s too similar to the plotline of the previous film.

To tell the truth, I really hope it’s connected to Kirk. Here’s why I say so. One of the few failings of the previous film was one that could not really have been prevented: Spock overshadowed Kirk considerably, because Zachary Quinto’s Spock is a masterpiece. It draws on all the classic character traits of Nimoy’s achievement, but also does a sublime job on the young Spock’s struggle with how to cope with his humanity: what results is an exterior logic and serenity combined with a violent undercurrent of passion and pathos. The whole movie somehow became about him, when Kirk got almost as much screen time. That doesn’t mean I think Chris Pine is a bad actor, he just didn’t have a lot to work with. In this movie, it would be nice to see Kirk struggling with some demons and getting his teeth into some intense stuff. A Kirk-centric movie would definitely not be a bad idea.

(Of course, all of this could just be another fake Easter egg left along the way. I can’t decide if this is cruelty or kindness. Make us wait, keep us busy. Which is better?)

WATCH-Star-Trek-Into-Darkness-teaser-trailer-releasedThen of course there are the infinite possibilities of a bad guy played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has already successfully demonstrated that he’s excellent at playing sociopathic (Sherlock) and skin-crawling (Atonement) individuals. One of the great things about this trailer is that we get conclusive proof that he can be both a maniacal, revenge-crazed villain and somebody who can make us feel with him all in the same role. Personally, I love those kind of villains simply because I’m bored stiff with the standard 1D Hollywood villain with a British accent (and I know a load of other people are too), so that’s probably top of my personal highlights list as far as this movie goes.

Naturally, the title has infinite potential, and I can’t help wondering if this film is consequently going to do for the Star Trek universe what Quantum of Solace did for James Bond: give us a nice dollop of grief and depression to explore the more emo side of the characters that we presume to know so well. The AU situation of these films makes this not just possible but very probable and I think it would be great to see it not just in Kirk (see above), but in characters who haven’t been permitted much development up till now, like Bones, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura and Scotty.

In the meantime, let us watch, wait and imagine.

My review of The Hobbit

The Hobbit has always had a gentler, more humorous tone to it than The Lord of the Rings, the reason being that it was originally intended for children. You can see it if you think about it: fifteen main characters, most of them dwarves, on a heroic quest to recover their stolen treasure from a dragon. I can literally see somebody at Disney picking up the phone and saying ‘Hey, guess what? I found another classic story to screw up!’ Peter Jackson’s new film version of Tolkien’s classic, however, abounds with the same glorious tension, danger and sinister, menacing evil of the original trilogy. Apart from a few scenes (which I can count on one hand), it doesn’t leave much for children. But let me join with all the LOTR fans in the world and give one gigantic shout: who cares? Middle Earth is back in all its searing, colourful intensity: old masters like Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel are still with us, their world infused with an electrifying transfusion of fresh, new blood that adds a thousand new dimensions to our blissfully crowded motherland of Middle Earth.

I will refrain from giving a summary of the plot, as people who are unfamiliar with the story no doubt live under stones in the Karoo and do not read blogs. Let us therefore dive right in and discuss what was good and what was not so good.

What was good

Cast

Playing Bilbo was always going to be challenging, particularly in the events leading up to his discovery of the Ring: on a first reading of the book, it’s very easy to write him off as a one-dimensional out-of-towner, and the same risks exist in film. Fortunately, Martin Freeman has never been an actor to take refuge in the idea of playing a character as a flat-out, bumbling fool (see his excellent work in Sherlock) and his Bilbo is no exception. He brings a kind of mercurial diversity to the character that is wonderful to watch: sure, he’s addicted to the quiet life and is often miserable and just plain terrified on the road. But he also demonstrates that laudable and often insane courage that only rears its head in hobbits in the unlikely event of their being shaken out of their comfort zones; that intense loyalty and deep sense of friendship. Like Frodo, he knows deep down that he is a child of fate, and although he’s terrified by the idea, doubts himself and fights it for all he’s worth, acceptance is the inevitable result. Freeman is masterful in bringing out this internal conflict and self-doubt, his mastery reaching a climax at the end of the unforgettable duel of wits with Gollum (Andy Serkis), where Bilbo stands, invisible, behind the unfortunate creature, debating whether or not he should kill him. The emotions of both characters; the fear and the pity of Bilbo and the acute misery of Gollum rather unconsciously (or maybe not) hurtle you back to Frodo and Gandalf’s talk about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring – ‘the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’ It’s a huge moment, beautifully conveyed and wrenches you right out of the idea of thinking of Gollum as light comedy: for just a moment, that sad, psychotic creature of the original trilogy is staring you in the face and turning your blood to ice.

The greatest strength as far as cast goes is without doubt the awe-inspiring performance of Richard Armitage as the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage has always been a powerful actor (see North and South and Spooks), but I’ve never seen him in a role before in which he risks completely bulldozing everybody else on the screen. He somehow manages to bring out the more tragic side of Thorin’s character – that is, a person who has lost everything, whose life has been torn apart, who feels more betrayal and agony than can be imagined – by embracing his anger. He seethes suppressed rage, violence, stubborn determination and a bitter desire for revenge with a towering and entirely natural X-factor charisma that is reminiscent of Sean Connery or Al Pacino (keep a look out for the rather interesting dynamic in his scenes with Elrond [Hugo Weaving], in which the tension between the two princely characters positively sets the screen on fire). If this film belongs to any one actor, it belongs to him. Magnificent. Gorgeous. Iconic. To be brief: he owned it.

As for Ian McKellen, everyone knew he was going to be brilliant, right? I don’t think anyone was actually worried about the possibility of McKellen screwing up, probably because such a thing is simply not possible. If anything, his interpretation seems to have grown in depth: he’s still the wisest of all Maiar, still a fearsome warrior, and he still has that infectious twinkle in his eye when he laughs, but in this film we see a Gandalf who is both powerful and doubtful. The doubtful side of Gandalf is something we only get a whiff of in LOTR: here, it is exemplified in most of the Rivendell scenes, including his solo gig with Galadriel and the rather crowded council scene in which we see Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond in the same room without the tiniest spark of chemistry, fire or a foreboding sense of Saruman’s future betrayal (I get that they were aiming for that, it just didn’t work. And what the hell has happened to Christopher Lee? He was so…unscary. Sniff.). McKellen really succeeds in bringing the audience closer to Gandalf and giving us a better peek at his humanity, which I’m sure we’ll get a better look at when things really start to get dark.

And then there’s the dwarves. When the first trailer came out, I was really excited about the dwarves, for the simple reason that it was obvious that the people in prosthetics, make up and costume design had gone out of their way to give each dwarf his own distinctive look, so that you really know who’s who. Unfortunately, when it comes to the film, you realise that when they were busy giving each dwarf his own distinctive look, they forgot to give each dwarf his own distinctive personality. Yes, I know – there are thirteen of them and it’s difficult to give each one his own piece of screen time when you only have three hours and a pile of other stuff to use that screen time for. But still! The filmmakers have, however, done the next best thing and succeeded, big time, in getting viewers to think of the dwarves as a single, sprawling, very noisy organism, and after the elf and men-centric tendencies of LOTR, it was really interesting to see things from a dwarven perspective and to see things about their culture previously hinted at by Gimli actually practiced (I refer largely to architecture, table culture, stubbornness and sprinting).

What was not so good

As mentioned previously, our company of dwarves, their few allies and their all too numerous adversaries enter a canvas that is already crowded. Middle Earth is huge: each location, each civilization, each character, has their own distinctive leitmotif in the score and their own way of doing things. Each one of these is associated with something of monumental import that happened in LOTR. Sometimes you think it’s impossible to remember all of them. Well, the scriptwriters thought it was indeed possible and that is where one of the film’s major weaknesses is born. Trainspotting is cool, especially if you’ve seen LOTR a thousand times. It’s wonderful to look at something and go ‘Oh, that’s from when so and so did such and such.’ Sure, it’s cute when Gandalf bumps his head on Bilbo’s ceiling light like he did in The Fellowship of the Ring. But when you start to feel bombarded by all this cuteness, it gets too much. The Shire appears. Cue Shire theme. Rivendell appears. Cue Rivendell theme. Two seconds later, Galadriel appears. Cue Lothlórien theme. There are so many references to so many things in so short a space of time that they no longer become poignant, they get annoying. In movies like this, it’s extremely important to pay homage, also to make the viewer feel that he knows the world he’s watching. But for heaven’s sake, be subtle about it! Don’t blast every place and person’s leitmotif the minute they come on! USE the music, adapt it, make it softer, play it on a different instrument. Don’t just haul out the old LOTR CD’s. Anyone with access to a Musica can do that. Do art.

Structuring, and above all balancing this film was always going to be difficult, because it has to succeed in creating its own world and telling its own stories against the backdrop of all the LOTR stories, locations and characters that have already stamped their authority on the Middle Earth universe without upsetting the balance that has already been created. In this respect, I am sorry to say that The Hobbit often fails. An example of this is the handling of flashbacks. While the flashbacks themselves are perfectly executed (cf the heartbreaking destruction of Erebor), the way they are inserted into the film is often abrupt and disjointed. You often find yourself thinking ‘Okay – are we being told another story now?’, you’re treated to a lot of gorgeous CGI, beautiful script and high emotion, and then just as quickly, CUT, you’re back on the road like nothing happened. One of the major artistic strengths of the original trilogy was its ability to go back in time, tell a story, and then glide right back to the present without losing its sense of continuity, often through the use of a parallel emotion or facial expression in either the storyteller or the listener, often both. In The Hobbit, this graceful equilibrium no longer exists, leading to some of the disturbing effects described above. Sure, the flashbacks in The Hobbit are much longer and therefore more difficult to handle, but I find it hard to believe that with a cast and crew of this quality, a solution could not have been found. Why not make the opening sequence from There And Back Again longer and cut down on that rather silly flashforward? Why not tell the story of the abandonment of Thorin and his people by the elves silently, from Thorin’s perspective, instead of having it blurted out so abruptly as a result of something so trivial as Fili and Kili fooling around? I can’t help but feel that these things could have dealt with a little better, and that the action could have started a little sooner. The result of all that messing about with Elijah Wood and Ian Holm is that the film takes an age to get on its feet and go somewhere – but once it does, it’s breathtaking. But too slow, Peter! Too damn slow!

Conclusion

Cast: Four stars. I am prevented from giving five stars on account of Christopher Lee, the under-using of Lee Pace as Thranduil and the fact that the casting director actually took the trouble to hunt down that little elf guy whose only lines in LOTR were ‘Lady Arwen, we cannot delay. My lady!’ His lot has not improved.

Production design and art direction: Five stars. Incredible, beautiful, defies description. All the darlings working on production design did not disappoint on LOTR and certainly do not disappoint here. Unmistakable highlights are portrayals of Erebor before it was sacked. Remember that incredible, soaring, wow feeling that shot from your head to your toes when you first caught sight of the ruins of the dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf in The Fellowship of the Ring? It’s that, times 100. The viewer is drawn in as a witness to a true golden age that helps you to understand perhaps a twentieth of what it felt like for the dwarves to lose it. But shouldn’t have been filmed in 3D. Five stars none the less.

Script: Three stars. Not half as good as the LOTR script, feels like a Hollywood script rather than a thing of beauty. Plus aforementioned unbalance.

Music: Three stars. Despite the glorious new dwarven theme music, not enough new stuff.

Fight scenes: Five stars. High art.

Bad guys: Five stars. Utterly repulsive.

Escapist appeal: Five stars. No explanation necessary.

Reflections on my old copy of The Hobbit

The Hobbit means something different and equally special to every kid who grew up reading it, or even better, having it read out loud to them. An ancient copy of the book is sitting on my desk as I write this: it’s been sello taped together twice (once by me at the age of seven, again by my Mom when she discovered what a botch I’d made of it), the pages alternate between yellow and a kind of burnished red, it smells like the inside of my Dad’s bookcase (a unique smell – can’t be described) and the title is written in shiny silver letters on the front. I remember my Dad showing the back of the book to me and my brother and saying ‘Now how can you tell this is an American reprint? The word ‘prequel’ on the back! ‘Prequel’ isn’t a word!’ and so on. It’s the same book I used to teach myself the basics of the Dwarven alphabet that I’ve used both as a remedy against boredom and a fairly decent party trick ever since. But most importantly, it’s the magic book my Dad used to spin adventures out of, using Tolkien’s genius and his voice to paint as complete a picture of Middle Earth in my little mind, and in my brother’s, so that knowing nothing of the existence of Rohan, Lothlórien, or Gondor didn’t prove a problem when I read The Lord of the Rings many years later: Middle Earth was my place, and I could never be lost in it.

What made The Hobbit even more thrilling to my miniature self was that the bulk of our first reading of it took place at Little Switzerland, which is a little resort quite deep in what I think was the Northern Drakensberg. They had horses and stray cats. But above all, they had mountains (MOUNTAINS, Gandalf!!). Now just imagine how exciting it is for a child to be on holiday in a place where there’s nothing to do all day but listen to a story, a story which soon turns the fairly unthreatening-looking mountains of the Drakensberg into the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo’s out there in the cold and the wet, water dripping down his nose, dreaming miserably of kettles, hearth fires and pocket handkerchiefs, and you’re worried about him and his friends and Gandalf (nah – not even kids feel comfortable worrying about Gandalf), so that with each new calamity that arises, you look out of the window at those peaks that seem so huge when you’re so small, and wonder if he’s safe.

The night scenes were the best of course, and it always seemed to be night time when the time came to read them. My Dad was an amazing Gollum, and to this day I maintain (much to the annoyance of other LOTR fans, including Daddy himself) that he was better than Andy Serkis. Ah well, maybe I’m just prejudiced. Anyway, I’ll never forget him growling ‘What has it got in its pocketses?’ and us sitting on the edge of our seats (or in my case, biting my fingernails; some things never change) and squealing ‘Oh nooooooooo’. But that was an isolated incident: for the most part, his Gollum made us laugh uncontrollably, the two best incidents being Gollum’s refined parting repartee to Bilbo as he runs for his life with the Ring on his finger (‘Thief, Bagginses! We hates it! We hates it! We hates it foreveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!’) and Gollum’s hilarious method of navigating the tunnels, which for years I thought was his way of counting to ten (one left, yes. One right, yes. Two right, yes yes. Two left, yes yes). This last anecdote is consistent with the effect Gollum had on kids after The Lord of the Rings movies first came out: to them he was, as he was to us, a cartoon character, some comic relief to stop us being scared at the horrible idea of Bilbo being stuck in a network of underground tunnels with a lot of murderous goblins on his tail and no way out.

The film version of The Hobbit opens today. When the first teaser trailer came out earlier this year, I remember rushing through to the lounge with my laptop to where Dad sat in his chair: still the same man, but grayer, with Parkinson’s. ‘Look!’ I told him, put the laptop on his knees and hit play. He was so excited. He couldn’t believe that our book, the book that is ‘our book’ to so many millions of people, had finally been made into a movie. After that, I’d frequently ask him ‘How long till December 14th?’ ‘What’s happening on December 14th?’ he would ask. Then I’d remind him. And he’d get excited all over again.

It’s been six months now since he died, and me and Mom are heading down to Musgrave tonight to watch it, without him. There are no words to describe the feeling. But I know that the moment it starts, that won’t matter anymore, because I’ll be back in our place, and he’ll be there too. Not that I’m saying he’ll be watching from heaven – I don’t believe in heaven. It’s just that for me, he’s as important in Middle Earth as Tolkien. Tolkien was its creator, Dad was its sound and colour.

Teamaster: A Syfy Alice Experiment. Part 1.

Jack had asked him if he wanted a reward. His first impulse was to say no, before years of experience kicked in and his mind restored itself to its previous comforting state of thinking of one person above all others: himself. It was surprisingly effortless.

He asked for the keys to his teashop.

Within a quarter of an hour, the keys were in his pocket and he was fading back into the labyrinth of enormous, empty shells of buildings that defied gravity, steel trees, an iron forest and the gaping holes in the earth, the ‘no go’ areas that promised a quick death to anyone who wandered into them. The news of the Queen’s defeat had not reached these neighbourhoods yet – he heard nothing but the wind, and the silent sound of memory.
‘Alice,’ he had said, and she had pulled her eyes from the abyss and taken his hand. It had been cold; cold like her fear.

Hatter swore to himself as he pushed open the door. The Suits had not even bothered to lock up behind them, so the scavengers had been, and the looters and the vandals. The light bulbs had all been stolen. The ceiling had been completely stripped and also seemed to have been burned, out of spite or a desire for warmth he could not tell. The bar was completely empty – perhaps he should have expected that. Every bottle in the place appeared to have been smashed, broken glass crunching beneath his feet. An assortment of obscenities had been spray-painted onto the walls, ‘traitor’, ‘spy,’ even ‘oyster’.

He chuckled to himself without laughter.
Passing the hat was so profitable!
So to speak.
He climbed the stairs to his office, expecting to find it in a worse state than the shop. Instead, he found the door locked and no sign of a break in.
It was worse than the vandalism.

He slowly approached the desk and chair that stood exactly as he had left them. His silver headphones still hung in their place of honour on the chair, and the contents of a half-finished cup of tea sat eerily on the other end of the desk. A ghost accompanied him everywhere he looked, stood silent and resolute on the rug, her eyes following his every movement, every nerve in her body prepared to fight, or run, her distrust of him, her innocent determination, her stubbornness. ‘How do I get to this casino?’ He still shuddered to think of her there, remembered the fear that had burned the inside of his stomach like acid that morning in the Kingdom of the Knights when he had started awake and realised that that was precisely where she had gone. Even now after everything that had happened; she still didn’t fully understand how reckless she had been, the risk that she had taken, the importance of what she had done.

‘You want me to stay?’ she had asked before disappearing into the looking glass.
Hatter approached the shelves and took down a bottle of pink nectar labeled ‘excitement’.
He’d replied no. He’d said ‘Hell, no.’

He gazed at the pink liquid and wanted more than anything to be outside himself; suddenly the veins on his hands and inner arms appeared to him in sharp relief and they seemed so small and fragile, so easy to break, so easy to puncture, it would be so easy ‘No NO,’ he growled to himself, ‘Please, no’, he pleaded with himself and gripped the bottle in his hand, focusing all his attention on it, seeing the world reduced to that plastic bottle, its little silver screw top and the shiny incandescent contents, the pink, the transparent plastic, salvation, pink, transparent, plastic salvation.

And her face hadn’t changed. That was it. For a second, she had seemed devoid of emotion and then she had smiled, rather sweetly, with something like relief.

He swallowed the entire contents of the bottle. He felt his blood surge as the effects of the drug began to take hold. What was it he’d told Ratty? Something about only taking one drop at a time ‘or the experience might burst your shriveled-up little heart. Gottit?’ The memory was uproarious, and he laughed, beginning to dance and jump about like a child discovering his first fix.

She’d looked over her shoulder at him, for just a second, he liked to think because she knew that he had lied.

Did that mean his heart was going to burst? Did it matter? The sensation defied description. His fists punched the air, and he was whooping, singing, ‘I win! I win! I win!’ along with the fifty oysters who’d been drained till they died so that this feeling could exist, their excitement bursting through his head like an exploding grapefruit. For some reason this thought made him feel sad and guilty: but why? They were singing to him, ‘I win! I win! I win!’ and their song was beautiful.

Then the looking glass had closed, and she was gone.

The adrenaline soaring in his veins began to hurt. He couldn’t see. His body was trapped in a curved mirror, turning in and out of itself, and leaping, and singing ‘I win!’ He tried to jump all the way up to the ceiling and touch it, he wanted to dance and dance and sing, because he had won, but he curled up on the floor, delirious with pain made worse by the signals in his brain telling him it wasn’t there; that nothing was there but excitement.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?
But why does that matter? I’ve won!

He’d once seen a young man die of a heart attack after downing an entire bottle of this stuff. Only it wasn’t the same: what had he taken? Lust? Passion?

He screamed. His heart heaved like something diseased and exhausted, the heart of an old man, not strong enough for anything, as if were made of… what are we made of again?
Alice was studying him, more moved than surprised.
‘I was starting to think you weren’t coming back.’

He was too tired to feel. He lay flat on his back staring at that same ceiling that five minutes ago had seemed so interesting, so unattainable. It doesn’t matter. I’ve won. He looked to the side at his arm, once again examining the tiny blue canals of veins that had terrified him. It doesn’t matter. I’ve won. The song became quieter and quieter, its final notes fading away into the crevasses they’d come from.
You’re mad as a box of frogs, he thought, and you haven’t won a thing.