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Sunday, 1 July 2012

Spark of genius

I wonder if it’s fair to blame J R R Tolkien for all the really bad fantasy? Those oriental monks rubbing shoulders with European knights. The elves in sports bras. It’s enough to drive you back to Ivanhoe. As Tolkien himself said: “Fantasy can be carried to excess. It can be ill done.”

Tolkien had a quality that his imitators don’t even see. There’s a creative unity to his work. He doesn’t keep throwing any old rubbish at you, he'll never perpetrate the incoherent text. He asks just that you accept the axioms of his world and the rest all falls into place.

To create something on the scale of the Lord of the Rings movies, involving a team of a thousand people over more than two years, is remarkable enough. To do it and maintain that cohesive vision is sheer genius. And only possible because, at the heart of the project, there was the novel itself.

It’s more than a question of having a core design document. You can’t build anything until you have a plan of what you are trying to build. Tolkien’s novel is the design document of the movies, but it’s also more than that. It lights the way for any new artistic work set in Middle Earth. It’s the creative Flame.

Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the scriptwriters) became keepers of the Flame while they worked on transforming it for the screen. Peter Jackson took it over while directing. Throughout the project, all of his team had that Flame to refer back to.

That’s because the process of good creative design isn’t the dictatorship that some people seem to fear, with “the guy in charge” coming up with rules that everyone must slavishly follow. Nor is it a case of committee thinking, with everyone pitching ideas into the stew.

It’s more like proselytizing a religion. The designer or author is the prophet. He or she lights the Flame, is its keeper, and brings the team to it. Once you see the light, you can go off and do your own thing and the work you do will have unity with everyone else’s.

Movies like Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit - or The Amazing Spider-Man, or Star Trek - show that it’s possible for a team of a thousand creative people to share one dream. A handful of man-years to write the novel – and it lit the Flame for a two thousand man-year project. Doesn’t that sound like a bargain to you?


  1. Clarity of vision, elegance of presentation - that's the Professor's genius to me.

  2. But, Dave, I thought you had never read "the Lord of the Rings" (and did P.Jackson let you watch "The Hobbit" before its theatrical release ?).


  3. I've only seen the first LotR movie, Olivier, and you're right that I've never read the books. But they are perfect examples of how a few man-years of work can spawn a billion-dollar entertainment franchise, even so.

  4. There are some differences between the movies and the book (for which Tolkien spent more than a few years; indeed, if we take into account the whole mythological background, he spent his whole life on it). However, IMO, in most cases, the movie even improved the book (some lengthy passages, inter alia) by introducing a good balance between the different fellows. Another big difference is the role devoted to women, especially Arwen, who is very passive in the book. The love affair between her and Aragorn is mostly included in an appendix to the book (the Lay of A & A) but the scenarists had the good idea to put it forward (of course, if you want to attract female viewers...)
    In its "Lord of the Ring RPG", Decipher had made a good analysis of what Tolkienesque fantasy is and explained the differences between the book and the 2 first movies in further publications (the French version of these publications can be downloaded on this forum : )

  5. I'll have to disagree with Cafaristeir here... the Lord of the Rings films were good, that's true. A few plot quirks notwithstanding - like, when Frodo makes a HUGE detour to Minas Tirith, apparently just so he can appear in a dramatic battle scene. But yeah, the films are good. But the books are GREAT. Even though the three movies last a good ten hours or so, there's just so much more detail and nuance in the books. Plus, a book will always be just a little superior to even the best film adaptation, won't it? With a book, the reader is a participant in the creation of the world, picturing it inside his mind. The viewer of a film is a mere spectator.

    I'm a bit of a book purist, y'see.

    The role of women is often on the weak side in fantasy storytelling - most likely because it apes true medieval history, where women got a fairly bum deal. A marriage based on commerce or political alliance if you came from an especially rich family; a premature death from starvation, smallpox or unsanitary childbirth if you didn't. The Game of Thrones books have some strong female characters - but even then, you're keenly aware of the constraints they face in comparison with their male kin.

    Going back to Dave's post... a couple of interesting choices in the films you mention. From the rumours I hear, 'The Amazing Spiderman' is going to be a reboot. Certainly, the posters I've seen all over Paris show a Spidey with prominent mechanical web-shooters. That's a hell of a shame, if so - not only because it disregards the man-years that have gone into the recent movies. But it'll probably disregard the last two or three decades of the comics, too, and go back to the very early Spidey stories. I worry that commercial pressures may be inhibiting Spidey's growth on the big screen. C'mon, Gwen Stacey popped up in the last Spiderman film - let's keep our fingers crossed that the Green Goblin will lob her off a bridge this time around.

    And Star Trek? Well, lately, another reboot. One that artfully nullifies all those episodes of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine that I loved, and all those episodes of Voyager that I... was aware of. But then, it's Star Trek. I'm sure if they want Captain Picard to pop up at some point, they'll figure out some sort of inverted-hydro-quantum-fusion-electro-spectrum-fission drive that will allow him to do so.

  6. Jeez, Paul, I hope not. I'm happy to disregard TNG, Voyager and the rest (not even going to mention DS9) and just accept JJ Abrams's version as the new canon. (Although it doesn't of course invalidate all the trad ST stuff, it just follows a different parallel timeline.)

    Wrt Spidey's webshooters - it was always more of a reach in the comics, making him not just get bitten by a radioactive spider but also just happen to be a science genius capable of inventing those gizmos. But I'll accept it because (a) I'm a purist of Ditko/Romita vintage and (b) it's nice to have the return of the science nerd hero. It may not accord with what's been happening in the comics, but why does it have to? Comics these days are for a fannish niche, back then they were mass market. The old stories seem to translate better to the screen. And Andrew Garfield strikes me as much more of an authentic Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire was.

    When it comes to Tolkien, I can't comment on the adaptation, having read half of the first book and seen one movie. But it's the model of using a novel (or comic) as the core concept that I admire.

  7. PS: But yes, I do agree with you that a novel is always going to be superior to a movie version of the same story. With a novel, you can get inside the characters' heads in a way movies just can't.