War in Heaven by Charles Williams, 3/5
I’m not going to pretend that I understood the more esoteric implications of this bizarre spiritual thriller, but I certainly did enjoy its zany plot, humor, and original take on the ever-popular search for the Holy Grail. It’s not a particularly well-crafted novel, but it’s hard to fault a story that opens thusly:
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
Why I read it: After my introduction to Charles Williams via All Hallows’ Eve, I wanted to read some of his other “novels of the supernatural,” of which War in Heaven is the first.
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams, 5/5
I had very little idea what to expect from this slim book and that, perhaps, is partly why I found it to be so absolutely astonishing (though pure novelty cannot account for that fully). I don’t want to give away too much, but think Gothic thriller meets supernatural romance in the interest of exploring highly-developed and unconventional theological beliefs. I was not at all surprised to later learn that Williams was a regular member of the Inklings, enjoying the friendship and literary criticism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
This book demands to be re-read, but I would avoid this edition (Oxford Reprints) at all costs. The binding has that ubiquitously cheap, self-published feel and the text contains a baffling number of typos. Most egregious of all is the use of hyphens in place of em dashes. I know how pedantic that complaint sounds, but Williams used em dashes often and in very long sentences. The relentless and incorrect use of hyphens disrupted visual flow in addition to hindering comprehension.
Why I read it: another entry on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
I made the mistake of re-re-re-re-reading this book right before I went to see the new movie version. It’s a sad commentary on the film that I spent a good portion of the movie review praising the book and bemoaning the filmic misadventure that masquerades under its name. Since I am lazy and thinking any more about how awesome this book is will just make me sad, I’ve excerpted the relevant part from my movie review below.
The Hobbit may be a slim book, a classic adventure tale for children, but it is written skillfully, with wit and humour, character development, a sense of the epic and a mythological backbone that makes it not inconsistent with its titanic offspring, The Lord of the Rings.
Hwæt! If you don’t want to witness me taking this movie waaaay too seriously and drowning my keyboard in tears of anger during long sentences of painfully earnest prose, skip to the end and the more easily digestible “WTF Moments” section.
Also, if I thought this movie could be spoiled, I’d be warning you about spoilers right about now…
The Hobbit may be a slim book, a classic adventure tale for children, but it is written skillfully, with wit and humour, character development, a sense of the epic and a mythological backbone that makes it not inconsistent with its titanic offspring, The Lord of the Rings. Because of this, I hoped (even expected) that it would be treated with the same respect, creativity and slavish attention to detail that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had previously received at the hands of Peter Jackson.
At worst, I reasoned, the first installment of a ~9 hour film treatment of a 278 page novel would suffer from additions, not deficiencies. It would allow the audience to luxuriate (perhaps even excessively) in the details of the book, brought to life with no time or budget constraints (no missing Tom Bombadils or scouring of the Shires this time), and any additions would be understandable concessions to the film medium.
Sadly, Peter Jackson removed almost as much material as he added (which was a lot), and all with a blithe senselessness that left me very, very angry. Tiny tidbits from the book, certain individual lines, props and scenes were a pittance, tossed at the audience as if they were generous concessions, a sort of shoulder nudge for the fans, “see, we read the same book as you” thing, while the larger portion of dialogue and plot details were straight from a movie trope library. There is much I could have forgiven in a shorter film from an unproven director, but this is 3 hours of Peter Jackson doing Tolkien – it has to be so bad in order to be bad. And it was.
Over and over, the film disregarded actual drama and interest straight from the book in favour of tired, shallow cliches:
- For example, instead of exploring the psyche of dwarves and their dubious motivation for the quest, everything was blamed continually on the idea of “omens” and it being “the right time,” like that explains anything. Bilbo’s little Hallmark speech about how he wanted the dwarves to have a home and sense of belonging was pathetic and gratuitous. Sorry, the dwarves were totally in it for the gold and revenge and sense of belonging be damned. And Bilbo didn’t even want to be there most of the time.
- Any drama surrounding the Eagles (…was it a rescue or a take-out lunch…) was replaced with “Oh no, Thorin’s deadish, I mean, he looks kind of dead, his eyes are closed, gee, I hope he’s not dead… of course he’s not, because apparently he’s the main fekking character in this film.”
- Instead of letting Bilbo simmer in the psychological discomfort of his uncertain position in the company of adventuring dwarves, gradually proving himself as his character changes and grows (which is, indeed, the entire point of the story), the film first treats him as a bystander, then has him randomly save Thorin’s life, earning the chief dwarf’s goodwill and dispelling the drama of Bilbo’s position with one boring cliche. In fact, all the book’s little revealing psychological insights into Bilbo that make the reader love, empathise with and understand him are completely absent from the movie.
So much was needlessly and painfully spelled out:
- For example, the audience supposedly couldn’t be trusted to understand the joke when Bilbo slips up, describing himself to the trolls as “a bur – a hobbit,” so it’s changed to “a burgler hobbit,” which isn’t a joke anymore at all, it’s just stupid.
- It was carefully explained that Sting burned blue in the presence of Goblins, when the few people not already aware of this could easily have been shown it, not told.
- The audience had to actually see Gollum drop the ring. This took away the sense of mystery and discovery that is so enjoyable about the original scene in the book.
Many details from the book that would have been easy to include in a movie of this length and budget were glaringly disregarded. No coloured, hooded cloaks on the dwarves, no wet and weary pony rides with Bilbo reminiscing about his cozy hobbit hole (not for the first time), few songs, no blue, red and green pine cone firebombs from Gandalf, no darkness in the Goblin tunnels, no Glamdring and Orcrist flashing about during the fights, no this, no that. But here, have some random scenes featuring Radagast hugging a hedgehog.
No review is complete without addressing positive aspects and I have to say that the riddle scene was quite brilliant. I thought that it was well-done, entertaining, funny and delightfully consistent with the portrayal of Gollum in the LotR films. It almost made it worth watching the whole film. Also, Martin Freeman did a very good job, though no doubt he was confused to see his name in the top billing, given the lack of focus on his character in the film.
In conclusion, sure, it was a spectacle, but then so is your mom doing a 3 hour long rendition of “Mein Heir,” complete with fishnet stockings and a chair of dubious stability. Call me a purist, but I was hoping for something spectacular instead.
Notable WTF moments:
- the first 10 minutes of the film – like a giant screensaver slideshow of New Zealand, with the picture changing before you’ve had a good chance to look at it. Then you remember what you came to your computer for but shaking the mouse doesn’t wake it up.
- every single shot that was a direct re-enactment of a shot from LotR (Gandalf glowering/dimming the lights, the Ring falling onto Bilbo’s finger, the moth-whispering, etc.). What kind of person includes homages to their movies in their own movie? The charitable assumption is that Jackson was in a rush or
suffering from amnesia or maybe just hated The Hobbit. Otherwise, he is seriously misapplying the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” quote and letting his ego go all King Kong on us. I’m actually having a hard time believing that Jackson directed this at all; LotR was full of clever, interesting cinematography and beautifully composed shots, while The Hobbit is full of pans and copied material.
- the moment I realised that Azog, who merits a one-sentence mention in The Hobbit (“Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin” (24). That’s it. Oh, and a footnote on page 257), was destined to replace both Bilbo’s character development and the quest itself as the focus of the movie, while the Rivendell part (which occupied an entire chapter in the book) was about as long and interesting as a bathroom break.
- the shaggy fat suits that were loosely Velcroed to what were otherwise, no doubt, quite acceptably pony-like ponies.
- fart jokes in the troll scene. Really? And since when has any creature that considers sitting on dwarves to squash them into jelly an acceptable cooking method been worried about things like parasites?
- the interminable episode where Radagast leads the goblins and wargs in spirals on an open plain around Thorin & Co. in an exhibition of what has to be the worst decoy technique ever.
- Rivendell looking like a bad forgery of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
- Galadriel dematerialising like some sort of Cheshire cat. Also, the celestial choir gargling loudly in our ears during her first appearance.
- the Gandalf/Elrond/Galadriel/Sauruman scene – so long, boring and pointless I can only assume it was done on purpose for reasons beyond my ken.
- stone giants – pre-SFX footage from the next Transformers movie.
- the Goblin King’s high-pitched voice. Add a Cheetos-stained white tank-top and his vibe would be complete.
- the cosy, warm colour palette for all the goblin scenes, which suggested renovation not retreat as the best plan of action. Seriously, brew me a cup of tea, light a nice fire, slap on some wallpaper and I’d never leave.
- the whole goblin escape scene via rope bridges, etc., which was one Nicholas Cage look-alike away from being a very respectable remake of the last few scenes of National Treasure.
- when I realised that someone got paid to write (and someone paid to deliver) the line “You’ve got to be joking,” uttered shortly after the deceased Goblin King fell on top of the company. So many good lines from the book left unsaid and yet “You’ve got to be joking” will forever exist in this version of The Hobbit. The screenwriters literally could not have picked a more cliched, banal phrase. It just makes me want to cry.
- Gandalf “healing” Thorin by muttering some sort of shopping list in the general direction of his forehead. They both looked surprised when it worked. In fact, the only entity that was thoroughly unsurprised was the audience.
- the Azog fight at the end of the movie. What, a story containing encounters with trolls, goblins, Gollum, wargs, giant spiders, unfriendly wood elves, and a dragon, ending with the Battle of Five Frickin’ Armies, needs some extra fight scenes?