The Hobbit: An Unexpected Success

So… It’s been a minute since I’ve posted on here, huh? I use the word minute figuratively, of course, because it has in fact been months. And I would simply say, “I won’t mention it if you don’t mention it,” if I didn’t know you better. Let’s not kid ourselves, after all. We both know that you wouldn’t be able to resist bringing up the time I went months without posting on the blog. You just can’t help yourself, can you?

Well, whatever. I’ll let bygones be bygones. Being the bigger person here. Plus, you knew what you were in for when you read the About page. I made no promises of constancy, consistency, or anything vaguely resembling blog activity when I set out on this venture. All I promised you was a handful of rambling, focus-less posts. And boy, are you in luck today!

Because I’d like to talk about a movie I saw recently. And if you’ve read this blog at all, and know what kind of fiction I read and write, you can probably guess what movie I saw.

That’s right: Jack Reacher.

Kidding, kidding. It was The Hobbit, of course, and my reaction to the film is actually a lot more positive than it sounds. Ready?

I am less disappointed than I expected to be.

Now, like I mentioned above, that doesn’t sound like high praise. But let me explain. You see, The Hobbit is one of my all-time favorite stories. I haven’t read it through in a while now, and it’s not one of those books that have on a constant reread cycle. But I count it as the first book that truly left its mark on me. In Elementary school, I was a quick and gifted reader, but I didn’t really love books. They told me that I read at the level of a college freshman when I was in fourth grade, and despite how proud I was of that esteem, I didn’t take full advantage. I could comprehend books just fine, but I only read when I had to. The Hobbit changed that for me.

I picked it up after hearing about the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies. Even then, I was the type of kid who had to start at the beginning to feel that I’d gotten the most out of anything (I still do this with bands, TV shows, and book series today). So my mom bought me The Hobbit, which I was determined to read before getting into The Lord of the Rings proper. My copy had beautiful, detailed illustrations, and I was grabbed immediately by Tolkien’s vivid, grandfatherly style of storytelling. And I still look back on that book with more than just fondness, because it’s a style of storytelling that isn’t often seen in fiction anymore. It’s not every author who can write a story and instantly transport the reader to a warm oversized chair by a fire with the first words. But The Hobbit has that power.

So you can understand why it was with some considerable trepidation that I approached Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, especially with all the negative things I’d heard already. I had heard that it was bloated and unnecessarily drawn out (the adaptation was initially announced to be one film, and then two, and then a ridiculous three). I had heard that it was filled with obvious CGI and corny 3D gimmicks. And, of course, I had heard that it was a totally unneeded attempt to cash in on the success of the first three Lord of the Rings films. I was feeling a familiar, Phantom-Menace-esque lump in my throat at the thought. And, to cap it all off, Patrick Rothfuss, whose writing I love and who has led me to many other great books and films in the past through his blog, publicly stated that he would not be seeing the movie because of these factors.

So, again, I was not expecting much. But I think those low expectations saved the experience for me. In the end, strange as it sounds, I was pleasantly surprised to be unexpectedly un-disappointed. I’d spent so much time before the film bracing myself for absolute garbage that, when the time finally came to plonk myself down in the theater, I was able to have a really good time with the film.

I’ll break it down, briefly.

Being the geek that I am, I was particularly susceptible to all the random bits of nostalgia-inducing fan service throughout the movie. When the tale began with Tolkien’s immortal lines, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”–well, when I heard those first words I immediately broke out into a smile. And the original story is that dear to me that not even my powerful inner cynic could prevent Peter Jackson from playing on my nostalgic impulses. There were plenty of little inside lines like that designed to capitalize on the fond remembrances of the initiated.

Still, it’s that same geek mentality that made me more likely to cringe at all the silly Hollywood guff, and guff there was in spades. Jackson’s ridiculously lengthy action sequences are a prime example. It was also jarring to see scenes from The Lord of the Rings repeated almost exactly in this film (Gandalf, I’m talking about you and your ever-present friend, the moth–and his ever-present friends, the giant eagles, for that matter). But I suppose it ended up cancelling out in the end, and I found myself able to look past the silliness of some moments (a sled pulled by rabbits? Really?) and appreciate the thing as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t perfect. Does this adaptation need to be three films long? Hell no. Did the first installment need to be almost three hours long? Absolutely not. Does it promise to measure up to the quality of the Lord of the Rings movies? Not by a long shot. But was it an enjoyable film? With all its flaws, I am still compelled to answer that question with a resounding yes. It was plenty fun, it had all the little moments and jokes from the books that you could want, and it looked pretty damn good (provided that you don’t see it in 3D).

And, fellow geeks, let’s be honest with ourselves. No one’s going to sully classic books like The Hobbit. No one has the power to do that. No matter who adapts it or how, Tolkien’s book will always be a wonderful, vintage bit of fairy-tale storytelling, always untouched by time. So just enjoy this popcorn-munching affair for what it is, and return home to your pipe, blazing hearth, well-stocked larder, and well-worn copy of the original book, knowing in your heart that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit could have been much, much worse.

I mean, at least Legolas wasn’t in this one.

 

Tabletop Role-playing: Revenge of the Worldbuilding

 

Oh, tabletop role-playing games… You have brought me back to my roots. Back to the pure, unadulterated joy and excitement that I first felt before ever I became bogged down in the drudgery of writing complex characters and interesting plots. Or the successive disappointment I experienced when I realized that my plots and my characters were pretty shitty after all. But oh, role-playing games! I find myself once again reliving my salad days: drawing maps, doing write-ups of city histories and regional lore, imagining political and religious conflicts…

Yes folks, I’m talking about worldbuilding, undeniably the most fun part of writing a book and, luckily for me, the largest part of creating a module for a tabletop RPG. Now, I know that to most people a lot of that stuff up there doesn’t seem very fun. Political and religious conflicts aren’t exactly the stuff of daydreams. At least not for normal folks. But I’ll tell you why it actually is fun, and also why you’re wrong if you still disagree. Why do you always need me to convince you, reader? You’re really starting to piss me off, you know.

Er–well. The point is, the worldbuilding is fun because it is the sole reason that most of us got into writing fantasy in the first place. When we all read Tolkien for the first time, those of us destined to write in his genre were struck by a few things: his languages, his cultures, his histories, and his beautiful, beautiful maps. But most of all, we were impressed with his creativity. And that’s what worldbuilding is–pure creativity. That’s why we got into books, right? That’s why we’re fantasy nerds and not just people who like to read.

Or wait.. I’m the fantasy nerd. I keep assuming that you and I are the same, reader. But you probably wear cool European clothes and read Noam Chomsky, and you’re only reading this blog until you inevitably discover that other people know about it too, at which point you’ll toss my paltry words to the wayside proclaiming, “I read Discipulus once in a bar with, like, five other people.”

Anyway, I’ve been doing my worldbuilding nonsense. I’ve been just creating. Not worrying about the structure of the writing, but just recording made-up facts, drawing maps, and relishing every moment.

So. A status update. At this stage in our journey to Tabletop-Gamingtown I’ve written six pages of material. I’ve drawn a city map of our starting location. I have come up with a number of potential quests. I’ll share with you two revelations I have had about the process while doing these things.

Firstly, it is hard to avoid clichés. I have a bit more sympathy now for people who design video games. Perhaps I’ll complain a little less the next time I have to do a fetch quest or escort some wuss without any semblance of artificial intelligence through a dangerous sewer. These clichés happen, I now realize, because of the restrictions of a story-telling game. Namely, if you want your characters to fill out much of the story for themselves (and in tabletop RPGs especially you do), then your options are limited. It boils down to: I can have my characters go somewhere to collect something, I can have them escort someone, and I can have them go somewhere to kill something, plus any combinations of those three quest types.

It’s the background of your tale that makes these simple types of story compelling. So the realism with which you portray your world has a serious effect on how seriously your players will take the quest. Fighting might be fun, but if all of your fights are against mere goons then people will stop giving a damn after a while. Some of this comes down to your live storytelling skills, but a lot of it has to do with how much effort and thought you really put into your world. A play that takes place on an empty black stage might impress a few theater snobs, but it’s hard to argue that the experience isn’t a hell of a lot more immersive when the actors are surrounded by a spectacular set, and their lines and behaviors reflect their surroundings and their times.

The second revelation is this: that I have no clue how a city is organized. Drawing a map of a city (the first time I’ve done something with this level of detail) was an eye-opener. “Wait… where do the churches go? How much of the city is walled? How much open space is there within the city, again? Wait… where do the markets go?” During the creation of this map I probably spent more time staring, drooling, and scratching my head than I did actually putting pencil to paper and sketching.

But in the end I like the way things have turned out so far. So now I need to meet up with my fellow GM, the man who will run the numbers while I tell the majority of the story, and hammer out the details of how to get this thing started. More to come on my descent into the heart of dorkness in future episodes!

Farewell, gentle reader.

Building a Book

What the hell is worldbuilding?

That was a rhetorical question, because of course I’m about to tell you. Worldbuilding is something inherent to fantasy. Science fiction too, for that matter–really any genre which places its story in an alternate universe. That universe has to be built, and if I do say so myself, doing so is the most creative, exciting phase of writing a story. I go nuts for maps and fictional histories, and I quite like creating religions and mythologies for the made-up little people that inhabit my made-up little worlds. Those–all of those aspects–are all part of worldbuilding.

But worldbuilding has been for far too long the focus of lots of fantasy authors. Those of us who love roleplaying games and Lord of the Rings and all that nerdy stuff take joy in imagining these strange, foreign worlds, with their own laws of physics and magic, and their own unique kingdoms and cultures. Unfortunately, in the process we’ve ended up neglecting another construction project that should be just as important to the structure of our stories.

Listen up: you need to write characters, people. You need to write people, people! You need interesting, complex, realistic folks to inhabit your fantastic new world, which won’t seem all that fantastic when it’s filled with cardboard characters, such as the wise old wizard, the farmboy with the heroic destiny, and his friend, the horde of slavering orcs.

See there’s two types of realism. You can have a realistic world. I’ll call that Tolkien realism, though that phrase comes with some caveats, to be discussed in a bit. Then you have what I’ll call Abercrombie realism, that is a cast of realistic characters. This one is named after Joe Abercrombie, an author I urge you to read if you wish to see how complex characters painted in shades of gray can make a book fantastic, even without the inclusion of a map (gasp).

So. First, Tolkien realism. Now, Tolkien’s world isn’t entirely realistic. There is no religion, a feature of our actual world that Tolkien deliberately omitted. Additionally, the world isn’t constructed entirely realistically as far as climates and economies are concerned. Some of these things the professor considered after the fact, such as his explanation that the armies of Mordor were fed mostly on fish caught from Mordor’s inland sea–an explanation prompted by people’s questioning how the volcanic environment of Sauron’s kingdom could support any kind of population. Those and other negligible things aside, however, Tolkien paid great attention to the history, language, and culture of his world. The man devised entire languages, wrote whole mythologies, and had a clear origin defined for every race and nation in his Middle Earth. Hell, he even included a little bit of good old-fashioned racism.

The downside to Tolkien’s world? His characters aren’t all exactly relatable humans. The very best example of humanity in his entire book is Gandalf’s insistence that he mustn’t touch the ring, lest it make him more powerful and dangerous than Sauron himself. That is a moment of truly human temptation that I’m quite fond of. Ah, but then of course we have Faramir, the brother of Boromir, who casually ignores the temptations of the ring without a second thought. Immediately we readers think, Hmm… That seems strange. What power does Faramir have that he’s so easily able to resist the ring? But I guess he’s just… noble, or something? Not a shining moment of character realism, and one that the creators of the film adaptation wisely chose to change.

So that’s where Mr. Abercrombie’s brand of realism comes in. This is character realism at its finest. There’s Jezal, a pompous young nobleman who goes through a journey of self-discovery, only to return to his former shallow, selfish ways when given the opportunity to become king at the end of the series. He is somewhat changed by his experiences, and he thinks about things a little differently. But he’s still Jezal; the entire point of Abercrombie’s books is that people are all people, and that they don’t usually change much for the better. Another example: his character Logen, a subversion of the archetypal noble warrior, attempts to make himself a better man and escape his violent past, only to sink right back into his comfortable role when he returns to his homeland. One of my favorite lines comes in the final installment, when Logen is told by an enemy: “Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero. A man like that, there’s nothing he won’t do, and he’ll always find himself an excuse.” Bleak, yes, but superb in terms of realism.

Now let’s be clear. I think that both forms of realism are necessary for a good book. And both authors have their moments using each type. Tolkien has moments of relatable humanity, as mentioned above, and characters that stick with you despite their usually simple personalities; and Abercrombie’s world seems to be well-realized by the author himself–he merely doles out the information to the reader in small doses. But while I recognize that both character and world realism are important for our genre, I’m realizing more and more that character-driven stories mean more than stories driven only by the “Look at the neat stuff I thought up” factor. Characters stay with you–good ones forever–whereas we all outgrow the neat stuff category of fiction eventually.

What we as readers and writers of fantasy need to avoid most are characters that seem shallow. Especially shallow villains. I can’t tell you how tiresome the “Dark Lord” category of villain has become. Dark Lord? What the hell kind of personality is that? How am I supposed to feel anything towards an antagonist whose only motivation is “enslave the earth.” You see, every character can be written sympathetically. I’m fond of saying that one could write a sympathetic story about Hitler. In fact, I’m sure some already have been written. Or you could write a sympathetic story about… Satan, perhaps. Actually, that’s got potential. Guy’s created as an angel, destined to tempt the first humans and be damned to rule over hell, but he doesn’t have the power of free will, so he can’t help but accomplish his awful destiny, even if he doesn’t want to. You could make a very sympathetic story out of that if you tried.

My point is summarized best by a maxim that I try to always keep in mind: “The villain is the hero of the other side.” Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s that black-and-white simple. Everyone’s got his motivations and temptations. Everyone’s got emotions that any reader can relate to.

And including those things is how you make your story stick with your readers. It’s how you keep them turning the pages, and begging you to write more books starring their same beloved characters, in turn bringing you ever closer to your goal of enslaving the earth.

What? I never said fantasy writers had to be sympathetic.