Posts Tagged ‘lord of the rings’

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Tolkien and Peake: The Next Stage of Fantasy Literature

March 12, 2008

I finally got round to watching the second part of the BBC4 series Worlds of Fantasy, after having some issues with the iPlayer which I won’t go into here, I think there are enough complaints about it already. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get round to watching it then writing this that there’s only 10 hours left to catch it (sorry), although the final part of the series was shown last night and should be available on the iPlayer now. Incidentally, what’s with the Spinal Tap-esque volume adjuster on that thing?

So part two focuses on just two fantasy authors, Tolkien (no surprises there then) and Mervyn Peake, who I was very surprised to see included as the only other author. Let’s be totally honest, Tolkien had to be included, even before the success and mainstream appeal of the films he was still, for the majority of people familiar with this genre, the top of the pile. And naturally his name will bring more eyeballs to the screen, which I haven’t got a problem with at all. I wasn’t expecting a Moorcockian trawl through the outer limits of Gothic and Romantic literature (I’m reading his book Wizardy and Wild Romance at the moment, I know for a fact that if I live my lifetime twice I’ll never read all the books he has read) but I was expecting more than just Tolkien, and oh yeah, Peake. In essence what we got was two brief biographies of the authors, looking at what influenced them (Germanic myths, Worcestershire landscape, the horror of war, Arundel Castle) and what their motivations for writing in this genre were. The most interesting element discussed less fully than it could have been was the idea of ‘secondary world creation’ – Middle Earth and Gormenghast were not set somewhere on earth past, present or future or even a dimension parallel to earth from which they could be accessed, they were entirely secluded locations that had their own histories and cosmologies, especially in Middle Earth’s case (which the documentary does cover in a fair bit of depth, although I don’t recall them mentioning the Silmarillion).

I’ve tried to convince myself that it was for this reason that the programme focused on these two authors exclusively. If we look at the other early fantasy authors there is an element of ambiguity about whether or not their worlds are entirely seperate from a fictional version of our own earth or not. Obviously Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series is set in our universe and Howard’s Conan stories are set on earth albeit in a very different pre-ice age landscape. But what about the other originators of the genre like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber? Many of their fantasy worlds are distinctly unearthly. I suppose it’s possible that Vance’s Dying Earth is set in the future of our own planet, but never is that made explicit to my knowledge. And there is at least one adventure where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser enter our earth’s past, but this is an exception to the rule. So why were two such influential writers not included? Well, I think it has alot to do with the fact that both Tolkien and Peake were British writers, that Jack Vance and Fritz Lieber are US authors and probably less familiar over here (the Gormenghast TV series from 2000 will have brought some familiarity to the masses) and finally that Lieber and Vance are deemed to have less literary worth in BBC circles.

Given that Tolkien and Peake are described as the ‘grandfathers of modern fantasy’ it would have been nice to have seen a wider range of things thay had influenced. Okay, they mentioned games and actually showed a few clips from Lord of the Rings Online, but I was a bit pissed that they didn’t even mention Dungeons and Dragons or even something like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (perhaps that would have raised to many questions about the absence of Conan). Strangely enough, and maybe in order to emphasise the point that Peake, though clearly in the shadow of Tolkien, has influenced a crop of contemporary fantasists the show featured some prominent clips of books by China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie, but none say of classic Tolkien-inspired romps like Dragonlance or Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.

To be fair if I didn’t know a great deal about fantasy authors the program would have been fairly informative if limited in scope. Personally I think that Lieber and Vance would have much more appeal to someone who watched the program because they liked Tolkien, and they have they added bonus of a sense of humour. Speaking of humour apparently tonight’s instalment features Michael Moorcock talking about the influence drugs had on fantasy writing in the 60s, should be interesting.

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Media that Crosses the Line

August 11, 2007

The recently released Transformers game tie in with the film of the same name was like Spider-Man 3 before it, something of a disappointment if most reviews are to be believed, and it’s probable that very few people are surprised about this. As usual movie/game synchronicity is seen to be the blame here with some reviwers commenting that the game felt incomplete. Computer games based on film franchises are typically seen as a short-term merchandising investment hence the need to match release dates with the film releases, short-term might be good for the film studio’s pockets, but it isn’t good for gamersor more importantly the reputation of franchise based games.

There is hope though, and I use ‘hope’ optimistically but cynically. The current US box office smash ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ won’t be accompanied by a gane title of the same name, instead the game entitled ‘The Bourne Conspiracy’ won’t be released until 2008 the reason being that “… we didn’t have enough time to build a quality ‘Ultimatum’ game and come out with it at the same time as the movie. So we decided to do things differently, something new.” Whether or not this results in a quality game is another question, but it’s a turn for the better.

The other franchise game that caught my eye is Ubisoft’s Beowulf (see the game videoclip below). Although the game is due out at the same time as the film (November, I think) so a rushed release could still result in a sub-standard game, but in an interview in this month’s Edge magazine provided some hope. Rather than follow the film narrative which will show an aged Beowulf recounting the tales from the past 30 years of his life, the game will fill in the gaps between the events Beowulf tells. This promises to give players plenty of opportunty to battle various monsters from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic myth using the many combat moves available while improving standing with Beowulf’s thanes and this his reputation as a strong and generous ruler. The step Ubisoft have taken that differs from many franchise games is rather than creating filler content to pad out the gaps between ‘boss fights’, they have chosen to make the filler material the core content of the game, which will hopefully give it more variety.

A great book for insights into movie-game relations is Kritin Thompsons’ ‘The Frodo Franchise: the Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood’ (which arrived on my doorstep just this morning, thank you Amazon). A very well respected practitioner of film studies, Kristin was allowed unprecedented access to many of the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings films, including marketing, fansites and communities and a whole chapter dedicated to the process by which the computer games were made. This account shows the great difficulty EA had in getting access to props and designs from the film-makers, for example there is a request sheet for the ‘Mouth of Sauron vocals’ which as yet didn’t exist and a request that the in-game Shelob design be altered because it was too similar to the ‘top-secret’ design used in the film, which needed to remain a secret until the film’s release (the computer game of ‘The Return of the King’ was released before the film’s debut). There’s a great quote from Neil Young, executive producer of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ games for EA, concerning the problems they faced – “It was a big deal, because it meant that we essentially had to produce high-quality software on a very compressed schedule. If you think about it what the games are, they’re like an action-reel highlight of film of the actual movies themselves, and I think given more time, the games would have had different dimensionality”. This last point sums it up for me, both ‘The Bourne Comspiracy’ and ‘Beowulf’ are attempting to do something different from the film with their game content. In the former, the game developers are doing something radically different in the latter they are actively adding new content to the Beowulf story (in both the film and the book!). Given that prior to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ games there was little interaction between the film making and game making process and that has now become a norm, maybe the two franchises above will set a new precedent that will vastly improve the quality of games based on franchises.

There is a great three part interview with Kristin Thompson on Henry Jenkins’ blog here, here and here.