Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

So much for that idea

I knew John Boorman was one of the parade of filmmakers who took a run at adapting The Lord of the Rings but I didn’t know the details of the script Boorman wrote. Apparently one of the high points of the Lothlorien sequence was Frodo getting it on with Galadriel:

United Artists (which acquired the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings from Tolkien before his death) originally was going to have John Boorman write and direct a film adaptation, but Boorman’s script confused the heck out of the studio. (Actually, with its Frodo/Galadriel love making scene, his script confuses the heck out of me as well.) And to make matters worse for United Artists, they had agreed to pay John $3 million for this badly written piece of garbage. As they were deciding whether to move forward or not, Ralph Bakshi (a big fan of Tolkien) approached them and asked the studio heads what they thought about having him direct three animated films that were closer to Tolkien’s original books. United Artists said that was fine, but they needed $3 million to cover the cost of throwing away Boorman’s script. At that point, Bakshi approached MGM (which wasn’t hard, because they shared the same building with United Artists) and MGM was so interested, they bought all the rights from United Artists for the $3 million, wiping UA’s books clean and taking on the project themselves with Bakshi as director. Unfortunately for Bakshi, the man who made that decision for MGM (Dan Melnick) was then fired, and the new guy (Dick Shepherd) didn’t want anything to do with Tolkien. That’s when Bakshi contacted Saul Zaentz, whom he had previously worked with, which led to Zaentz acquiring the movie rights from MGM and asking United Artists if they were still interested in doing the project. United Artists was back on board, and Bakshi ended up making the animated film that cost $4 million to produce and grossed $30 million. (Despite making money, neither Zaentz nor United Artists had any interest in a second or third part.)

Well now. I think we can agree that it’s just as well United Artists pulled the plug, even if it did lead to Ralph Bakshi’s inept and incomplete animated version. The daisy chain continued for another couple of decades and at the end waited Peter Jackson, so happy smiles all around.

Something just as ridiculous almost happened to Dune, another bulky classic that defeated a number of directors before making it to the screen. According to Harlan Ellison, the screenplay written by Alejandro Jodorowsky added an incestuous relationship between Paul Atreides and his mother. (That version, needless to say, was never made, but Jodorowsky had hired Swiss artist H.R. Giger for design work, and through him Giger met Ridley Scott, who used him on Alien, so once again happy smiles all around.) There must be a dumb screenwriter’s textbook somewhere that advises spicing up a difficult literary property with a sex scene between the two least likely characters. It’s been done over and over with Beowulf, and each time the screenwriter was convinced he’d concocted something outrageous and original. The saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” goes double for bad ideas.   

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Not-so-middling Earth

This new trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has me thinking Peter Jackson was put on this earth for the express purpose of showing up John Boorman, Stanley Kubrick, and every other big-name director who contemplated taking a crack at The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve watched the trailer several times now with the alternate endings (thoughtfully compiled in the clip above) and it has me remembering the evening, ten-plus years ago, when a friend invited me to a screening of the Lord of the Rings preview reel Jackson had prepared for the Cannes film festival. At the time, I knew Jackson chiefly  as the splatter auteur behind Brain Dead. He’d shown unexpectedly depth and discipline with Heavenly Creatures (and, with his casting of Kate Winslet, an eye for talent) but the followup, The Frighteners, had been more than a bit of a mess. Meanwhile, I’m old enough to have seen Ralph Bakshi’s bungled attempt at an animated version of The Lord of the Rings in the theater, and let’s just say my hopes weren’t very high.

The half-hour preview started on exactly the right note, with a hobbit-sized Peter Jackson sitting in Gandalf’s wagon. The montage of scenes carried through to the Mines of Moria sequence, with everything from the bucket falling falling down the well to the fight with the cave troll and Gandalf turning to face the Balrog. After that came another montage, leading up to Frodo in Mount Doom, turning and announcing that he wasn’t going to destroy the ring after all. As I recall, Frodo’s eyes were like black marbles, so the climax obviously underwent some rethinking.

At any rate, I left the screening eager to see the whole film, and since then I’ve been a complete fool for all three movies. I’m getting some of that same buzz from this Hobbit trailer, and I can hardly wait for December to roll around. This time I’ll be able to go with Eldest Daughter, who got hooked on Middle-earth watching the extended DVD versions.

Meanwhile, I wonder if that Cannes preview reel is posted anywhere online? I’d love to see it again.

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A moment of geekery

Is it too uncool to acknowledge how much I’m looking forward to seeing The Hobbit? So be it. I was never the biggest fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, so I went to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring with no particular expectations and ended up falling hard for the entire series. Funny to think that was a decade ago. What I particularly like about this trailer is the emphasis on character and the details of performance: the way Gandalf says “No” when Bilbo asks if he can guarantee a safe return, or the seriousness that fills the room when Thorin sings. (I’m reminded of that gorgeous scene in The Two Towers when Theoden recites “Where is the horse, where is the rider?” as a wordless chorus fills the soundtrack.) So, yes, I’m dying to see both installments of The Hobbit in the cineplexes, listen to Howard Shore’s soundtrack music, watch the extended editions (can there be any doubt of those?), and finally get a look at Smaug. Jackson has said he wants to outdo Vermithrax Pejorative. It’s high time somebody tried.

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Friday finds


Thanks to Mystery Man on Film, I learned about these mosaics depicting scenes from Alfred Hitchcock movies that line the entrance corridors of the Leytonstone tube station in the east of London. Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, and the mosaics were begun just before the turn of the century to mark the 100th anniversary of Alfie’s birth.

Here’s what happens when POD book covers go drastically wrong.

Face to face with the Nihilistic Kid, recommended to those wonder what Haikasoru is all about.

It’s time to leave Monk Eadwine alone!

Here’s a collection of scholarly essays to put at the top of your J.R.R. Tolkien reading stack. And here’s probably your only chance to see Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast compared with The Silmarillion.

I remember sitting down and thinking that I was about 30 percent too famous. I needed to be able to walk down the street.”

How are writers coping with the recession? Well, there’s the dog-walking poet, the poet who ruthlessly schedules himself to balance poetry and day-work, and the novelist who became a professional sports blogger.

How the collapse of a tax shelter proved a benefit to Leonard Cohen fans. And if you don’t know why that’s a big deal, this here site will get you up to speed.

Another professional slimeball writes a way-too-late confession in order to score a fat payday. There was never any doubt about the political intent of terror alerts, but I guess it’s nice to have it confirmed by one of the players.

Come get your free Melvin Van Peebles download.

Can books make you, or ruin you?

Monty Python’s Life of Brian done as a Handel oratorio? Is the world ready for such a thing?

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Green thoughts

Back when his friend J.R.R. Tolkien was grumping about the way people were reading all kinds of allegorical meanings into The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis offered both sides a way out by drawing the distinction between allegory, which presumes to read an author’s intentions, and applicability, which is what the reader himself brings to his reading of an author’s work.

I wonder what Lewis– or, for that matter, Tolkien — would have had to say about the way the Iranian government is trying to keep people off the streets by broadcasting, among other things, a marathon of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, or the way people are subverting the government’s intentions by reading all kinds of unflattering meanings into the characters and situations.

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That sudden recognition

As I write this, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun has fallen to the second tier of the New York Times bestseller list, having debuted on the tenth rung of the list only the week before. That’s a bit of a comedown, considering that the previous manuscript exhumed from Tolkien’s papers, The Children of Hurin, debuted at the top of the list in May 2007. It’s also a pity, because The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is far and away the more valuable of the two books.

That’s because The Children of Hurin, cobbled together from notes and previously published excerpts, merely showed Tolkien imitating one of the sources of the inspiration that led to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on the other hand, shows the old philologist grappling directly with one of those sources, on its own terms, and if read in that spirit it could start other readers on the same scholarly quest that animated Tolkien’s life and work. 

The sources of Tolkien’s inspiration are well known: echoes from the Elder Edda, Old English verse (notably Beowulf), and the Icelandic sagas run through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For me, the biggest selling point for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was the chance to read one of the old don’s own lectures on the Elder Edda, and get a glimpse of the scholarly passion that drove him:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power: moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with Old Norse is over and one first reads an Eddaic poem getting enough of the sense to go on with. Few who have been through this process can have missed the sudden recognition that they had unawares met something of tremendous force, something that in parts (for it has various parts) is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the truin of its form. The feeling of this impact is one of the greatest gifts that reading of the Elder Edda gives. If not felt early in the the process it is unlikely to be captured by years of scholarly thraldom; once felt it can never be buried by mountains or molehills of research, and sustains long and weary labour.

This is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments (Beowulf especially) — such at any rate has been my experience — only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over. There is truth in this generalization. It must not be pressed. Detailed study will enhance one’s feeling for the Elder Edda, of course. Old English verse has an attraction in places that is immediate. But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet.

I experienced my own faint echo of that “sudden recognition” years ago when I had to translate a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion,” for a Spanish class. After weeks and months of See-Diego-Run grammar exercises, to have a genuinely great story come into focus under my pen was a rare thrill — something akin to having a statue I’d walked past for weeks suddenly turn its head and call out to me.

I envy anyone who has that experience on a regular basis, though I don’t envy anyone the amount of labor it takes to get there.

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The anxiety of influence

J.R.R. Tolkien was seldom more amusing, and less convincing, than when he grumpily dismissed any attempts to draw parallels between The Lord of the Rings and Richard Wagner’s  The Ring of the Nibelung. The posthumous publication of Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun — soon to take its place alongside The Children of Hurin and just behind The Silmarillion on the “Often Purchased, Seldom Finished” shelf of the Tolkien library — has resurrected the Wagner Question, and Jeff Sypeck deals with it head-on in this interesting post.

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Friday finds


Photographer Thomas Allen creates dioramas using cover art from pulp novels of the Forties and Fifties. If they get your blood pumping, take note that the Oregon Literary Review is canvassing for pulp-style stories of up to 10,000 words in length.

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Philip Roth’s first book.

Read all about England’s new poet laureate.

Trying to decide if you want to buy that new J.R.R. Tolkien book? Let Tom Shippey, author of The Road to Middle-earth, walk you through it. The big question, as Shippey explains, is how Tolkien addressed the Konigsproblem of Germanic philology. And while we’re on the subject of texts that inspired Tolkien’s work, Open Letters Monthly has a really interesting piece on the Kalevala, the great Finnish national epic.

New Orleans found itself on its ass some years ago, and the rest of the country stared at it as it it was a unique case. In some sense, Katrina is an outwire of what the rest of the country was going to experience.”

Eight things you didn’t know about the Internet.

Another wingnut attempt to smear I.F. Stone as a Soviet spy, another corrective smackdown from Eric Alterman.

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft is up.

A few years ago it was decided that we would redesign the Nabokov backlist and use the 50th anniversary of Lolita for the kick off . . . I came up with one of my favorite covers of all time. A very simple variation on a standard Lolita theme yet with a very subversive twist. I was surprised how well it went over, but after a day or so everyone started to get a little queasy looking at it (myself included). So the twist was taken out and we have what the New York Post said was the ‘raciest cover yet’ for Lolita. If they only knew.”

This is just too freaky. I mean, whistling spiders? I ask you.

The plots of the first 10 Star Trek movies compressed into haiku form. And why not? And as long as we’re geeking it up, here’s a linguistic history of the Klingon language.

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Friday finds


Dissection is a new book showcasing the macabre photos medical students once made with their cadavers This review (which includes a slide show of some of the more striking and gruesome pictures) ponders the implications of how students felt free to make sport with what were mainly the bodies of the poor and the black. 

Craig Arnold, an American poet and academic living in Japan on a creative exchange fellowship, disappeared last month after setting off to hike up the slope of a volcano. Friends and supporters need help pressuring the local authorities to keep searching for him. 

Bathsheba Monk, an Approved Author for 2008, is in the home stretch on her novel-in-progress.  Naturally she’s thinking about other books she could have written a lot faster.

Winnie the Pooh and Swine Flu too! And Pogo offers some insights into party-switching and the workings of democracy.

Any work which can move me to disgust and psychic pain is worth high praise.” Amen, brother!

intellectuals1“Scialabba tries to get a handle on just what intellectuals do for civilization, by delving into the work of Great and allegedly Great Minds. In that latter category, critic Edward Said comes in for especially droll and scornful attack because of what Scialabba sees as the damaging legacy of his writing: that is, inspiring this current generation of academics into deluding themselves that they’re carrying out political work by teaching, say, post-colonialist critiques of Paradise Lost. If intellectual work matters, Scialabba implies, it has to matter in ways that run deeper than delusionary self-puffery.”

From Athenodorus to Zero the Ghost Detective, from Buffy Summers to Dagon Smythe, from Doc Savage to Dr. Silence — they’re the Ghostbreakers of page, screen and TV. But wait, you say — what about Fero, Planet Detective?

What your favorite Grateful Dead song says about you. Amusing article, but “Ripple” isn’t on the list so I must continue to stumble through life without the hard-earned wisdom and piercing insights of Slate writers to guide me. As for the songs that are on the list, I can’t hear “Dark Star” without nodding off, “Cosmic Charlie” without covering my ears, or “Truckin'” without going on a cross-country spree of random violence against hackysack players. But that’s just me.

Some West Dorset residents want to reopen the Three Cups Hotel, a pub reputedly once favored by J.R.R. Tolkien as he toiled on the manuscripts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, Tolkien tourists in the Oxford area can take a trip to The Eagle and Child, the pub that hosted meetings of The Inklings, the writers group that boasted Tolkien and C.S. Lewis among its members.

I said: ‘You’ve chosen to build a story around these characters who don’t speak. The only sound they make is like fat people having an orgasm,’” the 250-plus-pound [Bruce] Vilanch recalls. “In fact, I told [George] Lucas he could just leave a tape recorder in my bedroom and I’d be happy to do all the looping and Foley work for him.”

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I still think that for most readers J.R.R. Tolkien’s retelling of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is going to take its place alongside The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin on the shelf marked “Frequently Purchased, Seldom Finished.” But word that there’s going to be an audiobook edition read by Brian Cox has definitely elevated my interest.

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