Tag Archives: Peter Jackson

Writers: Play Some D&D

It’s been pretty well established by this point in my life that I am a nerd of many sorts. Theatre, sci-fi, fantasy, board games, video games, math, logic, philosophy, mythology, religion… there’s a lot of nerdy in me. So it shouldn’t come even remotely as a surprise that I have played a LOT of Dungeons & Dragons in my day.

My first introduction to the game, though it was ultimately not an accurate representation at all, was back in the summer after my 7th grade year when I was 12 years old. It was, I believe, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition… I don’t remember much of it at all, but again. Not very accurate. Still, somewhere in my room right now is the first character sheet I ever had.

Since then, I’ve played 3e, 3.5e, 4e and am currently in a group playing the D&D Next edition. I’ve been the Dungeon Master for two different (ultimately falling apart) 3.5 campaigns. I’ve played Pathfinder, Iron Kingdoms and even a d20 system a friend of mine created. I’ve done some role-playing online and have oodles and oodles of ridiculous stories to tell about the various campaigns.

Most people find the game to be instantly associated with the nerdiest of the nerdy. I suppose that’s a little fair… while high fantasy and the like have been becoming more and more acceptable over the years (just look at the successes of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” books, as well as HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), it’s more acceptable to observe fantasy, not attempt to live it out. D&D and other role-playing tabletop games are predicated on the notion that one designs a character with a story and interjects themselves, via that character, into a fantasy world. Granted, not every tabletop RPG is set in fantasy, but that’s where D&D began.

Even so, despite it being “super nerdy,” it has seeped into our culture just a bit. You have the people that seem to think D&D is something where people learn witchcraft and are members of the occult… As well as the people that know how laughable that is and like to point out how sessions of D&D usually go. Season 2 of the absolutely wonderful TV show “Community” has a fantastic, hilarious and kinda accurate episode titled “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” that is well worth the watch (you need Hulu Plus for that link, sadly).

The point is, though, whether you think it’s crazy nerdy and has some ridiculous stigma on it or not, if you’re a writer… I think you would do well to play this game.

I realized the other day, when writing the background for my character in the current campaign I’m playing, I’ve written more detailed character story and background for some of my D&D characters than I have for some of my characters in my stories and scripts. That’s not to say that I don’t have good backgrounds for the non-D&D characters… I just don’t tend to write them out and consider all the aspects of their previous lives. However, in D&D, I tend to tell very detailed stories about their pasts and how they came to where they are now.

It’s a really good writing exercise, especially when you limit yourself. As someone that tends to prefer the classics of poetry and art, where the product must conform to a certain style or limitation, I feel that talent, skill, creativity and thought are more thoroughly applied and utilized than in styles where slapping anything together counts. Anyone can buy three blank canvases and call it art or take random paragraphs from random books, tape them together on a page and call it poetry. But how many people can write something truly heartbreaking and moving with only 140 syllables in 14 lines of iambic pentameter and a rhyming scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG? I refer of course to the sonnet, of which some guy named Shakespeare wrote several.

It’s not easy to make something conform to limitations. But it is certainly an exercise worth trying, especially if you find your characters lack depth. Here’s my suggestion, as these are the ways I’ve found the most character work: Find some people to play D&D with. Find other writers or friends that know what they’re doing. You can do a preset campaign or let yourself/another writer write a story/world for you all to play in. But when you’re making your character, give yourself restrictions. In most versions of D&D, you can give your character flaws, which detriment your character but allow for extra benefits to balance it out. A lot of people will do this to make ridiculously powerful characters, but don’t focus on the game play so much as the character. People are flawed. How does that affect your character? Alternatively, ask your DM if you can bend certain rules, so long as you get a good story out of it.

For example, the current campaign I’m playing is in D&D Next, which is still basically in beta, so there’s a lot missing. My favorite class, the cleric, only has three domains to choose from at the moment… and none of the gods of Faerun in the domain I want to use have the right alignment for my character. I could have just changed my character’s alignment, but I decided to write a story behind it. Why would someone that disagrees with a certain deity’s way of life be a priest for that deity? And so, my story was written.

You don’t necessarily have to play D&D or any tabletop RPG to pull off this exercise. But I think D&D is a good template with a lot of creative options you may not consider… and playing the game will let you see how honest you can be to your character and keeping him or her consistent in certain situations. Plus… D&D with the right people can be LOADS of fun. 🙂 Give it a try some day.

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Big Screen Ballyhoo – “Les Miserables”

“Les Miserables” is one of history’s most popular musicals. Created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg in 1980, based off of Victor Hugo’s massive and insanely popular book of the same name, “Les Mis” is the longest running musical in London’s West End and the third longest running musical on Broadway, beaten only by “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

(Fun trivia: “Les Miserables” is also the source of the shortest recorded correspondence in history, too. When “Les Miserables” was published, Hugo was on vacation. Curious about the sales of the book on the first day, he sent his publisher a telegram – “?” His publisher telegraphed back – “!”)

The book has been written into a movie or TV mini-series eight times before, including the 1998 film starring Geoffrey Rush as Javert, Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean and Uma Thurman as Fantine… a movie that should have been really good but instead ended up being a pile of mess. However, this 2012 attempt is the first time anyone has ever attempted to bring the stage musical onto film, a massively daunting task.

And one that I think was quite successful, and perhaps one of the best attempts that could have ever been made.

“Les Miserables” is my favorite musical. Period. So, going into the movie, I was both excited and scared for what might happen. I prepared myself to possibly hate it and be super critical. And while director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) ended up making some choices I think were flawed, I ended up enjoying myself and being sucked into the musical as I am every time.

Now, fair warning: One big reason “Les Miserables” is so daunting a task to make a musical film out of is because it is THE musical. Every single word in the original production was written to a note. It is, by many definitions, an opera in that sense. It’s a two to three hour beast of constant singing. If you don’t enjoy musicals, you will almost definitely hate this movie. But if you like good singing, quality acting and a fabulous story, then step right up.

“Les Mis” follows the journey of a man, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has spent the last 19 years in chain gangs for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister and her child. After those 19 years, he is let out on parole… but no one wants to hire an ex-convict. He ends up attempting to steal the silver from a kind bishop. When he’s caught, the bishop lies and says Valjean’s story of being given the silver as a gift is true, then tells Valjean he must turn from his ways and use the silver to become a man of God. This prompts Valjean to tear up his parole papers and begin a life anew.

But his life anew has an old adversary to make things difficult. Javert (Russell Crowe), a policeman from Valjean’s time in prison, is constantly on the lookout for him. When circumstances cause Javert to be posted to the city where Valjean, masquerading as mayor and factory owner Monsieur Madeleine, Javert feels he recognizes Valjean, an impossibility because authorities have already caught him. Valjean finds himself in a moral quandary, fighting between letting an innocent man go to jail in his place or confessing his sins.

Meanwhile, a worker in his factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has been fired by a cruel, horny foreman. Fantine, desperate to get the money needed to keep her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) alive, ends up selling her hair, some of her teeth, and eventually her sex. She becomes very ill before Valjean finds her, learns of her plight and takes her to a hospital. When Valjean eventually decides to confess his true identity, he once again goes on the run, promising the dying Fantine to care for Cosette. Valjean buys her off of the sleazy, ridiculous innkeepers Madame and Monsieur Thenardier (Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen) and they escape to make a new life.

That new life, many years later, bleeds into one of the many French Revolutions, this time instigated by several students led by Enjolras (Aaron Tevit). After an altercation in the streets which catches the attention of the student Marius (Eddie Redmayne), giving him a glimpse of the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), he becomes infatuated with her and asks his friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help him woo her.

It’s a thick, very busy story with many characters and many inter-crossing desires from each. A musical that could easily have lost track of these people, “Les Miserables” pulls off the difficult job of making each player memorable. The film achieves this both through the music and through some rather excellent camera work and direction, as well as some fantastic acting.

Hooper seems to have revisited the original novel quite heavily when crafting this film, focusing less on the grand, operatic style of the musical and digging deep into the characters and emotions that they carry with them. Filming the movie with live singing, allowing for more raw emotions to be tapped than a lip-synched recording would, helped Hooper to create an intimacy with the characters that can sometimes be lost when watching the musical in a seat far away from the stage.

Is the movie perfect? Definitely not. Seyfried’s constant vibrato was a bit annoying (though not nearly as noticeable/irksome as I was afraid it might be) and Crowe could have, perhaps, been a stronger singer. There were changes made to lines in the music, choices made in what songs and parts of songs were cut, that I found odd, and choices that I felt lost some of the intimacy that could have been had. My biggest disappointment was that Grantaire (George Blagden), easily my favorite supporting character, saw his solo cut from “Drink With Me,” losing some of his character growth… but Hooper did make several choices I would never have considered, choices that would never have been seen on stage, choices that brought powerful emotion to the screen.

“Les Mis” purists might not like it. People that dislike musicals will almost certainly dislike it. But this is the type of interpretation, creating both a feel of the epic vastness of the story and its setting and the intimacy and empathy it should create, that I feel Peter Jackson’s first “Hobbit” movie should have had. Despite having massive source material, the movie never feels like it’s dragging on or has too much. Really, I wanted more. The acting was amazing and the singing was excellent, though admittedly better from some than others. This film will almost definitely win at least one Oscar (Hathaway for Best Supporting Actress). And it well deserves it.

The movie brings a realism and raw emotion, as well as a vast beauty and intense imagery, to a story that could have easily become too bogged down or too much like a filming of the stage version.

If you enjoy musicals at all, I think you should definitely give this film a chance. There’s a possibility that you will feel its flaws are simply too numerous to overcome, but I think this has some of the best performances and movie moments of the year, and that’s worth it all by itself.

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Sing, Sang, Sung – “Gandalf’s Reflection” From “The Hobbit”

In my recent review of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” subtitled “An Unexpected Journey,” I mentioned growing up with the Rankin Bass cartoon Hobbit movie. I also mentioned the fact that Jackson’s movie seemed too long and unable to find the happy medium between dramatic and light.

The one part of the movie that I thought came closest to finding that line was during the time the dwarves spent at Bag End, Bilbo’s house. And I definitely enjoyed the Misty Mountains Song, or whatever the official title may find itself to be.

However, the 1977 movie remains far superior in my mind, though I was a bit upset to find they had cut Beorn and the Arkenstone from the film. Still, a fantastic movie. And one of the reasons it was so great was its music. Whereas Jackson managed to drag things out through the entire movie, the cartoon managed to include music and brevity. The best example of this is the song “Gandalf’s Reflection.” In the song, the dwarves sing about the things “Bilbo Baggins hates,” then transition to the summary of their quest to Erebor and the history of their kingdom and its downfall, laid out by Gandalf (in the song) and Thorin (in the movie over the song). Had Jackson done something similar, the movie would’ve been 15 to 30 minutes shorter. And the audience would’ve seen Bilbo being told the history.

Anyway, since I linked Jackson’s version of the same song, essentially, I thought I should let you all listen to the “original” version, since there are likely many who have never seen the movie. Also, it’s good, in my ever so humble opinion.

“Gandalf’s Reflection” – “The Hobbit” (1977)

Chip the glasses, crack the plates
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates
So carefully, carefully with the plates

Blunt the knives and bend the forks
Smash the bottles, burn the corks
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates
So carefully, carefully with the plates

Far o’er the Misty Mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold

Gandalf (spoken):
The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep where dark things sleep
In hollow halls beneath the fells

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by man or elves

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword

On silver necklaces, they strung
The flowering stars; on crowns they hung
The dragon fire; in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun

The pines were roaring on the height
The winds were moaning in the night
The fire was red, it flaming spread
The trees like torches blazed with light

The bells were ringing in the Dale
The men looked up with faces pale
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail

The mountain smoked beneath the moon
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom
They fled their hall to, dying, fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon

We must away ere break of day
To win our hearts and gold from him

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Big Screen Ballyhoo – “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way:

I didn’t like this movie all that much. I am one of two people I know that thinks the same. Overwhelming popular opinion is that the movie was fantastic. My personal opinion was that it was simply okay.

Now, if the “Lord of the Rings” fans could just put away their pointy objects, I’ll try to explain why.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is the first of three films by Peter Jackson attempting to cover the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” as well as set up the trilogy as a prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Originally, it was planned to be two films, so the trailer has several scenes that are likely to be in the next movie. Or the super extended mega-special 500 hour DVD Blu-Ray version. Whichever.

Anyway, the movie starts with the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) beginning to write the book of his adventures for Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). The prologue setting up the back story of “The Hobbit” begins, with Bilbo telling the tale of the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor and its desolation by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, though not really heard in this movie). The movie then sets up these events as occurring on the day of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday, the event at the beginning of “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” With that intro set up, we’re taken back into the past, with young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) smoking a pipe while Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) attempts to solicit Bilbo’s presence on an adventure.

Gandalf basically tricks Bilbo, utilizing his hospitality, into becoming host for 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who are looking for a 14th member, a burglar in particular, to join them in their quest to retake Erebor from Smaug. After some hemming, hawing and singing, Bilbo eventually runs after them the next morning and begins the adventure.

For those that read “The Hobbit,” the movie goes all the way to the escape of the company from their entrapment in the trees, just before entering Mirkwood Forest. The company journeys from Hobbiton to Rivendell, meeting less than fully intelligent trolls and violent orcs on the way, then through the Misty Mountains, where they get trapped in Goblin Town and Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finds a special ring that will look quite familiar to anyone that watched “Lord of the Rings.”

Jackson has also added several plot elements to the movie that exist outside the original book. During the events of “The Hobbit,” Gandalf often disappeared. In “The Silmarillion” and other Tolkien literature, we learn why, and a lot of that is set up in this movie. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) has discovered an encroaching evil, a powerful necromancer, in the forest of Mirkwood. Gandalf’s extraneous adventures deal with that specific plot, though it will almost certainly feature more heavily during the company’s journey through Mirkwood and to The Lonely Mountain.

I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, though not in the 48 frames per second format that many are heavily criticizing. The experience lasted about 3 and a quarter hours (the movie itself lasting about 2 hours and 50 minutes) and had lots of goodies for the nerds (my favorite example being a shared line between Gandalf and Thorin when transitioning from the escape from Goblin Town to being trapped in the fir trees: “Out of the frying pan…” “…and into the fire,” which are names of the chapters in the book), but I honestly just didn’t like it that much.

Now, some of the extraneous stuff was nice, I thought. For example, the story behind Thorin’s name, Oakenshield, was included. I really enjoyed that. But, honestly. This was going to be two movies. It’s now three. You do not need to have it nearly 3 hours long. The movie felt overly stretched out, like there was a ton of filler bogging it down. Also, the tone of the movie felt really awkward.

“The Hobbit” was originally written as a children’s book. Admittedly, it’s a pretty heavy children’s book that deals with some heavy, dramatic stuff, but on the whole it’s got a bit of a light-hearted nature to it, particularly in the beginning. It has its harrowing adventure and stuff, but it’s told in a lighter way, so to speak. It has a bunch of songs, too, which Jackson did include in the first movie (the best easily being the Misty Mountains Song that featured in the trailer). The movie’s tone seemed almost bipolar, though, unable to find a good middle ground between intensely dramatic massive adrenaline pumping adventure and glory and lighthearted humor, which is a bit disappointing because I thought that line was actually pretty easily walked during “Lord of the Rings.” But, honestly, it felt almost like an episode of “Dragon Ball Z” at times with all the fighting happening over and over and over again, fights that lasted so very long. In actuality, upon hindsight, there may have only been about four fights, but they took up so much time and attention that they seemed almost like the majority of the film. If you include harrowing escapes, that drama is the majority of the movie. Or so it felt like. It weighs heavily and steals attention, and is sometimes unnecessary. The length of the battle in Goblin Town, as well as the (I’m almost certain entirely invented for the movie) scene on the Misty Mountains where the company finds themselves precariously perched were particular offenders. The slow “Noooooo” must have been used five or six times in the movie, continuing to remind everyone that it’s a super serious deal, except when it’s being silly and light.

But the thing that irked me most about this movie was the music. It has a beautiful score, don’t get me wrong. And as I said, the Misty Mountains Song was fantastic. But the music is almost non-stop. It keeps playing on and on and on, constantly trying to remind the audience “You should be feeling sad right now!” Most movies do this, but the score seemed to drown out several moments that should have been focused on the acting in the scene. The movie’s finale is the best example I can think of, the one that really just sent me over the edge of being annoyed.

Now, to be fair, I grew up with the Rankin/Bass cartoon film “The Hobbit,” and I think that it is perhaps the most perfect Hobbit film that could be made. I think it’s fantastic. But I think that people that liked “Lord of the Rings” an intense amount will really enjoy this movie… and it’s not necessarily a bad movie. It’s fine. It’s just overly long (I started drifting off during the Riddles in the Dark scene), overly cluttered, “tone deaf” so to speak, too intense with the music and completely lacking an intimacy that the original story had. And, for book purists, it has some pretty awkward inaccuracies, I think. Or, well, things that I kept noticing weren’t quite right, often because of the extra bits he added in, that annoyed me. Like when the dwarves fight with Bert, William and Tom.

Ultimately, you’ll probably enjoy it if a) you haven’t read the book and/or b) you really liked “Lord of the Rings.” I just think it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe the next two will be better.

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