Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tolkien, On Film

So, my prediction of a few months back has come true:* the new wave of Tolkien films looks to be not adaptations of his works, like THE SILMARILLION (which I think poorly suited to film adaptation anyway) nor FARMER GILES and FATHER CHRISTMAS (which I think cd make excellent animated films but are probably below the radar for Hollywood blockbuster thinking) but movies about Tolkien himself. The logic's not hard to follow: Tolkien is hot, with five billion-dollar blockbuster in his track record and a sixth to come this fall, but there's no follow-up. Rights to THE SILMARILLION won't be coming. But you can't libel the dead, and you can't copyright a person's life. Which means that a biographical film, or even pseudo-biographical (which is more often the case) can proceed without the co-operation of his family, permission of the Estate, &c.  Of course, doing this without the Estate's approval means they won't be able to quote from any of Tolkien's works, or from any of his letters -- which means, ironically, that the 'Tolkien' of the movie won't be able to quote Tolkien. And I think it highly unlikely they'll get an actor to capture his highly distinctive speech patterns.

For more information, here are two posts by David Bratman, from which I learned about these projects:

And here is a link to the ROLLING STONE article David references . . .

. . . and a related piece in which they propose five actors they'd like to see play JRRT: Cumberbatch (who'd be much better as Lewis, surely), Tennant (sounds a bad idea to me), Jeremy Renner (the only one of the five I'd never heard of), Radcliffe (having seen one of his post-Potter films, I hope not), and McKellan (who's good in everything). Janice pointed out they forgot Freeman.

and also appendige, 'Five Actors Who Could Play Tolkien'  [JC: they forgot Martin Freeman!]

Finally, here's more on the Xian Lewis/Tolkien movie, which from what little we know of both films at this point (which isn't much) to be the more inaccurate of the two, in that it seems to be less interested in Lewis and Tolkien than in the story it wants to use them to tell.**

It'll be interesting to follow these two projects over the next few months and see if they survive the ruthless process of getting a modern film made and, if so, what the final products will look like.

More as thing develop.

--John R.

*cf my posts of January 2013 ( ) and December 2013 ( ).

**There's also more about both movies at Tor.Com:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


So, on Saturday I got to hear part of a segment of THIS AMERICAN LIFE on NPR that dealt with one man's efforts to succeed at DIPLOMACY.

For those of you who don't know it already, DIPLOMACY is one of the most interesting boardgames ever created. Each player takes the role of one of the 'Great Powers' in pre-World War I Europe: England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungery, Russia, or the Ottomans. Each starts with only three (or, in the case of Russia, four) pieces. The goal is to seize your opponent's territories, and force him to lose his pieces. But he'll be trying to do the same to you, resulting in a stalemate -- unless you can outmaneuver him, by tricking him into thinking you're doing one thing when in fact you do something else, forcing him into a disadvantageous position. What makes the game fiendishly complicated is that all seven players are trying to do the same thing at the same time to each other. Which means that the easiest way to defeat a foe of equal strength is to ally with another player and team up against him. But what if he and your supposed partner have secretly teamed up against you? And how to cope if your enemy in turn allies with someone in a position to do you a bit of no good? And so forth. The game is full of promises, threats, betrayals (it's the only game I know of where the players are explicitly given permission to lie: it's in the rulebook), vendettas, and the like. It's endlessly fascinating, like trying to play chess with seven players all sharing the same board but with only three chessmen apiece. And it's uniquely frustrating. Most who play it do so in play-by-mail format (it cuts down on the shouting). Most people have never heard of it, but it's been thriving for decades, having probably hit its peak in the 1960s and into the 70s.*

Here's the link, about a guy who loved DIPLOMACY but was terrible at it because he couldn't read people: cdn't tell who to trust and who was lying to him, didn't understand why some got mad at his moves and countermoves and others took them in stride. So he took the unusual step of bringing in a professional diplomat, the guy who negotiated the Oslo Accords for Clinton,** to sit in with him and give him advice on who to trust. The results can be found here:

--John R.
who's only played DIPLOMACY three times, and while I never came close to winning I only ignominiously lost once.***

 *Though not long back I found lessons on You-tube giving you advice on your opening moves, each different depending on which country you wind up playing, with all the ramifications inherent in each choice.

**which, if I remember rightly, were a disaster that led directly into the ever-worsened situation in Israel/Palestine over the past twenty years.

***so far.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jodorowsky's DUNE

So, from friend Jeff we heard about the documentary about a never-made film, Alejandro Jodorowsky's DUNE (circa 1974).* Given how much we enjoyed LOST IN LA MANCHA [2002], the highly informative and entertaining documentary about Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to film a Johnny Depp movie in Spain (the project collapsed after a day and a half of shooting), it seemed like this would be something worth watching as well.  And it was, though not in the sense that it made me think that the unmade movie it's about would have been worth watching. On the contrary, it's v. evident that DUNE fans dodged a bullet when Jodorowsky's pie-in-the-sky we'll-do-this, we'll-do-that deflated like a house of cards upon first contact with reality. Gilliam at least produced enough footage to make a thirty-second trailer; Alejandro never got further than a storyboard. And the acid-trip** movie he intended reminded me not of anything to do with Frank Herbert's work but instead of John Boorman's abandoned LORD OF THE RINGS script (also from the early/mid-seventies), which similarly would have been a trippy dippy abomination, had it ever gotten filmed.

I must say, though, that while Boorman's film would have grossly misrepresented Tolkien's novel, it's at least recognizable as the same story. I'm not sure the same can be said for what Jodorowsky would have done to Herbert's DUNE. One thing people connected with the project say over and over in the interviews in this documentary is that they'd never read the novel, knew nothing about the original book, and apparently never did bother to look up the story they were supposed to be adapting.  That's probably because 'adaptation' really doesn't begin to describe Jodorowsky's approach, as when he proudly proclaims:

"I change the end of the book . . .
It's different. It was my DUNE.
When you make a picture,
You must not respect the novel.
. . . I was raping Frank Herbert"

So, my conclusion, weird as it may seem, is that the David Lynch version so many fans hated (and which was my own introduction to Herbert's work, since I saw the film before ever reading the novel) was much, much more faithful than what this earlier adaptor wd have produced, had his project not fortunately fallen through.

--John R.

*He's since blogged about it:

**literally: he says in this documentary he wanted viewers of his film to experience all the effects of being high on LSD without actually taking the drug.

First Trailer for the Third HOBBIT movie

So, as of yesterday I got to see the preview for BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES, the third and final film in Peter Jackson's HOBBIT. Here's the link, thanks to Janice:

My first impression is that they wanted to prevent the viewer from being able to tell anything about the plot. What we have here are a series of striking images, in which pretty much all the major characters from the first two films flash past. What's lacking -- and this has to be deliberate -- is any sense of context. For that we'll have to wait.

Still, while we're waiting, we get to see this interesting collection of vivid snippets to puzzle over. So it's all good, for now. But it does make December seem both near and a long way away.


P.S.: While I'm on the subject of films of THE HOBBIT, this weekend I saw a dvd three-pack of the three animated Tolkien films from the seventies: The Rankin-Bass HOBBIT (which was bad), the Bakshi LORD OF THE RINGS (which was awful), and the R-B RETURN OF THE KING (which was even worse than the first two put together, and then some). So it says a lot about how much I like Tolkien that I already have all three. Still, I was tempted to pick this collection up, if only for the fantastically inappropriate extras attached to each disk -- for example, the Rankin-Bass HOBBIT has an old Droopy cartoon attached.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Twenty-two years and counting.
As Janice said in a card, it's no longer 'Grow Old with Me' but now 'Grow Older w. Me'
Sounds like a good plan to me.

Tolkien Letters (WRITING Magazing)

So, a few weeks back I learned (from Janice, who'd seen it on Andrew Higgins' blog*) that the most recent issue of WRITING magazine includes an article that quotes some previously unpublished Tolkien letters. Seeing them on-line was great, but I thought it'd be even better to have them in print (there's only so much enlarging I can do on-screen), so I ordered a copy of the magazine, which has now arrived.

The article in question is called "Tolkien on Writing . . . and Me", by Paula Coston, who I'd not heard of before but who has apparently just written her first novel, ON THE FAR SIDE, THERE'S A BOY. though she seems to be more famous for her 'Otherhood movement', which focuses on childless women (though whether childless by choice or not is not entirely clear from my quick skim of their online material).

Here's the link to her book

And here's to one about her 'Otherhood' movement

She also has a blog, in which she briefly recounts her friendship with Tolkien

As for the article, it's charming to hear how Tolkien dealt with letters from a precocious eleven-year-old would-be author (then Paula Iley), her grandparents being next-door neighbors (or, should I say, neighbours) of the Tolkiens at Sandfield Road. Tolkien seems to have taken her poems very seriously, and his comments on them reveal his overriding concern with metre and word-choice. Tolkien was gifted in his ability to write in demanding metres (such as the Pearl-stanza), in which he was dramatically at odds with the literary movements of his lifetime. To young Paula he uses analogy that writing a particular verse form is like playing a game with demanding rules: the true demonstration of skill is to know the rules and yet still deliver a telling blow (or, in his words, "hit the ball with force"). Or, to put it another way, "all verse-writers (who write in regular metres or patterns) . . . know that their imagination may be stirred by the actual struggle to find a rhyme or a word that will fill the place, and they may end by thinking and saying something better than they first intended".

Sometimes there are more personal revealing bits, as when Tolkien writes "I feel sympathy with [her poems], because you seem to be moved by colour, and by day's ending, twilight, evening".  It's rather sad to hear JRRT's account in a January 1969 letter of leaving Oxford: "I have fled from Oxford not wishing to witness any more of its destruction, and being also obliged to escape, to an unknown destination, from the every-day persecution of the press etc." Lamenting the chaos caused by his move,** he writes "My work is delayed and disturbed".

Also of interest is that he repeats the 'green great dragon' story in much the same way as we've seen it before, but with a somewhat different moral: "It was quite a shock, and I have always remembered it, because it was my first introduction to the fact that English (without which I could have said nothing) was not 'mine', and had its own ways".

All in all, a pleasant little addition to our store of knowledge; it was good of Iley/Coston to share them with us (having refused to share them with Carpenter back when he was writing his biography).

--John R.

current reading: Heinlein's GLORY ROAD (ugh), TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF (resumed, again)


**although he does not go into the distressing details here, apparently he fell down the stairs at Sandfield Road and hurt his leg badly, which meant he was in the hospital when the actual move occurred. Which in turn means that he didn't supervise the actual packing of all his papers; this was done by somebody else. With the result that upon arriving at his new house he had no idea where anything was among all those boxes of manuscript and typescript, and seems to have spent the first year or two at Bournemouth simply sorting things out. I personally think any chance JRRT had of finishing THE SILMARILLION vanished when he fell down those stairs in October 1968, though he himself didn't realize it for another two or three years.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

BoBo Shinn

I know somebody who vanished.
Dropped off the face of the earth. Was never seen or heard from again.

This summer marks thirty-six years since BoBo Shinn vanished. Presumably kidnapped and murdered, probably by a serial killer. Her body has never been found. Police, family, and friends know no more now about what happened to her than they did the day she disappeared.

We actually knew her brother, Jay Shinn, who was about my sister's age, better than BoBo herself. He'd taken art lessons along with my sister (who was better at it than I was) and myself from Margie Chamberlain.* That had eventually petered out, but I pretty much knew how to paint in oils by the time I started college. But I wanted to learn how to handle pastels and also watercolor, and that's how I got to know BoBo herself, whose class I attended once a week as one of maybe a half a dozen or so students. I only remember three pictures I completed, the most successful of which was a watercolor of a landscape beneath a green sun.

I was away from Magnolia that summer, up at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (thanks to a modest scholarship from my church, for which I'll always be grateful to Rev. Hoffius) -- my first time away from home for more than a week at a time, in a city I'd never seen before. I loved it: meeting the person I consider my mentor (Dr. T. C. Duncan Eaves), soaking up the resources in a town that seemed filled with bookstores and a huge university library, making contact with an Inkling for the first time (an exchange of letters with Nevill Coghill). But two bizarre events marked that sumer.

The first was the death of my uncle Aubrey (or Uncle Orb, as we called him) -- at sixty-two about average for a Rateliff (of his four brothers, one died in his mid-thirties, one in his mid-fifties, and the other two in the late sixties/early seventies). I felt bad not being able to go to his funeral (being without a car and at the opposite end of the state), but at least all indications were that he died suddenly and peacefully, apparently of an aneurism;  a cigarette he'd lit but not had time to smoke was still in his hand, all one long uncrumbled row of ash.

The other was BoBo's disappearance, which I heard about it on my weekly phone calls home. Whereas what happened to Uncle Orb was obvious and final, everything was up in the air about BoBo. Who left behind everything but the clothes she was wearing, not even taking her purse, keys, car, or shoes. There are some people who choose to just walk away from it all (like the guy whose two years spent hitchhiking around the country is retold in INTO THE WILD). This was not one of those cases.

And finally, this past Sunday, they held memorial services for BoBo, attended by her surviving family, and put up a grave marker for her in the local cemetery (where my father is buried). After all these years, it's a letting go. But it's still unsettling that no one knows who killed her, and where she's buried. And we probably never will.

Rest in Peace.

--John R.

P.S.: thanks to my sister, mother, and Janice, who all forwarded the news as if appeared on the Magnolia Times website and in the Magnolia Banner News paper. Here are the links.

*from Margie Chamberlain, a local character -- but that's a subject for a different post