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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A Not Entirely Unexpected Review

I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night. It was time.

It’s no secret that I am a Tolkien fan. It’s probably the second thing people learn about me. Maybe the third. For some reason, everyone expected me to run out and see it on opening day. That’s silly. Why is that silly? Well, that’s probably the 43rd thing people learn about me, if they get that far.

At any rate, I am ready to submit my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In traditional Wright Style, it is a short novel. Enjoy!

The film is visually beautiful; gorgeous, in fact. I only saw it in normal, Luddite-vision (2D, normal frame rate, whatever that is), and I was nearly moved to tears by the fair, green country of the Shire and its environs. Rivendell and The Misty Mountains were no less inspirational. On the whole, it was breathtaking.

The creatures look different in The Hobbit. That should also be expected, for a couple reasons. First, The Hobbit is not LOTR. The Orcs faced in The Hobbit are not Orcs. They are Goblins. Yes, there’s a difference. Now, Goblins are faerie creatures in myth and lore. In my mind, that means one thing: Guillermo Del Toro. I have never seen any sort of faerie creatures on film that come closer to my own vision of the Fey Folk than the works of GDT. Although his designs were reworked almost completely, enough of his design style shows through to make the Goblins of the Hobbit distinctly different from the Orcs of LOTR.

Orcs and Goblins, in Middle Earth, are the same species. Thank you, purists. However, I would propose that they are separate breeds of the same species, much like a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both Canis Lupis Familiaris, but no one would argue that the two are distinct from each other. Chew on that, purists! And also suck it, because I will go one step further and propose the radical theory that other species among mammals are also extant in various breeds, including Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Are your minds blown?

On that note…
The Dwarves in Middle Earth are NOT a breed of Humans. They are an entirely different thing. They weren’t even created by The Creator (whom the Elves call Eru Iluvatar, The One). They were created in a forge by Aule The Maker, and he made them strong, to endure.

The intro sequence of The Hobbit portrays the Dwarves as I always wanted them to be portrayed. They are majestic and glorious, and Erebor is absolutely magnificent! If you have ever taken joy at making, assembling or repairing anything, ever, then you may get a bit misty when seeing the splendor and majesty of the Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor for the first time.

In the book of The Hobbit, I was not at all impressed with the Dwarves. They were whiny, incompetent, prideful a-holes and comic relief caricatures that constantly needed Bilbo to bail them out of mortal danger every other chapter or so. Ridiculous!

Thankfully, they were a bit rewritten, and if any are less-than-badass, it is because they are actually civilians, except for a few. Each is very distinct from the others, and even have their own easily distinguishable personalities. That is something I couldn’t say about the Dwarves in the book. With the exceptions of Thorin and Bombur, I couldn’t have told you anything specific about any of them. In this film, each is recognizable, and a few stand out very clearly. I like that.

Also, a few are badasses. Dwalin, Thorin and even Balin and Kili are actually quite deadly. The others, well I’m sure they’ll get a chance to show their worth in the next two movies.  I’m not worried. In my opinion, the nerdiest, whiniest and most passive Dwarf in Middle Earth still has a badass inside of him somewhere, and can easily whip the asses of an entire cubicle farm full of “average” Humans, using only a wooden ale mug or beer stein or maybe a staple remover. Dwarves were from the beginning made strong, to endure. And you can see that in this film.

The film definitely had some of the spirit of the LOTR trilogy. That is to be expected, as The Hobbit was always advertised as its prequel. So quit whining, purists. No movie is ever the same as the book. Deal with it already. That said it also had a certain whimsical quality that felt more like a fairy tale or a children’s story. Of course, The Hobbit is in fact a children’s story, so that too is expected. So you other purists quit whining too. It would be very easy to mess up such a compromise. Like a futon, such a project could end up trying to fulfill two functions and end up doing neither well. In the end, I felt it was done very well. I felt both wonder and foreboding. Thank you, cast and crew.

The Hobbit was never conceived as part of the Lord of the Rings. It was a story that Professor Tolkien used to tell his kids, and decided at some point to go ahead and put it all down on paper, since it was such a beloved tale. It was never intended to be a prequel to anything. There was no LOTR yet. Heck, The Hobbit wasn’t even in Middle Earth at that time! Years later, his publishers wouldn’t shut up about a sequel for The Hobbit. Prof Tolkien eventually acquiesced and began work on something that would eventually become the Lord of the Rings, after plugging it into the vast setting he had been creating for decades. Now he had a problem. The Hobbit was already written and beloved by legions of purists. The Lord of the Rings followed from The Hobbit, but it was firmly embedded in the creative fabric of Middle Earth. What to do?

The answer: Retcon! (google it if you don’t know) The LOTR has lengthy appendices, and in them, he reconciles the two in a way that only a true master of fiction can. What does this have to do with my review of the film?

This is why The Hobbit will be three films, my dear enraged cynics and purists, not as a ploy to squeeze more of your easily-earned money from your bitter fists. Adding to the movie all of the retconned information from the LOTR appendices and other sources, and then reconciling that with an entirely different medium as well as the huge LOTR trilogy of films means that there must be three movies. Would you rather have a chopped up atrocity that no longer resembles its source, like Battlefield Earth? I don’t think you do. I know I don’t.

They did a fine job, and I happen to like knowing all the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that Bilbo knew nothing about. I like having it all in one place, too.
I was a bit disappointed with the film’s treatment of Gollum, although I do not blame the filmmakers for it. After their phenomenal work in LOTR, they could only do Gollum the way they did. I understand that. So, if you liked Gollum in LOTR, and you think he should’ve been like that sixty years earlier, when The Hobbit takes place, then you will like him in this film. I believe that Gollum would have been a bit different in The Hobbit. He was more dangerous back then. He was more monstrous.

Think about it: By this time, he will have been living in those caves for decades, possibly centuries. What would happen to a person’s mind in that situation? Tom Hanks was talking to a soccer ball in less than five years. Gollum was just as isolated, in complete darkness, and living on cave fish, mushrooms and Goblin flesh for much, much, MUCH longer than that.

Now let’s think about that, too. The dude would turn himself invisible, kill a hapless Goblin with a rock (hardcore), and eat them. Raw. Top that, Bear Grylls! He would do this whenever he could. He was so isolated that he rarely even saw a Goblin, but when one did end up in his little territory, he was overjoyed at the prospect.  Apparently raw Goblin is tasty after you’ve been eating only fish and mushrooms for a couple months or years.

Okay. I have met men who have killed people. They carry a burden. No matter why they killed (usually in the line of duty, whether as a law enforcement agent or a soldier), they carry it, and it doesn’t always rest easy in their hearts, even if it was “justified”. I have also met men who have killed a lot of people. Special Forces badasses, snipers and other highly trained agents have done things that most of us cannot comprehend, and that includes a lot of killing. They carry a burden, too, and they (probably) didn’t eat their victims raw afterward.

Imagine if you can, what sort of person is able to do that and enjoy it. Imagine someone so enslaved to their obsession so thoroughly and for so long, and so inured to killing and eating people that it is no longer a burden. It’s a treat!

Yes, he’s the size of a twelve year old. To me, that makes him no less dangerous and pants-poopingly frightening. This dude snuck into Mordor by himself. He snuck through Lothlorien! That place is populated by the oldest and wisest Elves in Middle Earth, who guard their borders unceasingly, day and night with bows and magic. They were like, “Uh, we saw something following you guys, but we couldn’t catch it. Not sure what it was.” Excuse me?! The Wood Elves of Greenwood caught him for a while, but he escaped. Yeah.

I digress, but I hope you see why I was hoping for a scarier, more dangerous and chilling Gollum in The Hobbit. He’s basically the stuff of horror movies. In this film he was even more human than when we meet him in LOTR. The dialogue between Smeagol and Gollum is obvious. He is comfortable killing people, and more aggressive than I remember him in LOTR, but I rather expected Smeagol to have been a long forgotten dream at this point. It had been centuries, after all. He had his Precious. Why would Gollum need Smeagol for anything? He would’ve suppressed that whiny little weakling long, long ago. I know why the filmmakers did it. I just wanted the nastier Gollum.

What can we learn from The Hobbit that will enrich our gaming life?
                DRAGONS SHOULD BE EPIC
You don’t actually see Smaug in The Hobbit. You glimpse his tail and his great paws and one eye. You definitely get a good look at his handiwork, but you don’t see the Dragon. Not yet. This is a storytelling and movie making technique. I get it. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Smaug is Epic. He is not something that a decent team of skilled friends can defeat if they try really hard, like the cave troll in Fellowship of the Ring. He is not even a fearsome but manageable monster who can be driven off if you’re lucky enough and have the right tools, like Shelob in The Return of the King.

Smaug is more than that. He is described as “a calamity”. WTF? That’s what I’m talking about! When he came to Erebor, it was at the height of its glory, and all the greatest and mightiest Dwarves of the greatest and mightiest Dwarven kingdom in Middle Earth could do nothing against him. He walked in and made himself at home. He’s been there ever since. The land surrounding his lair is blasted and infertile for miles and miles. It’s called “The Desolation of Smaug”. No one messes with him. No army, no King. Not any one; not  ever. People are scared to death to even draw his attention.

This is how I prefer Dragons to be portrayed, in film, in literature and in my games. A Dragon is more than a monster to be slain and added to the tally. It is a force of nature, and it is to be feared, no matter who you are. Some games do this well. Earthdawn comes to mind first and foremost. Warhammer does a fair job.

I look forward to seeing Smaug in his full splendor. All the while, I am also remembering certain other Dragons from Middle Earth’s ancient history: Glaurung The Golden, Father of All Dragons, who was slain by Turin Turambar. He was impressive, and was a complete d-bag. He got what he deserved. But let us not forget the greatest Dragon in the history of Middle Earth, Ancalagon The Black, who was slain by an arrow from Earendil the Mariner in the War of Wrath. When he fell from the sky, he toppled the two tallest peaks in the world. Think about that. Imagine Everest and K2 standing next to each other and then a Dragon, so huge and black and apocalyptic, smashes into them with such power and fury and ruin that they are both broken and toppled into rubble. I don’t care who you are, it doesn’t get more Epic than that!

That’s a lofty goal, but at least take some inspiration from Smaug and make your Dragons worth slaying, GMs!
An RPG is a group effort. It is an ensemble cast. GMs and players alike would do well to remember that your games will not be like The Hobbit. The Hobbit has a large supporting cast, to be sure, but it is still the tale of one hero: Bilbo Baggins.

In my experience, ensembles are best handled over a series of episodic sessions, not unlike a television series, so that there is enough time for all the characters to accomplish their personal goals and experience some kind of change. The only good stagnant character is an NPC.
                HERO’S JOURNEY
The Hobbit is Bilbo’s Journey. In the beginning, Gandalf spells it out for the reluctant Hobbit. When asked whether he can guarantee Bilbo’s safe return, Gandalf says straight up, “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”

A good character is changed by their experiences. This often takes the form of a Hero’s Journey.  This is a big deal, and I won’t get into its specifics here, but it is a powerful storytelling tradition that has stood the test of time across all cultures that ever existed on this old Earth. It is nearly impossible to accomplish in the context of an RPG in its full form, because RPGs are a group effort and a Hero’s Journey is a solo endeavor. Nevertheless, GMs would do well to make themselves familiar with the structure, strengths and weaknesses of the Hero’s Journey as a storytelling tool, if they seek to create a powerful, emotionally rewarding experience for a special player.
Middle Earth is arguably the most fully developed fictional setting ever put on paper. The author worked on it his entire adult life. It was his life’s work. Add to that his supreme erudition and profound level of skill in his craft, and you have a setting whose depth, breadth and richness may not ever be surpassed. Remember that Prof Tolkien considered Middle Earth to be an unfinished project when he died at the age of 81, after working on it in one form or another nearly constantly for over sixty years. Recognize!

GMs seeking to run games set in Middle Earth have a lot of material to work with. That’s the good news. The bad news is that GMs have a LOT of material to work with, and legions of purists waiting to point an accusing finger at any divergence from The Scripture. I don’t run games set in Middle Earth. It’s too intimidating. Yes, I said it. I am intimidated by something.


I liked the movie a lot, despite theater distractions and the nagging knowledge that I was seeing it in “sub-standard” Luddite-vision instead of whatever new hotness is the thing this year. I will see this movie again, and not because I am some mindless fan of some aspect of it. It is fun, beautiful and enjoyable. I will also see the next two. I doubt I’ll feel ripped off, scammed, hoodwinked or bamboozled, either. I know what to expect, and I don’t let it interfere with my enjoyment of things.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why am I a Superman fan?

I am a Superman fan. I wasn't always, though. I felt the same as most everyone else until I read Kingdom Come.

Yes, Superman is powerful. I admit that is part of the appeal for me. When reason fails and some d-bag just won't stop pushing, it is gratifying to see Kal-El lay the smack down, in exactly the same way as it is to watch Bruce Banner Hulk out on some New York cabbies.

The appeal that Superman has for me is obvious on the surface. I am a big guy who enjoys being strong. There are people in my life who look up to me. There are people in my life that I protect. As a Native American, I even relate to the whole “Last of my people” angle.

But there is something else at work here. To me, the best Superman stories are about the other side of power. Specifically, the responsibility of power. Spider Man stories (especially in the Raimi films) the mantra is repeated, "With great power comes great responsibility". That is all well and good, and in my opinion, Superman is the only hero who actually lives up to that.

Whoa there, fanboys! I know Superman was a racist propaganda whore for a long time back in the day, with posters like, "Superman says: Slap a Jap for America!" and that kind of tripe. As far as I'm concerned, that's not Superman. Not MY Superman. Superman is one of the oldest characters in literature, let alone comics, and he has been through a lot of writers and iterations. MY Superman is the one in Kingdom Come, in All-Star Superman, and the WB animated series (including the Justice League).

My Superman is powerful. Really, really powerful. So powerful that very few villains truly challenge him. That's okay, because the villains aren't the real challenge. The real challenge is the power. How easy would it be for Superman to simply take over? Couldn't he just get rid of every villain in the world in like an hour or so? There have been more than a few "what if" and "Elseworlds" stories addressing exactly that, and let me tell you, it doesn't take much. Basically, if he wanted to be the only living super person, he could be, and in a kind of frighteningly short period of time.

But he doesn't. He never does, and he never would. Every time he does anything at all, he exercises full personal control, because one moment's distraction could hurt or kill a nearby squishy human.

That is a bit extreme, and actually unrealistic, because who has that kind of control? Well that's kind of the point. No one does. Except Superman. Don't worry about it. It will never happen. He's friggin Superman, dammit, and he doesn't make those kind of rookie mistakes. Which brings me to my next point...

Superhero Role Model
This makes Superman a role model. Not just for readers, either. Every hero in the DC Universe looks up to him, and for good reason. Even those who resent him will not deny that he sets the standard of conduct, proficiency, professionalism and leadership. In some cases, his standard is so high that it causes feelings of resentment in the insecure.

On top of all that, Superman is a hero. What is a hero? A hero is the one who makes the sacrifice for others. If it was necessary, Superman would absolutely give his life for a squishy human. No question, no hesitation. He seldom needs to even consider it, because he's damn powerful, but everyone knows it.
"But wait!" you say, "Don't do it, Superman! Your life is worth so much more than that squishy dumb-ass about to get run over because he was texting instead of watching where he's going. It's not worth it!"
You know what? Yes it is. And THAT's why he's a friggin hero and we are just schlubs working jobs. Because that squishy dumb-ass has kids or a mom or a beagle or something somewhere, or even if he doesn't, it's worth it because every single human life is precious to Superman. We compromise our values all the time because we convince ourselves it's for the best or we don't see an alternative or maybe just because it's convenient. Not Superman. Not ever. Even without his vaunted power, his integrity, worthiness and admirableness are beyond reproach.

So yes, he is godlike, because he represents an ideal to be aspired to, but which cannot be attained by humans. He is not a human with special gifts fighting against injustice. He is an otherworldly superhuman who could destroy us all, but instead serves humanity as a protector, a role model and a leader. His alter ego is a bumbling human meat sack, not the other way around. These things all make Superman unique, and for me at least, not at all boring. Indeed, all the more compelling.

I have borne the responsibility of leadership before. Most of us have. It is not easy to do it right. It is easy to resort to bullying, aggressive and petty behavior, because it is seen as an easy path to the goal. When the heat is on, it is all too easy to take the low road and power through a group project by coercing and manipulating others with our "authority", by being inflexible, stubborn and "decisive" and by dominating our coworkers and subordinates with our superior knowledge and experience. The thing is- and we all know this- that's not leadership.

Having more experience, more education, more money, more social status, being older or being a business owner; these things put a person in a leadership role, but none of those things is leadership. What is it? Many people with far more education and erudition than I have tried to define and identify the "X-Factor" that makes leadership happen, and I am not going to try here.

All I can say is that you know it when you see it, and a good writer can show it in a good character. The Best Buy tv sales guy in the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead had it. Dick Winters in Band of Brothers had it it (as did the real Dick Winters, I expect). Captain America has it. Superman has it.

When I was young and full of beans, I was in the military, and I saw it there. Once. In four years, serving with dozens of NCOs and officers in positions of leadership, I only met ONE MAN who had that unmistakable quality. It had nothing to do with his rank or time in service or what ribbons and medals he had on his chest.

In my opinion, this aspect of Superman is most clearly depicted in Kingdom Come. Superman had given up. Ridiculous, I know, especially after all I just said. It was an "Elseworlds" scenario, so bear with me. He had his reasons, and he had given up, and so had all the others, to some degree. Many continued to seek justice, protect and serve, but they did it alone, and only in their specific areas. Younger generations of supers, without any role models, ran rampant and roughshod, battling at will against each other and caring nothing for either property damage or human losses.

When things got bad enough, and Wonder Woman was finally able to get Superman to get back in the game, things changed. Immediately. The Alex Ross illustration of his glorious return, as a stern father comes home to his misbehaving children, is moving. Well, I had a stern father, so it resonated with me.

The point is, Superman is not just a powerful superhero. He is not just an icon of American propaganda. He is not just a big, dumb boy scout who's too stubborn or too stupid to change his old fashioned ways and realize that he should start killing villains who really, really deserve it.

Superman is a god, in an academic, mythological sense. He is an idol, representing mighty aspirations worthy of admiration. He is an archetypal paragon of the ideals of humanity, nobility and responsibility.

That is why I am a Superman fan. If I am going to believe in something, I don't go halfway. If there is an ideal, I go for the top. If there is a religion, I aim for the truth behind and underneath it. When I admire a superhero, I choose the one that even the other superheroes look up to. Humanistic comic supers are important, and I enjoy them as well, if for different reasons. For a role model, though, I don't see how you can look anywhere else but to Krypton's Last Son.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Great Characters, Part 6 of 6. Dynamism and Conclusion.

            This last question is unlike the others. It asks not about the character, but a final consideration for you as the player of that character. This question is simpler than the others, but is no less important.
            Do you want your character to change?
            By change, of course, I mean as a person. Is your character going to stay who they are as a person through the ordeal of their adventure? Will they find redemption when they finally defeat the enemy?
            Will the dragon slayer come to respect dragon kind, or will they remain an implacable enemy?

            The answer to this question is something that you should share with your GM, so that together, a transformation can be created for the character. This can be a change of role, a characters retirement, orbuying offa certain hindering quality.
            A character changing in this way is called metamorphosis or sometimes apotheosis. Those are fancy Greek words that mean your character has come full circle, and has reached the end of a journey.
            That doesnt mean that the game ends. It is the best time to do so, if that is your wish, but a hero can always embark on another journey.

            Answering even some of these questions will improve the complexity of your character and make for a more enjoyable role playing experience. You will feel as though you know the character as a person, and you will care about what happens to them. More importantly, you will want to see them grow and improve.
As you guide your character to accomplish their goals and see their dreams fulfilled, you will experience a feeling of accomplishment much more fulfilling than adding up experience points or getting a bigger gun.
That feeling is called catharsis, another fancy Greek word (they were smart guys) that signifies an emotional or spiritual purging.

That is why we play role playing games. It is a rare board game or video game that can provide catharsis to a player, and if it does, it is still a lesser form of it, because it has occurred from observing someone elses character.
By developing a complex, flawed character of your own, and playing them through their personal journey, you experience the second best catharsis that exists in this world.
The only way to experience a better catharsis is to do it yourself, in your own life. I can't help you do that, but I have hopefully helped you improve the quality of your role playing experience.