Category Archives: Reviews

A Fantasy Review: From The Lord Of The Rings To A Game Of Thrones

I am currently 2/3 of the way through an epic re-watch of the Lord Of The Rings. My band of brothers and I have escaped from out of the very bowels of the Mines of Moria. We have stood, bloodied and yet unbowed, before the Uruk Hai at Helms Deep. We have risked the black fury of Barad Dur itself. And we have taken the hobbits to Isengard.

In case of my death, let it be remembered that with each and every waking breath, I worshipped the Lord Of The Rings, both the books and the films. Let it also be recorded that I loved Tolkien as if he were my own son.

That’s right – Tolkien’s world is so immersive, his characters so complete, and quite frankly his dialogue stirs my loins. The great man is surely the yardstick against which all writing, especially fantasy, must be measured. As one critic puts it, all fantasy writers subsequent to Tolkien must content themselves with shaping the world that he revealed. On a side note, Peter Jackson and co. deserve credit for recreating so spectacularly the monstrous saga on the big screen. Each film is a stunning spectacle, which is nothing less than Tolkien’s genius merits.

Yet in spite of my rather more than casual adoration for Tolkien, there is a crucial element to his work that I believe is sadly lacking. This element is tension. My only problem with The Lord Of The Rings is that the (main) characters are so cool that at no point do you worry about their safety. The one exception to this rule is Gandalf. Fair enough, when he dies you are all like ‘oh no!’ but his dramatic return, unexpected as it might be, only serves to reinforce the growing suspicion that Tolkien has constructed his characters so well that he will not be able to handle killing them off. Indeed, the only characters that do end up biting the dust are characters who have displayed some sort of boorish flaw – e.g. Boromir, the louty yet loveable Gondorian scamp, or Theodin, the feckless leader of a rabble of random horseman.

I have some sympathy for Tolkien here. In my first book I was an absolute mess when confronted with the fact that my favourite character simply had to die. It was only a whole day’s worth of writing under the influence of a firm hangover that allowed me to push through to the end of my story without him.

The unhappy consequence of Tolkien’s (and my own, apparently) unrivalled ability to construct a character is that his books take on the attitude of a carefree jaunt, when really they should be nothing of the sort. It simply isn’t that ‘life or death’ that Aragorn has been surrounded by his enemies, because you know he will be able to fight his way out of it; that’s just how much of a man he is.

Fortunately for those adrenaline junkies out there, modern fantasy definitely has a ruthless edge to it. I defy anybody to watch an episode of Game Of Thrones (for example) comfortably – i.e. without sobbing softly whilst snot drips down their face, having been thoroughly overcome by the whole excitement of it all.

I should confess right now that I have not read George R. R. Martin’s series ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’ (on which the TV series of Game Of Thrones is based). I acknowledge that this is a gross omission for a man who professes to be a fantasy writer, but there we have it. What can men do, eh? To be honest it is probably a good thing I haven’t read it, because I would be a state.

Anyway, my point is this – Tolkien is a hero, of that there can be no doubt. Modern fantasy writers would do well to learn from him. Heck any writer would, (what is this whole disrespecting of the fantasy writer about anyway? Leave us simple folk alone, bra.) But if there is one thing that modern authors do have over their old mentor, it is the savage unpredictability of their plot lines. Some stuff is going down. There will be consequences.

If you haven’t been watching Game Of Thrones, by the way, then where have you been? Sort it out. Honestly.

On a final note, Theodin’s much pondered over question (see the top right of this fantastic post) was finally answered by my dear friend Roberto (like Mancini but more man and less cini) the other day. His response? ‘Little to nothing.’

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Thoughts on the Birdsong BBC TV Series

So there we have it, the highly anticipated TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. Let’s not mess around; I loved it, and here’s why…

First things first, in my opinion the casting was spot on. For those of you who haven’t read the book, Stephen is not your stereotypical protagonist. He’s a bit strange, and not all that likeable. Indeed, I believe the reader is only supposed to get along with him enough that they keep reading.  Now I was worried that, in an effort to appeal to a wider audience, the BBC might cast as Stephen some sort of smile-happy, hunky fool. A real Brad Pitt / George Clooney nightmare, brandishing a gun in each hand and screaming, “Where’s the Hun, let me at em!” Imagine my delight, therefore, when I saw Eddie Redmayne pouting intensely at me from my TV screen. And the other characters were equally well cast. Clémence Poésy cut an attractive but frustrating Isabelle, and Marie-Josée Croze, who played her sister, Jeanne, was not too young (which would have been a fatal mistake) but just about young enough. Richard Madden, who played Captain Weir, starred in Game Of Thrones, so all is good there and Joseph Mawle was a legend as Firebrace. Yes, very well done all round.

Second things second, it was shot beautifully, although it must be admitted that I don’t know anything about that sort of thing. Much as I enjoyed the visuals, however, I could not overlook the fact that the depiction of the trench systems at the Somme wasn’t quite right. For one thing, that area of France would not have been so arid. The place was made to look as though it were somewhere in North Africa. Indeed, one fully expected to skip forward one World War and witness Monty flying in his Grant tank in pursuit of the fleeing Rommel. I can’t for the life of me think why it was decided to go for such a dry set-up, seeing as it had been raining in the run up to the BEF’s offensive.

There’s no point harping on about this any more. So third things third, I found the amended timeline much more engaging than the timeline in the book. Birdsong is split into three different periods – quite simply before, during and after the war. I must confess I actually found the book rather boring when it wasn’t following Stephen at war. I think it was an inspired idea to make 1916-18 ‘the present’ and deal with other events by means of flashback. It gave centre stage to the war in a way in which the book did not.

Fourth things fourth (and last things last) the crucial ‘over the top’ scene was done well. Faulks’ account of the first day of the Somme is second in my mind only to Erich Maria Remarque’s peerless All Quiet On The Western Front as a depiction of men at war. No other piece of writing has brought me closer to the action. It is a long time since I’ve read Birdsong, but I felt as though nothing was missing from the BBC’s adaptation. The preliminary exposition, where Stephen tells his Colonel (and the audience) about the difficulties the BEF has in store (up hill, in plain sight of German machine-guns etc.), only for his quiet common-sense to be drowned out by the Colonel’s ignorant calls of cowardice, was perfect. The behaviour of the men on the eve of battle seemed authentic to my eyes, and from Stephen’s commanding officer, Captain Gray (played by Matthew Goode) there came that awful sense of playing one’s part, whatever the consequences. The comment, ‘my boys, my poor boys’ – made by somebody I took to be an army chaplain (but it could well have been one of the diggers, or someone else entirely) – summed up the whole terrible business brilliantly.

It is difficult to do justice to the scale of the disaster that was the first day of the Somme. It is the worst day in the history of the British Army. The facts and figures – 60,000 casualties on July 1st – scarcely scratch the surface. As the event recedes further into history, a great deal of historical effort has gone into showing how the Somme, for all its obvious failures, was an overall success. After all, the German Field Army was ruined, and it made a hasty withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. But even if the offensive itself can be shown in a positive light, the horrors faced by the men who took part in it must never be forgotten. Such accounts of the war as Birdsong – which last night completed an untroubled transfer from book to TV – help to ensure that the memories of their sacrifice endure. It was a thoughtful and honest adaptation, and I encourage all who didn’t watch it to give it a go. You must also read it, of course…

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Downton Abbey Christmas Special – A Review

Downton Abbey has upped its game, thank God. Fellowes must have been reading my blog after all, then. I’ve long suspected it. The crafty fellow(es). One wonders where else those nocturnal prowlings take him…

The latest instalment of Downton Abbey proved the age old dictum that there are no problems that can confront fictional characters, which cannot be solved with an extra length special episode. It was neat, it was smart (in places) – everything was wrapped up nicely with a pretty little ribbon tied on top. But there was still a sense that something wasn’t quite right, wasn’t there? Perhaps it was too clean. I don’t know.

Let’s start with what went right because, insignificant gripes aside, there is no doubting that the DA Christmas special was immensely superior to the smoking disaster that was the second series.

I think a major reason for the return to form was the abandonment of ridiculous and unimaginative story lines. Branson and Sybil did not feature, and were mentioned only in passing, and there was no more nonsense from Lord Grantham, although where Fellowes decides to go on that score is far from clear. Indeed even Bates and Anna did not turn my stomach as they used too, probably because their circumstances finally warranted their pathetic, simpering exchanges. I even caught myself almost feeling sorry for Bates – the poor fellow, never really a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, found guilty by evidence so circumstantial it makes the Jeremy Kyle show look fair. I suppose we can look forward to a third series dominated by a monotonous struggle for justice. But that’s tomorrow. Today I was pleasantly surprised.

In some ways it was as if the entire second season had never taken place. I cannot stress how important that is. We must all try to put the nightmare behind us, once and for all. Matthew and Mary, who for reasons beyond my comprehension could not be together when last we saw them, decided all of a sudden that they could. Buoyed by festive cheer, they threw caution to the winds and set sail across the face of the deep into each others arms. May Poseidon bless their voyage. At least there’s some good news for the future. One can’t help but feel a tad sorry for the ex-Mr. Mary to be (name escapes me). Fair enough he threatened her and all that, and he revealed himself to be something of a cad with some of his dark mutterings regarding the servants, but the poor bloke was pretty screwed over in the end. Oh and his fight with Matthew was hilarious. It could have been a scene straight out of Eastenders.

Romances aside, Miss. O’Brien continued her slow but steady trudge towards redemption and Thomas reverted to his usual capers. In general the episode had glimpses of that old Downton Abbey feel about it, but I can’t help but think that the beautiful magic of the show has been shattered, at least for me. It was good, but it was not that good. That being said, there is nothing wrong with good, and I look forward to more of the same.

One final thing to mention – the woefully unsubtle random asides, made by the characters in an uncomfortable attempt to reflect the ways of the time.  ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ Lord Grantham espouses, apparently for no reason other than to inform us that Fellowes is aware that Alice and Wonderland might have been read, and indeed quoted, by the upper class in the early C20th. Little details like that can do wonders for the weight of a historical show, but they do need to pass almost unnoticed, or else they might seem clumsy and designed, rather than organic. And that, my dears, is bad.

PS: If it felt awkward watching the family playing Charades, at least Fellowes and co had done their research. If you are interested, Charades dates back to 16th century France – a time when the French made parlour games famous. I suppose we had to let them have something after Agincourt…

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Downton Abbey Series 2, Episode 8 – A review

Well at least it’s over. For now. Amongst all the descriptions playing in my head one stands out in particular – ‘what the hell’. I think that just about sums it up.

A comment on the Downton Abbey facebook page (which I am still subscribed to, being, deep down, an optimistic soul) opens with this rather unwise remark: ‘Missed last night’s final episode? The Dowager Countess will not be impressed.’ Well, say I, the Dowager Countess won’t be the only person who is not impressed. There is nothing quite as embarassing as when a show misses the point and this series of Downton Abbey has blasted straight past it. With an episode as bad as yesterday’s there is so much to say. Lest this post begin to resemble vomit on a page, with the bits and pieces of my disgust slightly curdling in the light at random points along the way, I will focus my energy on the most irritating part of the grand finale – Lord Grantham, who last night completed his magnificent fall from grace.

The first series Lord Grantham was a major reason behind my interest in the show. He struck me to be a no nonsense sort of character, who loved his wife, his daughters, his dog and his house and valued them above everything. His relationship with Cora offered stability amidst the chaos between Matthew and Mary. Also, while he was never exactly a reactionary, he did not quite conform with the stereotype of an upper class snob either. Rather he seemed to be slightly eccentric in some of his decisions and appointments (e.g. Branson) and it is fair to say that if any of the older members of the family were going to take to this whole change thing that seems to have been the theme of the second series it would be him. His firm friendship with Matthew evinced the fact that, when it came down to it, he valued integrity and not position.

Skip forward a few years and what do we have? A crazed middle-aged man, voice low and crackling, groaning to his floozy – “I want you with every fibre of my being” (or something similar) and an audience wondering where on earth it all went wrong.

I don’t even want to talk about the housemaid. As far as I’m concerned she can go to hell, and good riddance. Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. After all, everybody makes mistakes; Fellowes did in writing the initial scene in which Grantham decides to go against everything he used to be and play away from home, and, dancing from reality to fantasy, Grantham made a mistake in actually doing it. I could probably tolerate it if it was a one off, and the tension was then about about whether or not Cora or anybody else found out. Fellowes could have just about got away with that. But it wasn’t a one off; Fellowes decided to continue down what was clearly a bad road, and in doing so he ruined the show for me.

It has been suggested to me via a comment made on a previous post that the reason I am so lairy about the developments at Downton is entirely my fault. Instead of feeling sick because of bad writing, the commenter alleged, I likely felt sick because what I was seeing was not something I wanted to see, regardless of how deftly Fellowes was going about it.

I respect this opinion, but to me it is a hollow defence. I accept that Fellowes has been building up a sense of resentment within the breast of Grantham for some time now, but it has never been something we have been able to understand. Indeed, although I can just about see that he is pretty pissed off about something, I have no idea why.

In any case the point is moot, because, given the kind of man Grantham was so skilfully presented to be, there is almost nothing short of divine intervention that would make him stray from his family. So how have we got the position where, not only has he cheated on his wife (for some reason that we are not aware of) but also that he has repeated the act and now wants another woman with every fibre of his being?

And, in a further shocking development, it seems that he can no longer be happy without the girl he has shared three scenes with, for when she decides it’s probably best she leaves (well done madam, take a bow), she asks him – ridiculously – whether he can be happy without her and he replies: “I’ve no right to be unhappy, which is almost the same.” What. The. Hell.

It’s awful, just awful. And that wasn’t his only disgrace last evening. I’m forced to say that the man I once admired is actually a dick; the way he treated Branson (thinking he could buy him off) was so hypocritical given his own situation. He has gone from being a figure of honour to a hapless fool, standing firm against the turning tide and embodying the worst of upper class mores. Even his own mother – the irrepressible Dowager Countess – has shown greater understanding of the need to evolve.

Even without the ludicrous Grantham/housemaid storyline, I think this episode was the worst of the lot because even Matthew and Mary, who had somehow in my mind remained untouched by the ruins of the show falling around them, started showing signs that they were not immune.

Now the key to Downton Abbey was always Matthew and Mary. They have loved each other since the beginning and this is something we’ve known, but somewhere along the way it’s all become a little confused. It’s down to Lavinia, and the unclear role that she has to play. From the day she was introduced it seemed obvious that Matthew loved her. But given that we know he loves Mary we wonder what exactly this means. Come on Matthew, don’t leave us in the dark here, what do you want?

Well he’s a capricious one alright, just like his once intended father-in-law. One minute it seems that he regards his feelings towards Lavinia as obligatory – that he is marrying her out of duty and not out of love (even though originally he was going to marry her out of love). The next he says there’s no point in living without her, claiming ‘I can’t be happy without you’. Um, yes you can.

I suppose you can argue that he felt he probably should say that, with her being on her (convenient) death bed and all, but the fact remains that Matthew has become an enigma, and not a good one, of the kind that a willing reader loves to crack. No. He has become enigmatic because the writing of his character has slipped dramatically from the standard at which it used to be. He loves Lavinia here because it serves the plot for him to do so (i.e. in those scenes where Mary might be thinking of rekindling something) and he loves Mary where it serves the plot elsewhere. It has never struck me that the man is genuinely torn between two competing love interests. I’m not even sure if this is what Fellowes intended, that’s how bad he’s gone about it if it is.

On top of all I’ve said already, the script, which has been terrible lately, entered a new low last night until it reached the point where every single line had me moaning softly in my little corner. ‘She died of a broken heart and we killed her’ says Matthew to Mary after the (convenient) death of his fiance. Come on! What he is even saying there? That they can’t be together because otherwise there would be no 3rd Series? Probably. What a dreadfully contrived development. “We’re cursed, you and I.” Oh be quiet Matthew. Circumstances have not – as before – conspired against you. Nothing remotely intelligent is taking place. You are being an idiot. That is all.

When a show like Downton doesn’t get it right the result is really quite terrible. You have the music in the background (that ‘dung ding, dung ding’) telling you either that you should be sad, or that you should be loving Bates and Anna, but all you want to do is laugh / throw up your spaghetti bolognese all over the television. It has forgotten what it is supposed to be and the consequences are dire.

Don’t let me get started about the ending – Bates led through the ranks like an unconquered hero – Maximus, first a general, then a gladiator, always lord of all he surveys. A dismal sight to finish a dismal series of what used to be a beautiful show.

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Downton Abbey Series 2, Episode 7 – A review

Once there was a tingling – a fretful shivering like the onset of some orgasmic thrill. Sunday night in front of Downton Abbey – a wild ecstasy of unlimited possibility. At least that’s how things used to be. My loyal readers will recall my last post on this subject as being a rather happy affair. I am afraid this post is not in the same vein at all.

I can’t be the only one thinking it; last night’s episode was rubbish. The script, in places, was truly awful; every Branson and Sybil scene was exactly the same (although to be fair this is not that surprising, given that they have been the same since the start of the series); Matthew’s great rise was so woefully dealt with that I spent much of the remainder of the episode cowering behind the sofa, unable to watch the undignified demise of a show I once held so dear in my heart.

"I have dreamed a dream but now that dream has gone from me." Morpheus, figurehead of the resistance and an ardent Downton Abbey fan, makes known his disgust with the show's direction.

The main source of my discontent was the ridiculous exchange between Lord Grantham and that random housemaid. Although deep down we all knew it was coming, I, for one, was reluctant to believe that Fellowes would actually go through with it.  After all, I muttered to myself in the shower on Saturday night, he couldn’t be that desperate, could he? Apparently he could.

Rather disturbingly I have found several sources eulogising about the fateful kiss as if it were an outstanding move on the part of Fellowes. They described him, (translating their dialogue into my own words) as a slippery genius; a mastermind whose skill for manipulation admits to no bounds. To these people, who seem to regard surprise in itself as clever writing, I say this: surprise is a good thing, nonsensical surprise is not.

The simple fact of the matter is that, as far as I am concerned, Lord Grantham is not the kind of man to take his marital responsibilities lightly. Plot should come from character, you cannot play God with your world and pair people off at your command. Making Grantham act erroneously to himself in order to cause a surprise ruins the reality of the whole thing and turns what used to be a fine programme into nothing more than a soap, best aired at 7.30pm so that it might be watched with microwaved meal on lap, instead of at a later, more dignified, hour, with hounds at feet and large glass of red wine in hand, in front of crackling fire.

Aha! – you say – haven’t you been paying attention? Lord Grantham has not been himself lately you idiot. There’s a war on, in case you hadn’t noticed, and he’s changed. Well it is difficult to argue with this, especially when Grantham himself voices a similar view, hitting his thoroughly unsuspecting wife with this little truth: “Before the war I felt my life had value, I wish to feel that again.”

So this is what I’m supposed to take as the reason for his less than honourable antics. But wait, I’m still confused. Don’t get me wrong it is an epic line, of that there’s no doubt, but I still have no idea what on earth he is talking about. Nothing I have witnessed has happened to him in order to render that statement in any way meaningful. You tell me he has changed, and I see that, but I am still unsure of why. I thought that Grantham was the kind of man who would never do anything untoward to his wife, whatever the reason, and now you say that something so drastic has happened to him that he doesn’t give a fig for any of that anymore, but plays away from home like a drunken frat boy on Spring Break. Well, all I can say is that it’s a good thing he didn’t get to fight, because if he’s capable of slipping into an existential crisis over nothing at all, imagine what might have happened to him in the mire of the trenches!

I can see why they wanted to do something with Grantham. He was getting stale – reduced, as he was, to a few remarks clearly seen by the writers as typical of his class, e.g. ‘my dear fellow” & “my good man” – but given how carefully his character has been constructed, Fellowes really needed to take the time to deconstruct him, if his interaction with his housemaid was to be convincing. Sadly he did not and so our jaws did not drop with surprise, but rather clenched with bitter disappointment.

My girlfriend asked me whether Fellowes measures his success in terms of the amount of couples he can get together. I do not know the answer to that question, but what I do know is that he has run out of ideas. I would expect an episode of this poor quality to pop up near the end of season 12, at a time when everything else has been covered. To find it in season 2 is deeply upsetting. I hope, for Fellow’s sake, he gets out now, or else I’m afraid that all his good work might be forgotten altogether. I will watch next week’s episode, of course I will, but I shall do so with a heavy heart, for I fear now that all that was good about life at Downton has been entirely lost upon the wind.

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The frustrating view of the world through the eyes of Harry Potter

That my intentions might not be misunderstood, it is important I state at the very beginning of this post that my ambition is not to discredit J.K. Rowling as a writer. Like so many others, as a child I was a voracious reader of the Harry Potter series and I have always considered J.K. to be a wonderful story teller who has produced a funny and inspiring universe.

But this is not to say she does not have her weaknesses. Most documented are the various loop holes, which range from minor plot issues to near catastrophic oversights. I will not be addressing how the books stand plot-wise. In my opinion, too much has been made of what is essentially an unavoidable consequence of a successful children’s book being required to evolve into something more. There are mistakes, yes, and there shouldn’t be, but there are more important things afoot.

My discussion will focus on J.K.’s writing – more specifically on her writing of the character Harry. Again, I am not aiming to reveal some gross incompetence, but rather to try and tease out an element of the writing that I do not think works.

Harry Potter is written in what is sometimes called the fixed third person. This means that, unlike say Vanity Fair or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, which feature omniscient narrators who are directly telling the reader a story, it is narrated from one character’s view point. Apart from a few exceptions, noticeably those few chapters that follow Snape, we see the world through Harry’s eyes and ears and his eyes and ears alone. We know only what he knows, and if there is something he is unaware of, we are unaware of it too.

Simply put, the magical world is revealed to the reader at the same pace that it is revealed to Harry. In the first few books, this works like a charm (get it?). But as the story progresses it becomes less and less effective. And here’s why.

The problem is two fold. Firstly Harry is too disinterested in what is going on around him to serve as a proper point of contact. Secondly he is too slippery to get an emotional hold of.

In the first place we might expect Harry, with all a child’s curiosity, to try to learn as much as he can about his new universe as quickly as possible. But J.K. isn’t stupid, she knows that she needs to hold a few things back in order to maintain her audience’s interest. The details must be released to the reader steadily and not all at once. This means that they must be released steadily and not all at once to Harry. The problem is that J.K. has not struck the balance quite right and as a result of this failing, Harry comes across a little moronic.

For example, Harry does not make even the merest of enquiries about the Dementors or Azkabam until his third year of school in spite of the fact that the latter has been mentioned in front of him. Likewise, he does not ask anything about St Mungos until he has been surrounded by Wizards for five years. Surely any 14/15 year old kid would have long ago asked somebody something about the Wizarding hospital. After all, Neville has been banging on about his parents for a while now. Weren’t you listening, Harry?

This is just it. Harry is an idiot. Or rather he is intellectually uninterested. He does not seem to bother about the things we might think he would care about.  For instance, having found out that the most powerful Dark Lord of all time is after him, why doesn’t he pay more attention in class, rather than sharing another joke with simple Ron? Why doesn’t he spend all of his spare time learning useful fighting/healing spells, or else those strange enchantments that Hermione knows all about? Without Hermione, Harry and Ron wouldn’t last one second. They are well aware of this, and yet still they do nothing about it! Hermione acts like I would imagine any at least semi-intelligent person in Harry’s position would act, and yet throughout the books her behaviour is not seen as appropriate, but rather it is considered to be geeky and is treated as an object of great ridicule.

In the second place, emotionally, Harry is all over the place. An advantage of the fixed third person perspective is that it makes the story easy to follow. We know what we are supposed to be feeling because it is what Harry is feeling too. But, although this may be true in the beginning, the link between the reader and Harry becomes more and more tenuous, until by the sixth book, nothing he says or does makes any sense at all. At least it didn’t to me. Indeed, were it not for the helpful but woefully unsubtle hints like ‘Harry was angry’ one might be completely lost at sea. The fact that J.K. believes she needs to tell us what to feel surely demonstrates that she does not believe enough in her character to let him show us instead.

It started so well. Through books one to four we started to get a hold on the sort of boy Harry is growing up to be. Then in book five it all changes. Suddenly the past catches up with him. I know teenagers can be cranky, but really, he needs to chill out! Harry – it’s not Ron or Hermione’s fault that your parents died. You knew that last year, why don’t you know it now?

Fortunately for us all, within a year he has settled down a lot – who knows why, because if anything his life has got a lot worse – and now he is into girls. Big time. Again it is a little unclear where the emotion is sprouting from. The fact that Harry is an elusive character is even more of an issue for J.K. as it would normally be because her characters have aged along with their readers. The majority of her readers literally grew up with Harry Potter, this means that they should not be strangers to the sorts of things a young man would be thinking / feeling, even if they have not been subjected to the same hardships as he has. Given that she had seven long books in which to put her reader in the mind of Harry, it can only be regarded as a dismal failure that she has not managed – at least in some cases – to do so.

Pretty much everything I have just said takes nothing away from the standing of the Harry Potter series. J.K.’s talent lies in story telling, not character building. She has produced an thoroughly entertaining and sellable world and should be praised for her success. But  I think that what frustrates writers about the seemingly limitless plaudits the series has won is that, to the extent that writing at its best is arguably above all about character, the books are not terribly well written at all. And what really frustrates them is that, on this score, her fans are completely unaware.

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The Iliad, Troy and the role of the Immortals

I am at last in a position to review the film Troy from the annoying perspective of one who has read the book. Of course there isn’t really much of a comparison. The Iliad is arguably the most enduring piece of writing in the history of Europe. Troy, on the other hand, is a high octane yet entirely forgettable hollywood romp. I think the reason that the film is average at best is that it almost totally lacks emotional resonance. This is, for the most part, the fault of the cast. Eric Bana – who so convinced me in Romulus, My Father – delivers a wooden performance as Hector, one of the greatest heroes in all of literature. Brad Pitt is a preening but inoffensive Achilles. Even the great Sean Bean is reduced to a handful of cliches and simmering glances.

There is a real sense that this failing on the part of the actors is a great shame, because actually the ingredients are all there for a really good film. In this post I want to focus on the gods as they appear (or don’t) in the book and the film, in order to illustrate my point.

It is only fitting that I start with Homer. The Iliad tells the story of a few weeks in the final year of the 10 year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It focuses on the events leading up to the death of Hector, prince of Troy and leader of the Trojan forces, at the hands of Achilles, son of a Goddess and arguably the most fearsome warrior the world has ever seen.

A great strength of Homer’s writing is the sense of tragedy that he cultivates with each word. At every twist and turn we find ourselves asking ‘what if?’ – What if Patroclus had obeyed Achilles’ instructions to stay out of the thick of the fighting? What if Hector had listened to sound advice and not pressed his attack on the Greeks? Etc. Etc.

In the Iliad scheming gods and the steady rhythm of fate lurk close behind each turn of the knife. The Immortals line up on either side of the conflict and use the mortals as champions to fight their own personal feuds. This is what makes the Iliad such an epic read – there is a real sense that the heroes have no chance, no matter how brave they might be. The fact that we know what is going to happen – we are told several times that there be bad things afoot – only contributes to the tension and the tragedy.

In Troy the gods are at most only vaguely referenced. You might think this surprising, given that they are so insidious throughout the Iliad – indeed lots of people threw their arms up in disgust, claiming that Wolfgang Peterson had entirely missed the point – but crucially I think it works. That is to say, Troy still possesses that sense of tragedy that Homer so wonderfully creates, only coincidence and human devilishness and miscalculation take the place of Immortal mischief.

By means of an example, let us pick one of the most crucial points in both book and film – Patroclus’ disobedience of Achilles, which leads to his death at the hands of Hector and brings Achilles into the fight in search of revenge. In the Iliad Patroclus disobeys Achilles because Zeus whispers winged words into his ear. In the film it is for personal reasons – because he wants to fight and to prove himself to his cousin. To my mind, the second is no less powerful than the first and it is a technique that lends itself to the cinema.

The upshot is that Troy still functions as a tragedy (or would, if its actors could do it credit) in spite of the fact that what made the book so powerful is almost completely absent from the film.

I say almost completely absent because there is a subtle dramatic irony that, even though the gods are not present in the film, they are still screwing things up for the mortals, most notably Hector. On several occasions, Hector offers good advice only to have it dismissed by Priam, his king and father, on the grounds that it is not the will of the gods. Perhaps most importantly, in the film he does not want to attack the Greek ships at all (it is this act that leads to his killing Patroclus) but he is ordered to in any case. In this way, even if the gods do not by their presence play a role in the lives and deaths of the heros, through clever writing, Peterson ensures that by their absence their impact is huge.

The link might be coincidental, of course, but I prefer to think of it as good filmmaking. You cannot turn a book like the Iliad – if you can turn any book, that is – into a film without losing something of what made the book so special. In the Iliad events turn around the spiteful scheming of the Gods. Troy manages to tell its own story – one of man’s folly, greed and love of foul deeds – and, but for a few unconvincing performances from some of its cast, I think it does so very well.

A brief word, before I finish, on the score. I am not a great fan of James Horner, indeed I can count on my fingers the number of his tracks I have listened to more than a few times. However I think that track no. 3 – Achilles leads the Myrmidons – is not a bad piece of music at all, definitely worth a listen. It puts you right in the story at the moment that Achilles and his boys storm the Trojan beach – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR2794mpDyQ

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