Support Books Under the Bridge

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, director)

No, not the book. The movie.

No, not that movie!! This one.

I never had a chance to see the animated LOTR -- until recently, when I decided to catch up on some animated adaptations of movies (see my post on Watership Down). So I eagerly put it in the video cassette video player VCR (I can't even remember what it's called. And I really can't believe we still have a remote that operates it. Anyone under the age of 25 is encouraged not to continue reading this post).

Where was I? Oh, yes, LOTR, the movie.

Well, certainly it doesn't compare to Peter Jackson's version -- that was big and sweeping, and this is small and earnest. Cutting down movies to bare-bones animation can sometimes enhance the quality of the production. The animated version is surprisingly dark and gory, yet also chirpy. Still, Tolkien's story comes through clearly.

What I enjoy most about this kind of exercise is seeing a different interpretation of Tolkien. Surely everyone has a different vision for how to "do" the movie? I have quibbles with Jackson, and I have quibbles with Bakshi, but I also found much to enjoy and appreciate.

The animation is a bit odd. Apparently (according to the Source of All Knowledge) several scenes were filmed with live action, and then traced into animation. Although not a new technique, Bakshi uses this to create a very stark, harsh mood, well-suited to armies and battles. But this technique jars with the cartoon-y cell animation. Jackson preferred a consistent realism, but Bakshi's approach (though unsettling) would seem to suit the novels more.

Unfortunately, though, the movie is but a reflection of the novel. Imperfect, incomplete -- but it adds nothing. The best movie adaptations should add. It's the difference between reading a play and watching a performance. Characters, performance, production... you should get something new.

If we compare with Jackson, we find he added songs and music. Yes! How important these are to the novels, and how little the music shines through the pages of the books. (How reviled the songs were, too, but alas, the unwashed masses simply didn't understand.) Jackson expanded the roles and depth of female characters. Good for him! Jackson gave us sweeping and realistic armies; he gave us hordes. And whoa. Those took your breath away.

There were a few nice touches in the animated version (the going-away party, the Ring-wraith's assault in Bree). Intriguingly, all these "nice touches" were re-done exactly the same way in Jackson's movie (shame on him). But nice touches aren't enough to add true depth to an adaptation. In the end, I can only recommend this film for the curious. I don't think it stands on its own; you'd have to be a Tolkien fan, and you'd have to think, "Oooh, an animated film? Would that be any good?" If your curiosity is piqued, then satisfy it.

A warning, for those moved by curiosity: the movie ends abruptly, after the Battle at Helm's Deep (clearly some people are still bitter about this!). It is the first of a two-part series. The second part was not made. There are, however, animated versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King, which the Source of All Knowledge tells me are linked as prequel/sequel. Huh? At any rate, you've been warned: the ending is abrupt, and the sequel may not exist.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Master of the Five Magics

Recommended: Master of the Five Magics (Lyndon Hardy)

As the airplane bumped and wiggled ever higher, I saw it again: "loose." I flipped back a few pages; there it was again. "You paid too much for your editor," I said to an imaginary Lyndon Hardy (the author). Every instance of "lose" I had come across in the book had been misspelled as "loose." I had forgiven the occasional typos I'd found in the book, as it was a first-edition copy of Master of the Five Magics, but I had not expected to see one of the most common spelling errors on the internet replicated persistently in a book published in 1984. This was weird, but I'm glad I didn't let this little issue ruin my enjoyment of an otherwise great book.

The story is about a young man named Alodar, son of a nobleman who was stripped of his wealth and status. Alodar seeks to regain his father's lost legacy by becoming the Queen's Champion, but this goal can only be reached if he can somehow prove his worth to her (by saving her life or her kingdom, for example). As the story opens, we find him practicing the art of Thaumaturgy, one of the "Five Magics" of the title, in this effort. Enemies of the Queen have besieged her, and if Alodar can change the tide of the battle, perhaps he can win her favor.

Of course, nothing ever works out as nicely as the protagonist wishes, and Alodar's attempt at recognition is thwarted. Instead, he finds himself defeated and alone, but with a scrap of paper holding an alchemical formula of unknown worth. With the formula in hand, he decides to learn Alchemy. Perhaps with the potion or salve the formula creates, he can somehow impress the Queen. The story continues like this, with circumstance and Alodar's quest for recognition causing him to learn each of the Five Magics in turn, and taking him through many perilous and strange situations.

This was another nostalgia purchase at Book Buyers on my latest visit to California. Despite the editorial problems, I enjoyed the book even more than I did as a kid. I noticed some more weaknesses than I did then, an occasional line of stilted dialog and a predictable theme or two, but I caught and understood concepts and references that went over my high-school head (there is one particular physics-related reference that I found especially enjoyable on this read-through).

One thing that stands out in this book, and it is something that's advertised broadly on the jacket of my copy, is the "logical" magic system. The author put some work into the nuts and bolts of his magic system, giving each type of spellcasting some simple rules that define it. These rules thankfully aren't fleshed out in gory detail, but they give enough crunchy substance to the story's events to let the reader reason out how the magic works. I particularly enjoyed seeing the main character mix and match the different magical systems to solve his problems.

Lastly, I found the plot to be quite compelling. I read it during my interview trip to Colorado, and it kept me up late the night before my interview, repeatedly luring me away from important interview preparation. Thankfully, despite my lack of willpower, my interview still went well, so I could enjoy the rest of the book as my plane carried me homeward. And the book really delivered, ending in a spectacular fashion. There's a particular phrase uttered in the last 20 pages (you'll know it when you see it) that made me pump my fist and chuckle heartily, and garnered me at least one sideways glance from a fellow airline traveler.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Interviews and Nostalgia

I've been busy lately. Over the last two weeks, I interviewed with three software companies, one in Washington, one in California, and one in Colorado. I'm pretty sick of traveling, but at least all of the flying gave me time to read.

I tried to focus for my interviews, so I packed only reading materials that would help me prepare for my interviews: review material on algorithms, concurrency in Java, and testing methodology. By day two I was slavering for something juicy to read, something non-technical. Thankfully, my friends in San Jose were eager to help, and took me to a neat used bookstore in Mountain View, Book Buyers.

What a selection! Actually, the selection wasn't perfect. There were a number of books on my list that I couldn't find (admittedly, they're oddball books), but I did stumble across some nostalgia pieces that I hadn't thought of since grade school. These books included some of the old Endless Quest, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Lone Wolf books. I had to pick some of my favorites up. And I didn't care if people saw me reading them later on the plane and thought I had a fifth-grade reading level. As I flipped through Return to Brookmere in the airport lobby, I thought, "Nostalgia deserves its due every once in a while."

What books do you look back on with nostalgia?

Update: Poster Pythor tells us that the Lone Wolf books are available legally and for free online at Project Aon, and that they may be back in print again. Project Aon has the books in multiple formats, including appropriately-linked HTML pages that make for easy reading and navigation (and backtracking in case your character dies). Awesome find!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Somnanbulist

What an odd book!

This is, however, the kind of fantasy that I really enjoy these days -- off-beat, relatively short, creative, and not dragons and wizards and elves. In fact, you (probably?) won't even find this book listed as fantasy; look in the "Mystery" section instead.

Aging magician and private detective Edward Moon is called upon to tackle a brutal murder in Victorian London. Joining him is the placid, mute, and bloodless giant (with a predilection for milk) known as The Somnambulist -- Mr. Moon's partner and friend.

This novel is a novel of characters. The plot itself is so bizarre that it hardly matters; at times the novel seems to be more a sinister opium dream than a story. (Avoid if you prefer sunshine and puppies, but the story, while gruesome, is not deliberately frightening.) Instead, the author (Jonathan Barnes) sketches such wonderful and quirky characters that one simply has to read more and more just to spend more time with them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Watership Down

I think we're all familiar with the novel by Richard Adams -- how beautiful and moving it is! But I was fortunate enough to locate a copy of the animated film.

It was dark and grim, a gritty story surely not suited for the very young. (Mrs. Troll swears she traumatized by watching it as a young troll-ling.)

I especially enjoyed the watercolor background (cel animation, I think it's called?). The soft and lush tones were perfect for the movie, and they contrast sharply with the pseudo-realistic computer animation used today. There is something amazing about the animation of a (any!) Pixar movie, but the modern emphasis on detail results in a loss of artistry.

Some scenes were unfortunately quite accelerated -- much must be lost when adapting such a lengthy novel to a film. It may be that those who haven't read the novel at all might find a few things somewhat confusing -- or it may not. I felt most keenly the loss of the incredible stories of El-ahrairah, alas. For those of us, however, who know and love the novel, we can easily follow the story.

And it is wonderful.