Archive | March 2012

Movie Review: Wrath of the Titans

First, there was Clash of the Titans, the remake of the film of the same name from the 1980’s. Although I liked the original better, I may be biased because that was one of the first adventure films I ever saw growing up, and I saw it at a very impressionable young age. In any event, I did like the remake fairly well. Particularly, I liked the fact that they took some liberties with the original story; I see no point in seeing the same movie just with different actors. Wrath of the Titans picks up several years after Clash of the Titans leaves off. Perseus, played by Sam Worthington, is now a father; his wife, unfortunately, has passed away, though. Perseus is informed by his father, Zeus, played by Liam Neeson, that the walls of Tartarus are beginning to fall; the apostasy of humanity is leading to a weakening of the power of the gods; hence, the prison of the underworld is weakening.

 

At this point, I feel the need to digress on a somewhat theological point. I have mixed feelings about the theology presented in the movie. I know, it’s just a movie, and the truth about gods and God is most probably unknowable for us mere mortals. But the basic premise of the movie is that the gods are dependent upon humans; they need their prayers to sustain their power. All throughout the film, there is an undertone that humans shouldn’t pray to the gods. Of course, in the movie, some of the gods have turned against the humans, so perhaps it is a semi-justified course of action. Still, I can’t help but feel that the film has very strong anti-god undercurrents which can be extrapolated into anti-God undercurrents. And I’m not sure that is a good thing as a social development, let alone as a movie whose target audience includes the young (I think it was PG-13, but I could be wrong). But, like I said, this is just a digression—one I could go on and on about, but I will not.

 

Anyway, the movie as a whole was a decent action flick. I did not see it in 3-D, because I’ve decided 3D effects aren’t worth the extra three bucks. Still, the action flowed, everything made a kind of cohesive unit. And the characters were… uh, okay, and the acting was decent. Beyond my theological issue, there were no major flaws in the movie, unless you want to get picky about actual Greek mythology (e.g. Perseus wasn’t the hero who fought the chimera, or the minotaur, or whatever).

 

Ultimately, I think it was a decent flick, but not exceptional. I’ll give it three out of five stars. And I do feel obliged to note that some religious people may be offended for the reasons given above.

The Allure of Vampires–Why are they so Popular?

Vampires have been a staple of modern mythology for the last two centuries or so, from Bram Stoker’s aristocratic and sinister Count Dracula, to the sparkling Edward Cullen of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. The last twenty years or so has seen an uptick in vampire interest; indeed, it is nearly a frenzy. But what is it that makes vampires so intriguing, so alluring?

 

In the beginning, vampires were portrayed as sinister forces of darkness that seduced women and turned them into agents of the devil. Now, they are just semi-dangerous love interests. Throughout they have been associated with sexuality, at least to a certain degree. The drinking of blood summons images of bestial, carnal urges, while the penetration of human flesh by vampire teeth summons images of… well, you get the idea.

 

In Dracula’s time, sexuality was still viewed as a vice, something of the devil that should be avoided. So, making Dracula seductive and human-like in appearance, resonated well with his nature as the prince of darkness. He existed to tempt women, to draw them away from the path of virtue, and corrupt their very souls. His sexuality at that time was synonymous with his corruptive influence; it was his avenue to damnation. We’ve moved beyond that now. Courtesy of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, vampires have become perfectly respectable dance partners, dates, even husbands. I don’t know what that says about us… but it probably isn’t good.

 

There is a third aspect to the vampire that we also find alluring. That of the soul-searching creature of the night. We’ve turned from the vampire as tormentor, to the vampire as tormented. It began with Anne Rice (I think) and the vampire Louis from “Interview with a Vampire.” Now, the vampire broods and ruminates, suffering ungodly horror for his fate. He endures incomprehensible moral anguish for every human he kills. This window into a dark soul entices us, it hopes to offer a better understanding of our own human condition—we with all our faults and failures, and our own anguish for the things we’ve done that eat away at our soul. Perhaps we can find relief and meaning from the experiences of a creature condemned like Louis.

 

In the end, the vampire is a complicated amalgam of forces. It is seductive and intriguing in many ways; it is a monster with a human soul, a sexual lure into darkness, or perhaps… a potential boyfriend with a spotty past. Whatever the case may be, its pull on us mere humans is undeniable.

 

Fantasy Writing: Number of Characters

I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my life. Nowadays, I’ve started making a focused effort to write and publish my own work. One issue that seems to pop up and bear investigation and discussion is the number of major characters in a piece of literature. Many modern fantasy stories have a sizable number of such major characters, so much so, that it is difficult to categorize any single one as the “main character;” in fact, I would argue that in many cases, the notion of a main character is subsiding and being replaced by the notion of  several major characters. Each character provides his or her own point of view and plotline. The author then weaves these all together to form a complete story, switching from one character and one point of view to another, and back and forth throughout, so that the whole resembles a kind of tapestry woven from the various plot threads. If done poorly, this can lead to confusion, or, if there are too many plot threads, this can lead to boredom as the reader fails to become invested in any of the characters. Masters of the craft, though, seem to have a knack for building up tension in each character’s plot thread, and switching point of view in such a way that the reader must continue reading, not only to find out what happens with the one character, but also with the next. Sometimes the plotlines blend for a time, as two or three major characters travel together or what-have-you, then separate. But my question is: is there a maximum number of characters that one can effectively have in a series?

 

I don’t want to give a specific number but I believe there is. The more major characters you add to a story, the more diluted the central plotline becomes. Often when I have read lengthy novels or trilogies, or what-have-you, and get to the end, I look back and am fascinated with how little each character actually accomplished over sometimes thousands of pages. They were driven from their castle, puttered around in a foreign city, then returned home with an army to retake the castle. And that’s all. The reason this happens is because of the number of major characters. Few novels these days tell a single story; instead, there are multiple sub-stories woven together. Obviously, if there are four sub-stories in an 800 page book, then each sub-story usually only gets about 200 pages or so. Clearly, the writer cannot accomplish as much in that shorter length. Hence, as I noted above, the characters are limited in what they can do, too.

 

One of my favorite series is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (now being completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death). It is, however, a testament to the problem of having too many major characters. I suppose, theoretically, Rand  Al’Thor as the Dragon Reborn is the main character, but that is only a technicality. All the major characters have consumed a comparable number of pages. And the result is a very LONG series. I think they’re at book fourteen, now. Hopefully, Brandon Sanderson will be able to finish it. But let’s just go through a list of the major characters (and this is just off the top of my head): Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, Min, Aviendha… all right, that’s eight; I was expecting more, so maybe it’s not too bad. Except most of those demand equal or near equal time in the books. Is there any wonder why the series is so long? I enjoy the series. I really do. But because of the number of plotlines and major characters the series is so long that I’ll never sit down and read the entire bloody thing again. Which is a shame, because parts of it were really good. Well, the whole series was good. It’s just too much of a colossus to embark on again.

 

And that, I think, is a danger one risks when one writes. Characters have a tendency to multiply as you go along. The disciplined writer must learn to rein in his tendency to keep adding character upon character, and plotline upon plotline, or the end result might just be a literary mess.

Old Movie Review: The Wolfman

I watched the 2010 remake of “The Wolfman” the other night (we own it on DVD). I saw the original 1941 film on TV several months ago—it was terrible and cheesy, and generally awful. The remake of the movie, however, is much better. I’m glad they threw out the original story-line and wrote a whole new one (I like it when remakes do that—I don’t see much point in watching the same movie with different actors).

 

The movie is set in Blackmoor England in 1891. It tells the story of Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro), an up and coming actor, who returns home to his estranged father’s (Anthony Hopkins) estate on the moor when his brother is mauled and killed by a mysterious beast. At the request of his brother’s fiancée (Emily blunt), Lawrence Talbot begins investigating the death. But at the next full moon, the werewolf strikes again, killing several people and biting Lawrence. Now, the nature of the murders has caught the attention of Scotland Yard and a suspicious investigator (Hugo Weaving) is sent in.

 

Anyway, they got quite a bit of this movie spot on. The lighting was perfect; it was creepy and gloomy and just suggestive of the surreal darkness of Blackmoor, England. The settings, too, were exceptional. The old mansion; the simple village; the barbaric and primitive sanitarium. Even the special effects were superb. Of course, with computers nowadays they can do just about anything. The test, I think, is, whether or not they overdo it. Although there was a bit too much gore, perhaps, I thought the special effects were well done and quite fitting. The transformation of the werewolf was entertaining and realistic (as realistic as a transformation can be) to watch.

 

I was disappointed, however, with the battle between the two werewolves at the end. With all the care that they obviously put into this movie—the gloom, the setting, the special effects—I was annoyed with the cheesiness of the final showdown. It was too Hollywood and could have been done much better.

 

Still, overall, I thought it was an exceptional movie. At least, it was good enough to buy. I’ll give it four out of five stars.

Fantasy Literature: Are We Running Out of Names?

I recently published a vampire/fantasy novel entitled “Drasmyr” (see publications, if interested).  One of the characters in the novel, admittedly a minor one, is a female sorceress named Jacindra. A week or two ago, I stumbled across a blog where the writer was talking about her own character named Jacinda. They differ by a single letter. Is it just coincidence? Or are we, as fantasy writers, running out of original names?

 

What’s in a name? A few letters, a vowel or two? It is common practice for characters in fantasy literature to have unusual names; with few exceptions, they are not names one would find in the real world. Gralk, for example, is a perfectly good fantasy name… to me it conjures up images of a hideous orc, or troll character. Bob the Swordsman, though? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be caught dead writing a story about Bob the Swordsman and Joe the Wizard. They just don’t have that fantastical allure. Simean, though. That could work. Often I’ll take a common real world name (in this case, Simon) and alter it by a letter or two to create a new fantasy name. Then there is the technique of mashing letters together, sprinkling a few vowels here and there, and Whallah! A new name.

 

But there are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, plus an apostrophe and a dash. If you figure names range from four letters to twelve letters in length, that gives you an exceptionally large pool of combinations to work with, but it is finite. And some of them, just would not work: who’s going to use the name Xmlytekc? And if you look at the number of writers there are, that number is constantly growing. The indie book publishing site Smashwords serves the needs of some 20,000 plus writers. And there are plenty of others spread throughout the Internet. I don’t know how many of these are fantasy writers, let’s just say 1000. All those writers need names for their characters. Redundancy of names across writers is inevitable. And so we run into situations like Jacindra and Jacinda above. I wrote the rough draft of my vampire novel in 1995. I gave the head vampire the name of Lucian. I thought it was a cool name for a vampire character. But, lo and behold, a few years later the movie Underworld comes out. The head werewolf’s name is Lucian. Well, I’m not changing my head vampire’s name. So, too bad.

 

Perhaps, one would argue that this isn’t really important. Names are just names. It doesn’t matter who names which character what first. There is room for redundancy. But is that true? Do you expect anyone to give the name “Frodo” to a character in any other book than the Lord of the Rings? A really good book with a cool name or two, will stake a claim on that name for perpetuity. There will never again be another “Frodo” or “Aragorn.” Names are, in a way, a commodity, almost in a way analogous to land. With so many writers, there is a mad rush for cool character names. Who will get there first?

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