You've found Father McKenzie. But are you really looking for Eleanor Rigby?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Strange wimmin' distributin' swords

Speaking of Merlin, my search for the Wikipedia page on the TV series also turned up this interesting character:

" Merlin Hanbury-Tracy, 7th Baron Sudeley... was a very active member of the House of Lords for over thirty years... In 1985 he was elected a Vice-Chancellor of the International Monarchist League..."
Shouldn't that read something more like "In 1985, his army defeated the forces of all rival candidates for Vice-Chancellor of the International Monarchist League, after which he had them executed or imprisoned for treason, and their families exiled, and then declared that he had inherited the position by the grace of God"?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

John Faa vs John Farson; or, King vs Republic

(WARNING - CONTAINS SPOILERS)

I've just finished reading a very lengthy, best-selling fantasy series. I was fortunate, in some ways, because I only started reading the first book after the last had been published, so - unlike many thousands of this writer's loyal fans - I wasn't left hanging in suspense for years, wondering if the final book in the promised series would ever be published (it was long overdue). The final opus is a fat bookshelf-buster, which loses some steam towards the end (especially in the final volume), but which at its best reaches the summit of fantasy writing.

The novels are filled with vivid, memorable scenes and ideas... alongside some clunky writing, padded chapters and embarrassing self-indulgence by the author, which I suppose you can get away with if you're a celebrity superstar.

Foremost, this opus - like Narnia, like Raymond E Feist's Magician, and like Alan Garner's Elidor -- is a travel-between-alternate-universes story. Another world, like our own Earth but not quite. Familiar words spelled differently (eg, replacing "e" with "ae" to get ye Olde Englishe atmosphere); Hebraic place names; minor but oft-repeated differences in dialect (trying to think of examples but there ent ary as come to mind).

We follow the heroes' quest across many parallel worlds, seeking a mysterious citadel where the enemy sits enthroned.

The male hero carries a weapon of special power, re-forged from a magical blade. He has two fingers sliced off early in Book 2 of the series, and he has serious issues with his long-absent father. One of his allies, a former Catholic cleric who's lost faith in God, has been wandering - on foot - through rifts between worlds, eventually settling among peaceful agrarians whose bucolic idylls are regularly disrupted by raiding predators. The rifts in the cosmic fabric are spreading, because the various universes are collapsing into chaos; the process is accelerating; spectral monsters are escaping through the cracks and preying on humans, consuming their brains. Our heroes must stop and reverse the collapse and restore the fabric of space/ time. To do this, they need to ascend to the very top of a mysterious tower, built by ancient scientist-magicians.

Innocent children are kidnapped and mutilated in a hidden scientific laboratory, until the good guys intervene and destroy it. In the devastated ruins of a once-great city, destroyed by the hubris of its own scientists, roving gangs prey on the visitors.

Giant sentient fighting bears make fearsome guards - but they have their own weaknesses, which our heroes can exploit. A talking animal companion provides some cuteness and comic relief. Children, hiding in cupboards after filching food from the castle cook, overhear plots to murder with poison.

One of the good guys - a quasi-cowboy whom, the author tells us explicitly, was inspired by spaghetti-western actor Lee Van Cleef [1] - wields the biggest, longest pistol anyone has ever seen, and reminisces about his alternate's world's version of the Battle of the Alamo. [2] Characters quote from a weirdly different version of the King James Bible. The dominant religion is supposed to be Christian but doesn't bear much relationship to it in the world we know, apart from passing allusions to Methodist hymns.

Computerised machines are possessed by, and speak with the voices of, disembodied intelligences. Semi-visible spirit-beings desire sexual union with humans. Characters who die in one world wake up in another, parallel universe and live on. Tarot-like symbols can be read to prophesy the future. Our defiantly atheistic hero sacrifices a child's life at the end of Book 1 so he can continue his journey across the parallel worlds... but don't worry, the kid turns up alive again in a parallel universe.

The malevolent villain, known by many different names in different worlds, possesses some supernatural power but falls short of the godlike status he desires. In the end, he dies an undignified death.

The main character's mother, a promiscuous noblewoman, philanders with a supernatural villain. There's even a doomed teenage romance as well; young Will's destiny means he must be tragically separated from the girl he loves, forever, although he can never forget her. If Hollywood does (as anticipated) get around to filming the entire opus,[3] the two young lovers' ages will need to be discreetly revised upwards.

And finally, the author places great emphasis on a monosyllabic concept as an excuse for the most bare-faced plot short-cuts, coincidences, and dei ex machinis. But despite all this, I found myself addicted to reading the books in his Dark...

... Phillip Pullman? Who he? No, I'm talking about Stephen King's The Dark Tower heptology, of course.

... Well, actually, now that you point it out...

Both King and Pullman acknowledge that it was Inklings who gave them the itch they needed to scratch. Pullman has famously excoriated CS Lewis for religious preachiness, ethnic and gender stereotyping, and glorification of death (which is rather like Quentin Tarantino attacking Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones for being excessively violent), whereas King reminisces fondly about his urge to write a Tolkien-inspired epic quest that wasn't just a Terry-Brooks-style Lord of the Rings knockoff. Watching spaghetti westerns inspired him to create the Gunslingers of the Barony of Gilead city-state of Gilead in the Barony of New Canaan, descendants of King Arthur's knights, who now pack six-shooters instead of swords: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugl√Ľk, do ya please.

But what surprises me most is not so much the list of similarities (you can also spot several Dark Tower parallels with Firefly, for example, a.k.a Torres and Glass),[4] but the fact that, amongst all the tens of thousands of words I've read discussing Pullman's three novels and King's seven, no one seems to have pointed this out. Try a Google search: most of what you get is book catalogues. They who read of Tull and they who read of Tullio seem to be nearly non-overlapping sets.

Both authors have found success through genre-blending. Pullman combines (largely successfully) Narnia-style talking animals fantasy with faux-19th century Jules Verne-style steampunk. King's great insight was that the Western - despite its veneer of gritty, unsentimental, taciturn realism - draws on much of the same iconography as mediaeval and fantasy fiction does. Horse-riding; dusty fields; desolate paddocks; failed harvests and reaptide bonfires; gallows; cows' and birds' skulls nailed to trees; Old Testament allusions; itinerant fighters, bound to a taciturn code of stoic chivalry; damsels in distress; counties and (cattle) barons; solemn, even high-falutin' diction.[5] However, King does (to my mind) dilute the power of this iconography somewhat by moving from the Mid-World to our own prosaic Earth. (In the later novels, King even includes himself as a character - which highlights the silliness of the standard legal disclaimer, which prefaces all seven books, that "all characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental". He also portrays his near-killer, redneck road menace Bryan Smith, with savage parody - which is understandable, if not the height of chivalry). Robin Furth, who is to King what Bjo Trimble was to Gene Roddenberry (right down to publishing the official Concordance), has loyally defended her dinh's metafictional crossovers... but still, I have to say, the chapters set in backwoods Maine are not those I find myself opening to re-read again and again. And there can't be many epic fantasies where saving the universe from chaos involves not only shooting down vampires, mutants and robots but also travelling between parallel worlds and... setting up a corporation to buy a vacant lot in NYC: Lawyers, Guns and Manni, anyone?

However. It still moves. The only really annoying side-effect of reading the adventures of Roland Deschain (by the way, what sort of rough-riding cowboy has a poncy French name? Louis L'Amour, wire your office!) has ruined both ordinary fantasy and ordinary Westerns for me. Each, on its own, is now lacking. So these days, when I watch Sky One's Merlin, I'm thinking: "Where's Black Thirteen? When's Arthur going to melt down his sword to forge the Guns, or destroy the ancient war machines left by the Old Ones?" and if I watch HBO's Deadwood, I want to know what demons abide in speaking circles on the road to Spearfish, and which of the West'ard Baronies is plotting to annex the Black Hills of the Dakotas.

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[1] "Some [characters] just appear... Others I have to make up. Lee Scoresby, for instance: the Lee part comes from the actor Lee Van Cleef, who appeared in the Dollar films with Clint Eastwood, because I thought my Lee would look like him..." - Philip Pullman interview (2000).

"On a movie screen, projected through the correct Panavision lenses, [The Good, the Bad and the Ugly] is an epic to rival Ben-Hur. Clint Eastwood appears roughly eighteen feet tall, with each wiry jut of stubble on his cheeks looking roughly the size of a young redwood tree. The grooves bracketing Lee Van Cleef's mouth are as deep as canyons..." - Stephen King, "Introduction: On Being Nineteen (And A Few Other Things)," in The Dark Tower, Vol 1: The Gunslinger (2005 revised edition), p xiii.

[2] In fact, the fansites that were dreamcasting JJ Abrams' formerly-anticipated [update: but now abandoned] Dark Tower screen adaptation seem to favour Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby in the Golden Compass film, also the Marlboro Man cowboy guy in Say Thankya For Smoking) for the role of Steven Deschain, Roland's father.

My own first choice would have been John Costelloe, who played Jim "Johnny Cakes" Witowski (seen on screen lovin' lo Vito loco in Season Six of The Sopranos). Costelloe has exactly the sad eyes, the painful thinness and the drooping handlebar moustache that King described; but in December 2008 he killed himself using, err, a gun.

So my next choice is Christopher "Dr Who #9" Eccleston - partly because he'd have the right note of melancholy, partly because it would be cool and self-referential in a Lawless-Stockwellian-Hatchian kind of way, and partly because Eccleston can be relied upon to pronounce both "Gunslinger" and "Stephen King" so as to rhyme with "finger".

[3] If JJ Abrams Ron Howard does go ahead and turn The Dark Tower into a film and/or a TV miniseries, I have a few scattered suggestions. (You listening, JJ? All SAG fees hereby waived, just include me in the credits.)

* Gilead flashback scenes should be in sepia, a la the opening credits for True Blood. So, at the very beginning, we see an introductory scene where Arthur Eld (would using footage of John Wayne be overdoing things?) is seated at a throne around the Round Table, with a dozen knights raising their swords to salute him. This dissolves/ morphs to a scene at the same table, and a dozen gunslingers in "modern" dress (long frock coats, American Civil War army jackets) raising their pistols to salute the (now empty) throne. The opening 5-10 minutes of Ken Branagh's 1993 Much Ado About Nothing should provide inspiration.

* The Gunslingers' weapons, etc, should not be taken straight from the existing "Westerns" section of Props department, but should be subtly different - about 50% Western, yes but 30% mediaeval and 20% Eastern/ Japanese (reflecting the Arthurian and samurai echoes), eg, Roland's gun belt should be intricately tooled, like a Viking's sword belt, and he should be wearing the ragged remains of a Civil War-style military uniform under his Drizabone trenchcoat, with a small (largely ceremonial) metal breastplate over the top of his chest. His hat should be a battered US Cavalry-type with a badge showing the banner or sigul of Gilead - Llamrei, Arthur Eld's horse (like a stylised chess knight), rampant over two crossed pistols.

* The theme song should be by Bruce Springsteen - either some of his classic hard-scrabble devils 'n' dust songs like This Hard Land (1995) and If I Were The Priest (1974), or else one composed by The Boss especially for the series (".... The world has moved on now/ the Beams, they are hollowed/ While the man in black fled/ And the Gunslinger followed"). A banjo-and-fiddles ballad, but with eerie Celtic pipes in the background, and a mediaeval-sounding lute or lyre (as in Dire Straits' Romeo and Juliet). Hell, King owes Springsteen big time for the line that gave him a title for his biggest-ever book (And King mentioned rumours that Springsteen was in contention at one time to play Larry Underwood). And of course space should be made for The Man in Black, in his long preacher's coat.

* The first few minutes of a Gilead flashback should begin with a dusty, horse-track Western frontier town, as in Deadwood or True Grit. We see horses, stagecoaches, drinking troughs, etc. Then the camera pans upwards and we see the walled city/ castle of Gilead itself, pennants fluttering, tapestries hanging, as magnificently mediaeval as the White City of Gondor, or Camelot in First Knight. (Okay, not copying anything else from First Knight.) So we initially think we're watching a cowboy film, but then whoa... we're not in Kansas any more.

[UPDATE: And get this guy a gig on the soundtrack. Pure brilliance... Ennio meets Enya and they dance Ravel's Bolero].

* And on that note (so to speak): Susan Delgado should have an Irish or Welsh accent. Can't say why, she just should. Imagine, say, a younger Tara Fitzgerald speaking Susan's lines from Wizard and Glass with a Celtic lilt ("And you'll not be pert with me, sai Dearborn!").

UPDATE: If Alessandra Torresani is booked out, I nominate Jessica Chastain for Susan. Fitting on every level.

[4] "Gina Torres should play Odetta/ Susannah, for two reasons: 1. Her surname means “Towers” in Crunk – err, Spanish. 2. She already has experience playing a butt-kicking black chick who (a) marries a pasty white guy (who gets in over his head with gangsters) and (b) hangs around with a troubled teenager who sees disturbing visions; an ex-cleric with a shady past; a private-school boy who detests his wealthy father; and a disillusioned ex-soldier who, after his side loses the civil war, wanders around New Canaan and other worlds killing mutants with his six-shooter, all the while speaking a folksy David Crockett-style argot interspersed with Asian words." (here)

It's ironic that the best two Westerns I've ever seen at the cinema weren't actually Westerns at all: The Two Towers and Serenity. Now that cigarette advertisements are banned, it's oddly ironic that the closest thing to the glorious vistas of the old Marlboro Country ads are brought to us by a director named Peter Jackson.

[5] Daniel Grotta (no, that's not a Russian Hogwarts ripoff), in his JRR Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth, mentions that, as an Oxford undergraduate, Tolkien was fascinated by tales told by Allen Barnett, an American fellow-student, about growing up in rural Kentucky. And certainly there's something very Huck Finn-ish about the Hobbits, especially as Jackson portrays them.

PS: Add to the above list of similarities that 'Both refer to [the] Christ as "the... Man Jesus".'