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What The Battle of 5 Armies taught me about writing

"The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg#/media/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg

“The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies” by Source.

I’m always keen to see the extended edition of movies that take my fancy. The Hobbit trilogy is one such. And I have to say, the extra 20 minutes shown in the movie did not, in my opinion, add much. In fact, a few times I caught myself thinking, “I can see why he cut that”. So I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to come to your own conclusion in that respect.

I will, however, talk about the appendices.

I LOVE the ‘making of’ stuff. This collection of appendices is second to none. The script writers talk about what inspiration they obtained from Tolkien’s books and where (and why) they varied from the story. There are shorts about how particular characters like Thranduil and Dain were fleshed out, how the sets for Erebor, Dale, and Dol Guldur were created. And of course the way digital technology was used.

I loved the books, and I loved the movies. Part of that was that I understand and accept that the books and movies are inherently different media, and especially when you’re trying to translate a kid’s book to take its place as part of the Lord of the Rings saga. Because that’s what Peter Jackson and his people did. And that’s why it is three movies, not one. But I digress. I learnt a lot – as a writer – from watching those appendices.

1. Detail matters

In every single one of the movies’ locations the scenery, sets and props were absolutely convincing. Each race had its own culture, all exquisitely detailed. One of the best examples of that attention to detail came in the section about Dale, the city near the gates of Erebor which Smaug destroyed. Jackson’s props people built a real and beautiful town which was shown on film for at best a few minutes in the opening section of the first movie. Then they proceeded to destroy it for the scenes from the rest of the movies. Because the place was so real, we could relate to what had been lost. That’s even more important in the written word.

2. Secondary characters should be real

It was fascinating listening to the script writers talk about the characters in the kid’s book.  If you’ve read it you will recall that most of the dwarfs are not much more than two dimensional sketches, distinguished mainly by the colour of their hats. Thorin, of course, is filled out a little more. But in the Hobbit movie, every one of the dwarfs was fleshed out as an individual, each with his own eccentricities, his own costume, his own behaviour.  They, of course, are the main characters in the movies. But this attention to detail (see above) went into the secondary characters, too. Particularly fascinating was Thranduil, Legolas’s father. In the book, Thranduil isn’t named at all. He’s just the elvenking. We learn his name in Lord of the Rings, where we meet Legolas. As an aside, given that Legolas is Thranduil’s son, it would have been quite odd if he had not appeared in the Hobbit. But back to Thranduil. The script writers fleshed out his back story, made him cold, arrogant and distant. Gave him a reason to attack the Lonely Mountain and by the end of the movie, he had grown and changed. Bloody brilliant.

3. Not everything has to be explained

Thranduil is probably my most favourite character from the movies because of his complexity. And because I find men like him – handsome, distant, positively arrogant in their self-assurance – attractive. Thranduil didn’t need a crown. He was the king. End of story. But there was something else about him, something about his obsession with the white gems that were heirlooms of his people. Although we are never told at any stage what that was about, over time we are given hints, sufficient to work out our own theories on what has caused Thranduil to put up those barriers. It keeps the man interesting. And in the appendices my theory was confirmed.

4. Not everything has to work the first time

Costume designers start working on a costume before an actor is chosen. The she-elf, Tauriel, isn’t in the book, so she was a clean sheet. Richard Taylor, the chief of Weta Workshop, the company which created the props for the films, came across a designer who did some wonderful things with chain mail and thought the effect would be perfect for Tauriel. The costume was made – long, painstaking work – the actor put it on and it looked terrible. Scrub that, start again. The prosthetics used for Dain, played by Billy Connolly, were changed several times so that we could still see the man behind the makeup. Whole scenes were shot and then cut completely because they didn’t contribute to the plot. That’s like writing the first draft, or the second edit. And that’s okay. You can go back and make changes – until you publish. And all a writer has to change is a scene here, a few words there…

5. The villain has to be powerful

There are a number of villains in the Hobbit movies. One of them is Smaug, played and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Smaug may be a digital image, but he’s absolutely arrogant, sure of his power, clever and vindictive. Him landing on the rooftops of Lake town and advancing on Bard matched the dragon’s character. Playing with his food, so to speak. And so much better visually than in the book, where someone who is just a name shoots the beast down.

Then there’s Azog. If you’re a Tolkien tragic you will know he actually died at the gates of Moria, slain by none other than Dain Ironfoot. Be that as it may, the screen writers kept him alive as an adversary for Thorin and the company, and reserved Bolg for Legolas. And over the top of all this, we have the Necromancer/Sauron. All of these villains were necessary. Gandalf was faced with something greater than himself, a story which fitted into the Lord of the Rings. That’s an important lesson for writers of series. We should always remember that the Hobbit is the prequel for LOTR and what happens in that little book leads on to greater things. The enmity between dwarfs and elves  is clearly established and doesn’t waiver until they are faced with the common, hated foe. And the orcs are no push-over, assisted as they are by wargs and trolls. It’s a real battle, all the way. Each battle is personal – Thorin vs Azog, Gandalf vs Sauron, Bard vs Smaug, Legolas vs Bolg. We have an investment in the struggle, even if we know how it will end.

6. You can get away with things in film that you can’t in words

In the movie, Azog sets up a command post on Ravenhill, above the gates of Erebor, from which to direct his battle. He stands up there and uses a semaphore system to direct his commanders. Not only does that show the audience that the orcs are more than mindless fighters, it gives the script writers the opportunity to set up a confrontation between Thorin and Azog. It works exceedingly well and we’re so caught up in the battle of five armies (which Tolkien covered in a couple of sentences in his book) that we don’t even think about the elephant in the room. How did Azog and his boys get up there and set up a semaphore system without anybody noticing? The other issue, how did Thorin, Fili and Kili – and Bilbo, get up there with an army of orcs in the way, is addressed, especially in the extra footage. I confess I hadn’t thought about how the command post was set up. The battle scenes are so fast-paced and so absorbing I didn’t notice. But if you’re going to pull something like that in a book, you’d better have thought it through.

7. Consider your audience

I’m adding this for the one thing that I believe was not a success. Sorry, but a love story between a dwarf and an elf – especially one that happen so quickly – doesn’t work for me. I have no objection to adding Tauriel to the cast. She was great as a fighter, and as an elf with a different view of the world from Thranduil and his son. I can kinda see what the writers were trying to do and in the appendices reference is made back to Gimli and Galadriel, but that wasn’t a love story. Not to me, anyway, and I know I’m not alone. Millions of people have read and loved the Hobbit and LOTR. They have their own ideas about how the races interacted. Tolkien himself described several instances of marriages between men and elves, but never dwarfs – and any other race, really. So that’s about reader expectation. Some things perhaps you can’t, or shouldn’t, do.

Anything you’d like to add? Please share your wisdom.

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Another take on writing what you know

In the last few days I’ve been writing a short story to do with one of the major characters in my Morgan Selwood series. Admiral Ashkar Ravindra is commander of the Manesai fleet which ‘rescues’ Supertech Morgan Selwood and her shipmate, accountant Tony Jones, from a slow death on their freighter Curlew, which had a failed shift drive. Having a failed shift drive means the ship can’t go to hyperspace and is stuck with traveling through real spacetime, which means you’re going to run out of air, food and water long before you’re likely to get anywhere. That story is told in Morgan’s Choice.

Anyhow, back to Ravindra. He comes from a very regimented society, where everyone belongs to one of four classes, which are unable to breed together. The original intention of the people who genetically engineered the Manesai may well have been “a place for everyone and everyone in their place”. But as I’m sure you can appreciate, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Ravindra is a member of the military class, the Mirka. Naturally, each class had developed its own sub-classes (because people are like that) and Ravindra’s family is part of the Darya group – from which most Manesai admirals are recruited. His father was an admiral, his grand-father was an admiral, young Ravindra is going to be an admiral, he will marry the daughter of an admiral. His path is mapped out for him.

And yet, Admiral Ravindra has a tattoo. Not some small, discrete bit of ink that people wouldn’t notice. He has a bloody great vulsaur tattooed all over his right shoulder, down his back and over his bicep. That photo at top left doesn’t really do it justice, but you get the idea. So why does that matter? Ah, you see, Mirka – and most especially Darya Mirka – don’t have tattoos. Troopers have tatts, admirals don’t. So what in the wild world would have resulted in eighteen-year-old Ravindra, with school finished and the acceptance to the Fleet Academy in his pocket, having a tattoo?

You’ll have to read the story to find out.

However, I’m not giving much away to tell you it concerns a vulsaur, which looks a bit like our mythical dragon. In one scene in the story, I need to have the vulsaur take off from quite a low start. Large flying creatures (on our planet, anyway) either leap off high places and glide or they need a long takeoff. But I didn’t want to do that. So rather than emulate an albatross or a swan, the vulsaur acts like an osprey.

I took this series of pictures down the beach a couple of years ago. The osprey has gone for a bathe in the shallows. Now he’s finished and he wants to take off. Basically, with his wings raised vertically, he jumps, then brings those wings down hard. And he’s off.

Osprey lifts its wingsIMG_0684IMG_0685IMG_0686IMG_0687IMG_0688

And this is just one more example of ‘write what you know’.

The Hobbit – how to turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie

I watched The Hobbit the other day. It’s old history, I know, but that’s how it is at my place. Anyway, having watched the movie (part 1) I re-read the book for the first time in many years. It was an interesting exercise in seeing how a children’s book was adapted to be a fitting precursor to The Lord of the Rings.

Make no mistake, The Hobbit was written for children. In fact, I can imagine Prof Tolkien reading the book to a bunch of kids. The style is narration, the narrator writes himself into the words on the page. The songs are simple verse with lots of onomatopoeic words. See the kids marching around the room, banging and thumping? The dwarves are not portrayed as particularly brave or fierce. We are given an image of little people with different coloured hoods and belts appearing at Bilbo’s door. It puts one to mind of Noddy, more than Gimli. Later in the book, Bilbo becomes something of a leader and Tolkien has some rather patronising and hardly flattering things to say about the dwarves. The elves, too, don’t come out of this book in a very auspicious light. They run away from a small group of travellers in what they know is a dangerous place, and Thranduil’s main motivation seems to have been greed. Of them all, the behaviour of the Lake people is the most convincingly drawn.

The dragon is the real villain; old and smart and dangerous and in that respect, cleverly depicted. The goblins and their wolf companions are certainly nasty but they are cartoon villains for kids. And Gollum is scary in the same way that a monster in the dark is scary.

So how DO you turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie three block buster movies?

Well, for a start you show people the odds. Jackson’s portrayal of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and the city of Dale is truly magnificent, and its ruination by the dragon very well done. This is the purpose of the dwarves’ quest, and the enemy they must defeat.

Then you make your characters much more robust. I loved Jackson’s dwarves. Each one has character and is unique, but it’s possible to see the similarity in brothers like Kili and Fili, and Dori and Nori. Much has been said about the ‘humanness’ of Thorin. (A dwarf as a sex object??) But his nephews, Fili and Kili, are also more human in appearance. Personally, I could have done without. But I suppose Jackson had no Aragorn, or Legolas to appeal to the ladies.

The villains are much, much darker. The introduction of a vengeful Orc leader in Bolg was smart. Suddenly the odds are greater and at the same time the dwarves are lifted from selfish miners into a fighting force to be reckoned with, doughty warriors all. Here, Jackson has used LOTR and its appendices to provide backstory. This change allowed him to add more action and conflict to the plot. Instead of aiming to go to Rivendell, Jackson shows Thorin as anti-Elf. Pursuit by the Orcs and Wargs forces the party into Rivendell after much hard fighting. Here we learn a little more about Gandalf and his role in Middle Earth, as shown in LOTR. Again, this gives depth to the story.

Gollum is depicted as truly nasty. Instead of Bilbo happening across the ring in a dark passage, the ring falls from Gollum’s person as he murders an Orc (to eat). What’s nice about that is Bilbo actually sees Gollum doing the killing. (We’ll ignore the fact that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing down there – phosphorescence in the rocks?) The ring leaves Gollum because it realises it can trap a new bearer. Nice. And Gollum is suddenly elevated from a horrid person into a killer to be reckoned with. Yes, I know the book talks about Gollum eating Bilbo – but this shows the issue so much more clearly, and emphasises the inherent courage of Bilbo’s decision not to kill Gollum to escape. I also liked the dual Gollum personality – Smeagol/Gollum.

Jackson used minor elements in the book as whole scenes in the movie. The stone giants are tossed-off words in the crossing of the mountains in the book. But in the movie, they come to life, throwing boulders at each other – and giving an opportunity for an over-the-top action scene. Then the dwarves find themselves in Goblin town. In the book, Gandalf arrives in secret, waves a magic wand and they all escape. That’s the kid’s version. In the adult version, the dwarves fight their way out in spectacular fashion, underlining their legitimate claim to be warriors.

Not all of the changes worked to improve the story, though. Maybe the encounter with the trolls was not quite as silly in the movie as it is in the book. It’s hard to imagine the dwarves being quite so stupid. But never mind. It’s early in the story and adds a bit of humour, I suppose. I should imagine the scene, as it is in the book, read out to children, would be hilarious. But this isn’t a kid’s movie. In the same vein, I felt starting the story with the first words of Tolkien’s book was a mistake. By then we knew what a hobbit hole was – we were in one. Further, the tie-in with the opening scene in LOTR (the preparations for the eleventy-first party) was an unnecessary distraction.

My biggest “say-what” was Radagast. Not so much the depiction of character, as the out of sequence events. Certainly, dealing with the Necromancer turns out to be why Gandalf is elsewhere as the dwarves make their journey into Mirkwood. I suppose Jackson aims to show the audience what has been happening in the world. But the way it is presented is as if the darkness spreading from Dol Guldur has only just started. Yet there is no doubt Gandalf knew about a growing evil when he spoke with Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond at Rivendell, and thereby justified the dwarves’ quest to defeat Smaug. That said, showing the leader of the Ringwraiths manifesting itself at the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur was pretty cool. Showing Radagast dashing through the grass drawn by a team of bunnies with Wargs in hot pursuit – not so much.

Sure, I could probably name a few inconsistencies in continuity, but I could do that for the movie and the book. So I won’t.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Just seeing New Zealand’s spectacular scenery is a joy in itself. I think Jackson had a very, very difficult task in coming up to everyone’s expectations from LOTR. I expect that was why it took him so long to commence this series of films. Because it is a kid’s book. As an aside, as a writer I think much can be learned from Jackson’s achievement. He has added conflict, action and much more character to the story, as well as giving it extra depth through back story so that the audience can see how the ring became what it was in LOTR.  It might be a different medium, but the rules are the same.

I’m looking forward to the next part of the Hobbit. How about you?

Using real history as a plot. Not as easy as it sounds?

It’s time to start a new writing adventure, face the cold, blank screen and begin. For me, it’s the hardest part of the whole process – the empty page. Once something – anything – is down, words are written, then you can read them back and change them, because the thought is there, translated into words.

In a way, this book should be easy, because I know the whole plot. It’s based on historical fact, a real life drama translated into a whole new setting. But is it really so easy?

Sure, I know what happens, but the essence of a good story is not the dry-as-dust facts, it’s the WHY. Why did the characters do that? What was their motivation? It’s the difference between learning a bunch of dates in history class, and learning the story of what happened.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. My first published novel was historical fiction, a dramatisation, if you will, of real events, acts carried out by real people. You can find out more about the book here. The point, though, is that working out why something happened at a particular time isn’t always easy. In a history book you can write that the bad guys delayed their attack for a month. It’s a fact. It happened. But fiction isn’t like that. You’re in your character’s head. You have to have a very good reason why he would delay his attack. Your readers will demand it. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s true. Your plot must be plausible, you must write the events so they make sense in every way – in how your characters speak and react, what they wear, what they believe or fear.

I had to take all those things into consideration when I wrote “To Die a Dry Death” and believe me, at times it wasn’t easy. This time, I’m not going to be writing a dramatisation, using the real people in the real setting. I’m grabbing a story from history and setting it in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, a Long, Long Time in the Future. In that respect, the journey will be a little easier. But I know it won’t be as easy as join the dots or colour by numbers.

Have any of you done something like this? What was hard? What was easy?