Monthly Archives: 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?

The Vampire’s Bite: Curse or Virus?

I have written previously of how the nature of the vampire has changed since the original writing of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”(the original blog entry is here). Where once they could move about during the day, they are now incinerated by sunlight. Where they could once turn into a bat, many modern varieties are limited to a human-like form. Etc… One thing I failed to touch on, however, was the manner by which the vampire transforms its unhappy victim into another vampire. By all accounts, it does so by biting his or her victim, and draining the blood to a certain critical point. Through the years, though, one’s understanding of the bite and how it ultimately works has changed.

 

At the time when “Dracula” was written, the bite was understood to be a curse. The vampire, as agent of the Christian Devil, bit the victim, and he or she was transformed into a creature of the night by the mysterious powers of darkness. The method of transformation was safely ensconced in the supernatural. It was beyond human understanding, and as such, offered no hope of redemption. Most modern people, as a result of the continuing advance of science, do not believe in curses. They require a more “scientific” explanation for the vampire. They want to see some mechanical explanation that is somewhat more plausible than some unfathomable “curse.” And so the vampire virus was born. I don’t know who first used the virus-explanation, but it seems quite prevalent nowadays. I remember seeing it once in a comic book years ago, and I thought it clever, then. They used it in the series of “Underworld” movies starring Kate Beckinsale, and earlier in the “Blade” movies starring Wesley Snipes. I’m sure I’ve seen it elsewhere, but precisely where, eludes me for the moment. Anyway, I’m starting to get annoyed with the vampire virus explanation. I mean, really, do we need a “quasi-scientific” explanation for a vampire?

 

Isn’t it more chilling and more sinister to have the method of transformation beyond mere mortal explanation? Although most of the tales agree that the virus is incurable, that aspect of the disease is a temporary state. There is no reason why a virus, in principle, could not be cured at some later point in time by scientific advance. Some movies have even incorporated a “cure” for vampirism in the plot line. And to me this just detracts from the supernatural horror. Give me the curse without a cure. The sentence of living damnation that cannot be suspended. I mean, we are dealing with supernatural folklore here. Why limit ourselves with “science.” The vampire virus was kind of cool and clever for a time, but nowadays, I’m starting to look at it as more of a cliché. I like the mysterious and the unfathomable; give me the curse with no cure. It makes for a much more chilling tale.

 

And, of course, I must shamelessly mention my fantasy vampire novel, Drasmyr—see the side bar under Publications if you are interested.

Profanity in Fantasy Literature: Is it Appropriate?

This post is kind of a continuation of my Censorship post last week. Let me clear up front, I don’t support legalized censorship of fantasy literature (or any literature, for that matter). What I do support is self-censorship. Keep that in mind as you read this post.

 

The genre of fantasy reaches out across many different mediums; there are fantasy posters, fantasy-based movies, and classic fantasy novels like “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. My primary interest in the genre, here, is literature, though: we’ll leave discussion of fantasy art and movies and other mediums for another day. And that is an important point to make. There are movies, for example, which require profanity to be used. My favorite example is “Aliens” (although that’s Sci-Fi) with Sigourney Weaver. The movie would be pretty pathetic if Ripley ran around and called all the evil, acid-for-blood aliens such things as “ninnies and panty-wastes.” The movie just would not have the same impact. But I don’t think the same can be said of literature. In my opinion, a book that used profanity to the extent that the movie “Aliens” did would simply become boring. If profanity is to be used at all, I think it should be used sparingly. If every other word in the book is “f” this, or “f” that, it cheapens the emotional impact of the word and renders it virtually impotent. Your masterpiece becomes a pile of trash.

 

There are situations in normal literature (as opposed to fantasy literature) where profanity might be well-suited for one’s purposes. It could serve you well in dialogue if it is used for character development. But keep in mind, the same rule applies, here: use it sparingly. Dialogue in a novel is not necessarily going to be a verbatim recitation of what it would be in real life. A single swear word in a paragraph may be sufficient to provide the tone of the language and convey the character’s “sailor-mouth.”

 

With all the above said, there is a distinction between normal literature and fantasy literature. Normal literature is generally geared toward adults. Fantasy literature is generally geared toward adolescents and young adults. There are exceptions, of course—and many adults (I am one of them) enjoy fantasy literature throughout their lifetimes—but the primary audience of fantasy literature is a younger one. And I think it should be written with that in mind. To that end, I think the story should be relatively free of the most abrasive forms of profanity. In my own work (the vampire novel, Drasmyr—see “Publications” on the side bar, if you are interested), the strongest language I use is limited to damn and hell, which, nowadays, barely constitute swear words. Of course, as it is a fantasy world, I also allowed myself to throw in a few of my own inventions, like “By the Scythe-Bearer’s Sickle,” and so on. I know, I know—adolescents are all-too-familiar with any and all swear words I might think of, so why bother “cleaning” my writing for them? Call it a gesture towards hope. The literature we consume does affect us. If they read books with trashy language, I think the young will learn to use the language all the more. If the language of the book is clean, perhaps the dialogue of the young in real life will reflect that… to a certain degree, anyway.

 

Finally, let us return to “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. Would it be the same book if Frodo and Sam kept saying, “Oh, *&#!, the ringwraiths are after us again!” It is a magnificent piece of literature that just about gave birth to the whole fantasy genre. And yet there is virtually no swearing at all throughout the book. There is a fairy-tale-ish feel to “The Lord of the Rings” that would be ruined by crass language. It is about wonder and magic, elves and dwarves, and other fancies of childhood imagination. I guess that is my largest point: a piece of fantasy literature is something of a fairy-tale writ large. As such, there is very little place, if any, for profanity or vulgarity of any sort. At least, that is my opinion on the subject. Yours, of course, may differ.

Movie Review: John Carter

I had no idea what to expect  going in to see this movie: John Carter. I just wanted to kill some time and relax; I wasn’t looking for a perception-altering life event, just a few hours of entertainment—something I might review for my blog, if I felt the inspiration. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised; I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It was more Science Fiction than Fantasy, but regardless, it was worth seeing.

 

The movie tells the story of John Carter, a U.S. cavalryman around the late 1800’s. He is through with military life, and just looking for a pay day so he can retire in comfort. But fate has something else in store for him. Before he knows it, he’s whisked away to Mars and finds himself embroiled in a civil war that threatens the entire planet. He meets a beautiful princess, leads a massive uprising of the “Tharks?” (not sure of spelling) to come to the aid of the princess and her armies. It is a classic tale of good versus evil.

 

The movie was in 3-D. I have to say, I don’t really care so much for 3-D. When I’m engrossed in the movie, I don’t even notice most of the special effects, particularly if there is a good storyline… which this movie had. It would have been fine seeing this movie in 2-D. Anyway, the plot was good and there were only one or two predictable parts that I saw coming. The bad guys were bad, the good guys were good, and there were one or two sprinkles of good humor here and there.

 

I’ll give John Carter four out of five stars. And I heartily recommend it for science fiction buffs, and even fantasy buffs—they usually enjoy science fiction, too.

Old Movie Review: Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola

I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (again) a couple of nights ago. And keeping with my Thursday vampire theme, I decided to review it for my blog. I know it’s an older movie (1992), but I think it marks an important milestone in vampire cinema. The film had a formidable cast: Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, Wynona Ryder as Mina Harker, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, and a few other talented names or almost-names. It was an early movie for Keanu Reeves, so his acting skills were somewhat unpolished, yet his performance fit the role well. He comes across as naïve, in a stiff sort of way. And that, surprisingly, worked. The other actors did fine as well. The weakness of the film was not in the actors who worked in it, but in some of the liberties the makers took with it.

 

Of all the Dracula movies I’ve seen—and I’ve seen a number of them over the years—this one, I think, followed Bram Stoker’s original book the best, keeping true to much of the storyline. It begins with Jonathan Harker going to Count Dracula’s castle to help the count purchase various properties in the London area. The Count goes to London, kills a couple people, and is forced to flee back to his castle in Transylvania. A desperate chase ensues. Etc… All that being said, Francis Ford Coppola did take a number of creative liberties with the script. Some of them good, some not so good.

 

It’s been a while since I read the book, but I don’t think Mina had actual romantic feelings for the Count in the book. She was bitten, of course, and began to succumb to his powers, but the background romance wasn’t there. I like how she was introduced to the Count in the movie, but the whole reincarnation bit, and the amplification of Mina’s role in Dracula’s demise, I have mixed feelings about.

 

The next topic of concern is the sexuality of the movie. It far exceeds the level of sexuality found in the novel. That’s not really a big surprise considering when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. As vampires are supposed to be seductive forces of darkness, the sexuality portrayed by the vampires in the movie might have been a bit too brutally bestial at points, but I think it was acceptable. What I didn’t like, however, was the portrayal of the sexuality of the human characters, particularly Mina and Lucy. The whole bit with the pornographic Arabian Nights  book and the two young women kissing in the rain was totally unnecessary. And, more importantly, it did not fit at all with the sexual mores of Victorian England which was when the book took place. I think it ruined a potentially very good movie.

 

Then there was an odd scene with blood flying everywhere (when Lucy was killed). That was just too random and should have been edited out.

 

Overall, I thought Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula had a lot of potential, but failed to realize much of it. It got distracted by its own efforts to sexualize the vampire to the nth degree. I’ll give it three out of five stars. It’s worth watching, but it could have been a much better movie than it was.

Read an Ebook Week Promotion

Oh, I almost forgot. This is “Read an Ebook Week” on Smashwords. I decided to join in and am offering my vampire/fantasy novel Drasmyr for 50% off (about $1.50 USD). The offer is good through March 10, 2012. The coupon code is: REW50.

We vampires do not make easy prey. Our weaknesses are few, our strengths many. Fear is something we do not know, and death but a distant memory. So tread softly, pray to your god, and gird yourself with silver when the moons arise and night’s dark prince awakens. We fear not the wizard, nor the warrior, neither rogue, nor priest; our strength is timeless, drawn from darkness and we know no master save the hot lust of our unending hunger. We long for blood, your blood and no blade, nor spell, nor clever artifice, can keep us long from our prize. Feel our teeth at your throat, your life ebb from you, and know as darkness comes to claim you that the price of your folly is your everlasting soul.