An Expectant Traveller

I have a confession to make.

I am a little apprehensive about watching ‘The Hobbit’.

I blame it on the reviews I’ve read recently, which highlighted the plodding nature of the film, the repercussions of Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot at 48 frames per second,  the screenwriters’ absurd decision to stretch a slim book for children into three 2.5 hour long visual extravaganzas. Very few people had anything close to unqualified praise for the movie, with most lingering over one, if not all, of the ‘flaws’ mentioned above.

This is, I suppose, only natural, given what the reviewers are measuring Jackson up against. He steered a large and (what could have been) lumbering ship titled ‘The Lord of the Rings’ safely into the seas of commercial success, even picking up cargo at the Award ports. The movies didn’t satisfy all the purists – I’m not exactly the most rabid purist out there, but even I resent what the movies did to my favourite character, Faramir- but they did attract both fans of the books as well as a more ‘mainstream’ audience. ‘The Hobbit’, the reviewers say, goes overboard to please the purists, and as a result, alienates the larger section of the audience by lingering far too long on obscure bits of Middle Earth mythology that most of them do not care for.

‘So?’ one of my (Tolkien purist) friends asked. ‘Finally, there’s a big movie made for us!’ He has a point. Why not use the multitude of resources available to make a movie that will satisfy the cravings of a very dedicated band of readers? Jackson himself, a passionate reader of Tolkien, must appreciate the scale and depth of the author’s work- why else would he linger so long and lovingly on each bit of dialogue or pebble on the road to the Lonely Mountain.

I’m reminded, suddenly, of Thomas Gradgrind from Dickens’s ‘Hard Times’, and his espousal of Utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number- that is the doctrine that propels most commercial enterprises. Rather, the greatest good comes from satisfying the greatest number. Hollywood, though it runs on art and creativity as well as economic lobbies and other, less personally enthusing, factors, is also utilitarian. So is the publishing industry. It’s the way of the world today- how do you survive if you can’t make a large number of people happy and thus secure some kind of commercial strength?

Hence the blow-up if a man uses millions of dollars worth of equipment, talent, time to produce a movie that does not connect with or inspire an equal number of people to spend their hard earned money. ‘Art’ and ‘Independent Cinema’ use much less, do not impose on the big production houses to fund their risky little ventures- Jackson’s problem was that he got too experimental and literal for the kind of category (financial and entertainment-wise) he was placed in.

I might hate ‘The Hobbit’ movie. I enjoyed the book (I actually liked it more than ‘The Lord of the Rings’ on my first read, but that may have been because I was completely lost when I read LOTR, and missed out on a whole lot of references to the earlier book), and have been looking forward to its adaptation for  a while now. But I think the main reason why I liked ‘LOTR’ in its movie form was because I was able to dissociate the books from what was happening on the screen. The movies were different enough, imagined Middle Earth differently enough from my own conception of it, that I didn’t even try to measure them against what I had read. If ‘The Hobbit’ movie is an attempt to literally transcribe the book onto the screen, performing the same ‘suspension of association’ might just be impossible.

Oh well, I’ll take my chances. The alternative is too stupid to even contemplate.

And what can I say- I do want to see Orlando Bloom as Legolas again.

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In hiberna noctum

This evening, I revisited a piece of music that was a constant companion of mine last winter. It rang out in my little hostel room, its re-run frequency reaching its peak around 5:30- 6:30 in the evening, as the season leached sunlight from the day. It’s not the most cheerful thing to listen to when you’re getting used to seasonal shifts, or in a constantly weepy mood, or living in a chilly hostel room with the threat of exams hanging over your head. But it’s beautiful and mysterious, and is so perfectly ‘Potter’ for those very reasons.

If there’s one thing the Harry Potter movies did well, it was the music. You can almost hear the growing darkness as you progress musically through the series- from the soaring and magical ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ that forms the backbone of the soundtrack for the first two movies, to the bittersweet air of ‘Lily’s theme’ that riddles the second  half of the seventh. As Harry grows older, the music ages with him, highlighting the increasingly personal nature of his fight against the Dark.

‘In Noctem’ was originally part of the movie- sung by the Hogwarts choir in a deleted scene. As clouds gather and ominous thunder rattles the windows of the castle, the various residents hold their breath, waiting for something momentous to happen. That something momentous turns out to be the attack on the school, orchestrated by Draco Malfoy (whose role in the book made me believe that he would turn out to be an important character in ‘DH’. Alas, I was wrong).  This is the invasion that results in the death of Dumbledore, an event which explains the lyrics of the song (‘Tell the ones, the ones I love, I never will forget’) and the final farewell they imply.

I think ‘In Noctem’ fits in wonderfully with the overall darker, more mature tone of ‘Half Blood Prince’ (the movie, the book read like a typical high school romance in parts). It’s a shame they cut this scene out, it would have been good payoff for all the stalking we’d done of Malfoy. Not to mention it would have finally shown him in the decisive moment of swinging his feet off his bed and walking into the war.

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Of course, one could argue that Malfoy started this journey when he took the Mark. But when we see him in the first few scenes of the movie (and the first chapters of the book), he still comes across as a schoolyard braggart, a kid in over his head and not realizing it, more taken with the glamour of being part of something that his idolized father belongs to than understanding what exactly that movement stands for, or the sacrifices it will demand of him. Over the year, he comes to realize the seriousness of Voldemort’s threats and the importance of the success of his mission. At the end, he is as adult as he will ever be in the pages of the Potter books- he makes a decision and then lives to regret the consequences.

I loved the development of Malfoy’s character in ‘HBP’, and I think Tom Felton did a great job translating his struggle in the movie. I rather wish Rowling had continued to give him some amount of attention in ‘DH’- the omission of Draco character building was one of the major problems I had with the book. It is as though he is fated, like the rest of his Slytherin housemates, to pass unlamented in noctum, to stage their struggles and transitions to adulthood off-screen, or on the director’s floor with the other deleted, shorn bits of the films.

 Carry my soul into the night.

Raised by ghosts

Nobody Owens is an unlikely name for a protagonist, especially the protagonist of a fantasy story. Doesn’t the last name sound a little mundane, not trip-off-the-tongue friendly like Potter, or gives-you-his-quality Fowl. No, it is stolid, simple ‘Owens’. And to add insult to injury, this child’s first name is ‘Nobody’, or as his friends call him, ‘Bod’.

But if you were to judge this book by the protagonist’s name (like Petunia Dursley judging her nephew by his ‘nasty, common’ one), you would miss out on an amazing read.

I hadn’t read a Neil Gaiman in a while (the last was a very-delayed reading of ‘Neverwhere’, nearly two years ago now), and I know ‘The Graveyard Book’ is not exactly  fly-off-the-shelf new, but it is one his more recent offerings. I hadn’t bought  it earlier, but not because I hadn’t been tempted. Periodically, I would look up the price on Flipkart, always shaking my head when I saw that it hadn’t dropped below 300. One of the first books I located on the Kindle Store was ‘The Graveyard Book’, but here again, the price made me shake my head and remember guiltily that my own device ran on the power of an NRI uncle’s credit card. So it was great pleasure and vindication that I put in some of my hard-won salary and ordered the book, feeling, finally, that I had rightfully earned it.

Gaiman rarely disappoints, so I knew I was in safe hands. My trust turned out to be well-placed. Unlike ‘Neverwhere’, ‘The Graveyard Book’ doesn’t have any ‘eh?’ inducing moments. The story is tightly plotted, the characters well woven, the chills placed in just the right creepy corners. To summarize the book briefly: Nobody Owens is a (live) boy who is being brought up by the (dead) residents of a graveyard. The ghosts look after him, teach him, play with him- provide him with the social structure that any boy needs. He has a rather mysterious guardian, Silas, who strides the borderlands between life and death, disappearing now and again on missions that we can only assume have some dark and deep significance. Bod lacks for nothing, really, except for the fact that his ‘real’ family, the one that bore him, is dead. They were killed at the hands of a man called Jack, who still roves the outside world looking for the boy who got away.

What I loved about this book was the sheer joy of reading it. Gaiman distracted me from the jostles of a crowded metro ride, with all its elbowings and accidental toe stamps. He made me forget the cold wind that cut through the open air platform of the Noida station, almost made me miss my staff bus to my workplace (that last is a true compliment- I am usually very alert and just waiting to get on that bus and off the metro station premises). He actually made my morning commute- something I dread with good reason- enjoyable. And he did this for an entire week, because I made sure to reserve him for those hours.

Seriously, the only thing wrong with this book is how short it is.

There’s something beautiful about ‘The Graveyard Book’. I don’t know if its the simplicity of it, of the lessons that it leaves with you. I don’t know if its the childlike wonder it gives to its readers, the measure of joy it holds even in the boring, adultish hours of a mundane metro jostle. I don’t know if its the opportunity he gives you, of being a kid again, beside Bod as he makes new friends, explores his home, falls into trouble and out of it. I don’t know if it’s the bittersweet end, where he seems to take you by the hand and then lead you, gently, out of his world so that you are standing at its gates, forlorn and wondering when he’s going to invite you in again.

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ cannot come fast enough.   gbook