Andy Serkis: From Gollum to Screwtape












Andy Serkis, the actor whose voice and mannerisms brought to life the character of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, has now taken on another unsavory character sprung from the well of imagination that was the Inklings. This time, Serkis is trying his hand at Screwtape, the epistolary demon from C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters (which book was dedicated to JRRT).

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New Lord of the Rings fan film set to debut


It’s called The Hunt for Gollum, and there’s some trailers up for it right now at their website. The entire forty-minute film is set to debut on May 3.

This is the kind of thing I’m intrigued by on many levels, as a guy who has often harbored dreams of doing something similar. Think about it: they used a couple of HD prosumer video cameras in the $3000-$5000 range, some extra equipment to achieve a cinematic look (SGPro depth of field adapter, SteadiCams, computer color correction and visual effects), and a lot of donated acting, prop, and makeup help. Putting aside for a moment my loathing of the Lord of the Rings films and watching the trailer, it seems they did a good job of pressing up against true feature quality, with the usual exceptions common to fan films: somewhat subpar acting, like kids playing dress-up, along with poor choices of lenses and angles in the action scenes (too many wide lenses and not enough telephoto, odd bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views, and camera skews with no motivation or coherence) which seem to give away that it was shot on a video camera. But the long shots and general quality of the images are quite stunning, the British locations magnificent, and even the Orcs seem to mirror those in the Hollywood version, at least in the little clips I saw of them in the trailers.

The main thing I am always struck by when seeing these sorts of films (there are a lot of good Star Wars ones out there, too), is that people would spend so much time and effort aping a copyrighted world, when with a few small adjustments and a good script they could make a similarly inspired and magnificent film based in a world of their own making, which would allow them to make money off of their effort, use it as a demo reel to get a job making a more expensive feature set in the same fictional universe, or any number of other options. But I suppose that a lot of people helped solely because it wasn’t just any fantasy story but one that aped Jackson’s LotR vision. I personally can’t stand that vision — that grey and drab world of misty forests peopled by unshowered Rangers and hippie elves accompanied by a soundtrack of ghostly Enya-esque wails. I think it’s beyond silly for the orchestra to boom and the camera to swoop around every time there’s a nice view or a mountain. But these guys have clearly made a great effort, achieving enough to prove yet again that independent films of this nature can and will become as cool as Hollywood fare someday soon. Amazing new cameras and computers are coming down the pike, stuff that is going to make a good homemade video every bit as stunning as most Hollywood films, even effects-laden ones. When that happens, I wonder how many Howard stories are going to get filmed? That little Solomon Kane one that made the rounds a few years back might only be the humble beginning of a big low-budget push to get Howard’s work on screen.

Lonely Mountain, Crowded Expectations; Or, Prelude as Successor

Too many of my waking hours are given over to thinking about the Hobbit films due in December of 2011 and December of 2012; no sooner is my attention directed elsewhere than the voluble and value-adding Guillermo del Toro is interviewed again and — sproing! — my thoughts ricochet back to the movies he’s about to make. After all, it won’t hurt to have something to which I can look forward after moving to a Hooverville and while shuffling along on Hoover leather (The Internet is of course rendering Hoover blankets obsolete). Admittedly my druthers would have been a movie about the wrath of Fëanor, the wanderings of Húrin, the fall of Gondolin, or the last days of Númenor. But any Silmarillion-based movie would be hobbit-free, and hobbits shift units and sell tickets. Me, I tolerate rather than love them, although I would never go as far as Michael Moorcock, who quipped of Sauron, “Anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad,” or the younger Charles Saunders, who once expressed (he has since mellowed) a profound relief that there were no black hobbits. Admiration and affection for Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin I have aplenty; I just don’t love hobbits qua hobbits. But many do; adoption agencies that offered hobbit orphans would be forced to hire extra security for crowd control.

In his magisterial two-volume The History of the Hobbit John D. Rateliff backhands “critics who would prefer The Hobbit to conform to and resemble its sequel in every possible detail.” Guilty as charged; I try and mostly succeed in cherishing the book for its own self, and almost fainted when, in the dealers’ room at the 2006 World Fantasy Convention in Austin, I came face to face with a first edition 1937 Hobbit. But reading-sequence is destiny, and I first read the “enchanting prelude” in the spring of 1971, a few weeks after hurtling through The Lord of the Rings. As a result, what really got my pulse pounding like hammers in dwarven smithies were what Tolkien, looking back from the vantage point of LOTR‘s Second Edition, described as “references to the older matter: Elrond, Gondolin, the High-elves, and the orcs, and glimpses that had arisen, unbidden, of things higher or deeper or darker than [The Hobbit‘s] surface: Durin, Moria, Gandalf, the Necromancer, the Ring.” Although not immune to the beguilingly unique properties of The Hobbit, I responded the most to premonitions and foreshadowings of the later work, the design features of the Eohippus from which the later Arabian stallion could be extrapolated. So for me “higher or deeper or darker” is the way to go in the impending movies, because so many millions of filmgoers will plant themselves in multiplex seats as vividly aware of the previously-viewed-even-if-chronologically-“later” Peter Jackson films as I was of the previously-read-although-chronologically-“later” LOTR back in 1971. Some of the posts at Tolkien-oriented and other genre sites reflect apprehension that Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson will “spectacularize” or “bombastify” the source material, inflate a children’s classic into a swollen epic, and such protectiveness is laudable, but barring an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style memory-scrub, the audience can’t be made to unsee The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Ergo higher, deeper, darker.

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Never Bored of the Rings

Came across a couple of wickedly funny satires on YouTube, which both use The Lord of the Rings to skewer their targets, filmmakers Michael Moore and George Lucas respectively (and oh so effectively). I give you:

Fellowship 9/11: The beloved, saintly, indefatigable, scrupulously honest redresser of America’s wrongs visits Middle-earth and quickly discovers a sinister plot by corrupt elven, dwarven, and human bureaucrats, zealots, and pampered elites to demonize the poor, peaceful, third-world peoples of Mordor and steal their oil. This film not only inoculates the viewer from ever taking the Man from Flint seriously again, it also (perhaps unintentionally) tars and feathers the many film and book critics who used the appearance of Jackson’s (awful) trilogy to portray Tolkien as a closet cultural supremacist hiding behind a thinly veiled allegory of metrosexual good guys and dreadlocked, Ebonics-braying monsters.

Lord of the Rings by George Lucas: What if the sage of Skywalker Ranch had been the one who tackled the Rings trilogy on the big screen? Using hilariously on-point parodies of actual Star Wars prequel DVD supplement footage, along with animation that eerily captures the real life quirks and ticks of the people involved, the makers of this little gem demonstrate how vacuous and absurd Lucas’ insufferably pompous latter-day pronouncements have been in the face of his abysmal products.

Many such attempts at satire quickly lose steam and degenerate into bad Saturday Night Live sketches, but these two manage to maintain their momentum and become classics.

Tolkien Purists Strike Back!


A few weeks ago I finally read — inhaled is more the word — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, which turned out to be everything I hoped for and then some. What a joy to encounter characters in full bloom that were mere hints and wisps in previously published versions of the tale in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle Earth.

In a few places an extra sentence or two has been added to paragraphs I idolized in the old sources, which feels a bit incongruous warring as they do with long-memorized quotations in my head. It’s the same way I feel whenever I read the new version of REH’s “The Dark Man” in The Ultimate Triumph, which restores an extra final paragraph that was accidentally left off all appearances published since its original Weird Tales debut in the 1930s. I actually prefer the bastardized version that I’ve known for so long, finding it a more poetically succinct denouement, and deliberately used that iteration for my coda to “The Reign of Blood” in The Barbaric Triumph.

All of this is small potatoes, though, compared to the biggest purist disappointment I’ve experienced in my life: the criminal mangling of Tolkien’s meticulously crafted plot in the Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson and his partners in permutation, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens. The changes are well documented on the Internet and in deference to my blood pressure need not be rehashed here, save to say they are distressingly numerous, pointless, irreverent, and — from this purist’s point of view — ultimately unforgivable. I find it difficult to think about those movies, much less watch them — strong words coming from a major cinemaphile and hopeless Rings romantic. For awhile now I’ve grudgingly accepted that Tolkien on the big screen is something I will have to go through life actively avoiding.

Enter The Two Towers: The Purist Edit.

Some fans out there decided to expand on the achievement of The Phantom Edit, which was an attempt by a Star Wars fan to re-cut Episode I: The Phantom Menace into a much leaner, more serious film, minimizing the presence of the hated Jar-Jar Binks and making other wonderful choices that made the film far more watchable than George Lucas’ painfully hackneyed original. This time out, some Tolkien purists used modern computer editing technology to re-cut Jackson’s second and most popular Rings installment into a film that adheres as closely as possible to the original book. Well over a hundred changes were made, both major and minor, with everything seamlessly blended and integrated back into a Hollywood-quality edit. Over forty minutes ended up being cut from the film, but the result is rumored to be glorious. As the trailer on You Tube says:

No elves at Helm’s Deep….

No Dwarf jokes….

Ents make the right decision….

Arwen stays in Middle-Earth….

No Osgiliath Detour….

Other changes listed at Wikipedia sound even more dear, such as Faramir once again resisting the Ring as Tolkien so poignantly envisioned. I also hope that Théoden is less a grumbling and bitter contrarian and more the noble and wise lord that in Tolkien’s book prompts Pippin’s charmingly understated evaluation: “A fine old fellow. Very polite.” In any case, while there is still far more wrong with Jackson’s vision than can be cured with a re-edit, I’m going to download this version and give it a fighting chance to win me over. Just watching the montage in the new trailer of a deadly serious Gimli reaping his grim axe-harvest at Helm’s Deep was enough to stir my blood in a way I thought Jacksonian imagery never would. And if this new Two Towers does it for me, perhaps I’ll hunt down the re-edit of the entire expanded trilogy that’s supposedly floating around out there somewhere.

I have every confidence that The Lord of the Rings will be remade someday by a director with more noble sensibilities than Jackson and his estrogen-fueled co-scribes, but until then this purist is mighty happy to see some anonymous shield-brothers striking back against the “long defeat” of the past few years.

The Voice of Saruman, Speaking the First Age Into Being


Marvel Comics initiates are well aware that the madder the Hulk gets, the stronger the Hulk gets. Similarly, the older Christopher Lee gets, the cooler Christopher Lee gets. Long before Saruman and Count Dooku (alas, a role as a nefarious guest star on the cover of Band on the Run had more substance to it than Lee was granted in the Lucasverse), n’er-do-wells were never done so well as Rochefort in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (I sob openly when Michael York runs him through), Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (Lee, a cousin of sorts to Ian Fleming, was on the author’s wish list of perfect Dr. Nos) and Lord Summerisle in the original The Wicker Man (actually the only Wicker Man that need concern us). Lee was Flay in the BBC’s Gormenghast miniseries, worked with members of Steeleye Span on a musical adaptation of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and once confessed to John Carpenter that his career-worst misstep was turning down the role of Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween. The expanded and splendidly retitled 2004 version of his autobiography, Lord of Misrule, is required reading.

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