for May 9, 2005
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On Bad Books Becoming Bad Movies...
Due to the mountains of money made from the "Lord of the Rings," the movie studios are scrambling to find other fantasy-type books to develop into movies. The new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie is one example that is doing really well. (My two-line review: "More Spy Kids than the great comedy of the books. Whoever cast the woman that played Trillian owes us all a bigger apology than runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks.") As a fantasy book fan, I'm generally in support of this trend, but a little wary that often trends like this gets started and simply don't know where to stop - like how Ben Affleck had one good movie and they keep letting him make more.
If I may make a suggestion, stop ... before the movies get anywhere near "The Swan's War" trilogy by Scott Russell.
I recently finished "The Swan's War" trilogy - and not because I wanted to. I got stuck with the first book as the only book at hand during a long trip a few years back. Though I hated the first book, I felt a very strong compulsion to finish out the series as some kind of penance to punish me for all of the good books I've read in my lifetime so I also dragged myself through the other two when they came out. If this series were to be made into a movie, though, it would raise several problems.
First, the series has a lot of characters - and I mean a lot. Casting this thing would create work for every actor in Los Angeles and New York and probably have to raid a few Midwest community theater groups too. Granted, LOTR used every actor in New Zealand and a few other nations, but for that they didn't all have to have names. Even "sword bearer #3" has a name in these books. One of the reasons that there are so many characters is that no one can die. As soon as someone dies, they arrive at the gate of death's domain where there is a long receiving line of undead supernatural creatures ready to deal like used Pinto salesmen. And everyone takes the deal without pausing for even a moment to consider whether death just might be preferable to loaning your face to a supernatural creature with a tendency for, say, murdering members of your family. If you can't reduce your character numbers by killing them, what else is there? Hoping for a strike by the characters of bad novels union?
These supernatural dead body dealers were called "nagars." The books make much of the fact that meeting a nagar will change your whole life. One character saw one a few times and spent the rest of the books in a stupefied trance. Another character had rough rolling-down-the-hill sex with a nagar he just met in the middle of book two, but didn't even remember he was supposed to be pining for her until there were only 100 pages left in book three. Apparently merely meeting a nagar has a bigger devastating effect on the mental processes than throwing down with one. Hmm, maybe Jennifer Lopez could play her…
A side effect of having so many characters is that eventually you start running out of names and have to give them similar names. This series has a Jamm and a Tam, which even the author kept mixing up by putting Tam into Jamm's scenes as if Tam were the Travelocity gnome popping in and out of scenes.
A second problem is that the book is based on this river. But this is no ordinary river. This river leaves from one point and just ends up wherever it ends up whenever it gets there - kind of like Amtrak. This was supposed to represent the big spiritual point in the book, but frankly I think it was a lame excuse to avoid having to make the map for inside the front cover that every other fantasy book has. It also gave the author room to be sloppy on things like…everything. For example, on one page in book three the characters are scrambling around in pure darkness because it's a moonless night. On the very next page, another set of characters is hiding in the bushes waiting for a cloud to cover the full moon shining overhead so they can run across a field without being seen. If anyone did try to make a film of this, they'd have to rent out a wing of a local mental hospital for the string of continuity editors they're sure to go through.
A third problem is that at the end of the series, pretty much no character has changed. The young man with the mysterious past whose grandfather has all of these impressive ancient weapons for no good reason, ends with a mysterious past and no good reason for owning the ancient weapons. The young royal woman that much of the series focuses on marrying off to create a new alliance, ends the series without marrying. The hundreds of characters who spend their time aimlessly wandering the land keep aimlessly wandering the land. At the end of the "Lord of the Rings" characters floated into immortality, got married, took over kingdoms, and still found time to destroy all of the evil in the world, but aside from a couple of guys who weren't the king finding out they still weren't the king and the nagars packing up and going home, this whole series dragged on without a single life changing very much. It was one colossal "Dallas" dream season without even seeing Victoria Principal in her underwear.
A fourth problem is that the books tend to wordiness. Now fantasy characters are always doing things like saying, "We must set out on our journey this day" instead of "Get your crap, let's go" so you expect some of that. This series takes that to an extreme. After reading a half-page-long paragraph describing yet another new character as "entering his fifth decade" and "skin the color of long hours in the field" and blah blah blah, I realized the only actual information from the half page was "50-year-old farmer with a tan that was not sprayed on". The book definitely had the feel of a fifth-grader being told to write what they did on their summer vacation as a 1,500-page three-volume essay. It's just apparent that this author never learned to get through those assignments by changing the font size or margins (or for those of us educated pre-computer - writing really big on wide-ruled paper).
The fifth problem is that this series of movies would not inspire much of a soundtrack. In fact, I'm pretty sure they would just use Contraband: The Best of Men at Work album with the songs "Who Can It Be Now?," "Down By the Sea" and "Hard Luck Story" figuring prominently. The album also features songs called "It's A Mistake" and "Overkill" which could offer a nice glimpse into where this story went wrong. The song "Still Life" would make a great opening tune for the movie, letting viewers know exactly what they're about to experience.
So while I generally support the trend of making fantasy novels into films, and definitely support anything that puts Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen on screen covered in leather and wielding bows and swords, there has to be a line drawn somewhere. Who knew that a story with a directionless river at its core could turn out so aimless and waterlogged?
All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.
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