Thursday, February 28, 2008

New Line Goes Away

So, today Time-Warner announced that New Line Cinema, makers of the Peter Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS films, is ceasing to exist as an autonomous entity. Both Michael Lynne and Rbt Shaye, the studio heads, are leaving the company, apparently effective immediately, while in upcoming days and weeks "hundreds" of New Line's six hundred employees will be let go, with the rest being re-assigned to positions within Warner Brothers. Basically, it sounds as if New Line is becoming an imprint within WB, rather than a semi-independent subsidiary with its own production line. What this means for THE HOBBIT movie, or lack thereof, will do doubt become clear sooner rather than later; I suspect that the deep pockets of Time-Warner will move to settle the lawsuits and get the film in production as soon as possible, but you never know.

There's a pretty good write-up regarding New Line's fate here:

The general consensus seems to be that they might have headed this off if THE GOLDEN COMPASS had been a big hit, but its performance below the (I think exaggerated) expectations they had for it pretty much doomed the company.

For more on Shaye's role in the Peter Jackson films ever getting made, see Kristin Thompson's THE FRODO FRANCHISE.

--John R.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I'm a Part of WHAT Conspiracy?

This one, passed along to me by Jim Lowder, is too good not to share. Turns out that according to a recent net-article, he and I are both part of a vast Jesuit conspiracy to infiltrate business, government, and culture with secret agents loyal only to The Pope. Some of our fellow co-conspirators include Joseph McCarthy (possibly the worst senator in the history of the U.S.), Jerry the Dentist from the Bob Newhart Show, and Garrison Keeler's guitarist. The original piece is here:

Of course, all this ignores the fact that I'm not even Catholic but a Calvinist (specifically, a Southern Presbyterian) who only chose Marquette as a graduate school because they had the Tolkien manuscripts; I wasn't even aware they were a Catholic school at the time. Not to mention that if I were to become a secret agent of the pope (highly unlikely), I'd pick a better pope, like John XXIII or John Paul the first.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Pullman's New Book

So, HIS DARK MATERIALS is over but not quite done with, even seven+ years after the final book in the trilogy. The promised book about the book by Pullman himself seems to have drifted off into the ether -- which is probably a good thing, given that he's not as good at explaining what he's done as he is at doing it. A little over four years back came a charming little booklet, LYRA'S OXFORD [2003], which seems to be the opening chapter(s) of a sequel to the original series. It was extremely promising -- the best thing he'd written, I'd say, since THE GOLDEN COMPASS itself -- but afterwards he seems to have been distracted by the movie adaptation and there's been no more word on what happens to Lyra's world since then.

Now comes a new entry in the series, a side-story about Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby. It's a prequel, describing his first meeting with armored bear Iorek Byrnison (a series favorite). Due out in April (4/8-08), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH looks like it'll look a lot like LYRA'S OXFORD but be about twice the length (112 pages). It may wind up only being a lightweight entry in the series as a whole, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.

And speaking of the film, it turns out it's not the flop some would make it out to be. To compare it with another fantasy film released about the same time, BEOWULF, both made about the same on their opening weekends (in the $26-28 million dollar range). In all, both earned about $80 million at the box office. And both did much better than that overseas, with BEOWULF adding another $100 million plus and THE GOLDEN COMPASS another $250 million. So why is BEOWULF considered a huge success with total receipts of just under $200 million, while THE GOLDEN COMPASS is written off as a flop with about $330 million?

Well, for one thing the Pullman film cost about $180 million to make, while BEOWULF was basically a film-length computer-game cut-scene. For another, BEOWULF is a stand-alone, while New Line had hoped THE GOLDEN COMPASS might pull in numbers like Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS films (i.e., a billion dollars or so each at the box office). So, as so often, it's a matter of expectations. A lot of people went to see THE GOLDEN COMPASS, but it only made about a third of the studio's wildly overoptimistic projection, so it's tagged as a flop. Some, myself among them, may blame this on the director's decision to tone down the story into something as unoffensive as possible (e.g., ending the movie before the conclusion of the first book in order to pretend Lyra's quest to save her friend had a happy ending). Some, like the Catholic League, claim the credit to their 'boycott' (which, if anyone had been aware of it, might be arguable; as it stands, I think this a classic case of 'post hoc ergo propter hoc). And the best case of all can be made for the simple fact that Pullman's not Tolkien; that Tolkien's audience, and his popularity, and his influence, is of a magnitude unto itself.* Given Jackson's success, we'll be seeing a lot of fantasy movies from now on. But I'll be very much surprised if any of them become a phenomenon like Jackson's three movies -- unless, of course, Jackson makes (writes, produces, directs) THE HOBBIT. We'll see.

My thanks to Richard West for letting me know about ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH, and sending me a copy of the PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY review.


*a striking example of this came years ago (?1987-88) when LOCUS ran a poll asking people to vote for what they thought was the greatest work of fantasy fiction. THE LORD OF THE RINGS won, of course, by a huge margin. What is surprising is that THE HOBBIT came in second place -- not that it was folks' second choice, but that it got enough votes as 'all time greatest' to rank behind only LotR itself. The distant third-place winner was Le Guin's A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, a legend in its own right.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

a tale of two Beowulfs

So, this past Sunday was our Mithlond meeting, the monthly get-together of our book discussion group. Unfortunately, we had minimal turnout (three people) due to folks being ill, or away, or in the midst of a family crisis, or what not. Too bad, since we had a great book selection -- any translation of BEOWULF -- though as is often the case with book groups the resulting discussion ranged far and wide. It would have been fun to have compared the story with the awful movie that came out a few months ago (due out on dvd in two weeks, so if you're a masochist and you missed it your second chance is coming up soon), but not all of us had seen it so we didn't go into it in much detail. Perhaps another time.
Janice did bring out a great quote from Tom Weller's CULTURE MADE STUPID [1987], which casts BEOWULF in a somewhat different light through the following little-known scene:

Meanehwael, baccat meaddehaele, monstaer lurccen;
Fulle few too many drincce, hie luccen for fyht.
THen Hreorfneorhtdhwr, son of Hrwaerowdheororthwl,
AEsccen aewful jeork to steop outsyd.
THud! Bashe! Crasch! Beoom! THe bigge gye
Eallum his bon brak, byt his nose offe . . .

(Note that a few of the d's in there in the names shd really be eths (=th), just as some of the ae's shd be a compound letter.)

This of course reminded both Allan and myself of Richard Armour's wonderful little book ENGLISH LIT RELIT [1969], which saved my sanity back when I was studying for my master's exams. Here's what Armour has this to say about the question of BEOWULF's authorship:

"Its author is unknown, and this has led to several interesting theories. One is that the author kept his name a secret, after he realized what he had written, for the sake of his family . . . Still another theory is that there was no author, and the whole thing was a hoax, dreamed up by English professors who had to have something with which to begin Sophomore Survey."

Still, all in all, I think it could be argued that both these parodies give a better idea of the original work than that Gaiman-Avary monstrosity. But maybe that's just me.


current reading: THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (and 202 strong contenders) by Keith Olbermann [2006]

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Voter number 23 (A Digression on Politics)

So, today was the Washington State primary. If you've been watching election coverage on the cable tv networks, you might not have even noticed, since they've been focused exclusively on Wisconsin. This is not that surprising, given that we already had the Washington State caucus a week and a half ago, on February 9th. For the Democrats, the caucus selected all the delegates, so today's vote is just a popularity contest, more or less. For the Republicans, it's a bit more important, given that half their delegates (49%) come from the caucus (which Huckabee probably won, but which malfesance on the part of state Republican officials announced as a McCain win without actually counting all the votes) while the remaining half (51%) was up for grabs today.

Here in Kent there were no ballot initiatives (Tim Eyman, the Deadbeat King, seems to have given this election a miss, probably waiting to strike again in the fall), no local elections, no state offices up for grabs, so as a result turnout was low. Voting around 12.30 or 1pm today I was voter number 23 at Kent Commons, our local voting place (Janice having been #21). By contrast, in the caucus I attended our group alone numbered sixty-nine people, and we were only one small part of the whole crowd. In the first round, we broke down as 42 for Obama, 20 for Clinton, and 7 undecided; by the end of the event we were 47 for Obama and 22 for Clinton, which came out as 7 Obama delegates and 3 Clinton delegates.

One interesting feature of the primary is that the ballot and voter's pamphlet had been drawn up so long ago that it still included a lot of the minor candidates who have since dropped out. On the Democratic side this included figures such as Biden, Dodd, and Kucinich -- good men who serve their country better right where they are in the House and Senate. John Edwards, who was actually my candidate both in '04 and again this time until he dropped out; I view his defeat by Kerry last time around as a sign that in primaries money trumps ideas, just as Kerry's defeat of Dean showed how money trumps energy and enthusiasm. Richardson, who's been running for Vice President all along and who might get it yet if Clinton winds up being the nominee. And of course the two it's come down to, Obama (the current front-runner) and Clinton (who'll certainly stay in the race all the way to the convention).

On the Republican side, it's more like a waxwork of horrors, with McCain the best of a bad lot. Huckabee is genuinely likable and has an appealing self-depreciatory sense of humor, but he was a rotten governor* with an appalling record on pardons and accepting bribes, and his scheme to replace the income tax with a sales tax would roll us back to the bad old days of Wm. McKinley. In any case, he too has been running for vice president since day one and is now closer to it than ever before (particularly since McCain, who's unlikely to survive a first term at his age, needs a young, conservative, charismatic VP candidate running beside him). Then there's Nixon crony Fred Thompson, who promised to spend lots more on the military while cutting taxes so there'd be far less money available to spend; Duncan Hunter, a racist who warns against the Yellow Peril and wants to build a new Berlin Wall to keep the Mexicans out; Giuliani (a.k.a. Mr. Torture); Romney, the Empty Suit That Walks Like A Man, who ran as Bob Dole the IInd, willing to promise anything to anybody if only they'd vote for him; and Alan Keyes, the anti-Obama, who's never held elective office and who promises to impeach and remove all judges who don't hand down rulings in accord with his (Keyes') religion. In a class by himself is Ron Paul, who's not actually a Republican at all but a Libertarian, which in itself disqualifies him from holding high public office.** I have to admit, though, that it was a hoot watching him at the various debates, yanking the other candidates' chains with his dissents against the war and most of the rest of the current administration's policies.

So. It's not over yet, but it's beginning to look like we have our candidates. In any case, the choices are now becoming few. I'll be curious to see if there's a third-party run by Evangelicals or if they'll give Mr. McCain a tepid nod and just stay at home come the fall election.


*by contrast, Bill Clinton was one of the best governors Arkansas ever had --- far better as a governor and Attorney General than as a president, in fact.

**not to mention that he's an isolationist --again, rolling back things to before the days of the Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson revolution -- as well as a tax nut, supports States' Rights, and is on the record praising a Klu Klux Klan member running for office in Louisiana.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hobbit Movie goes Blooey

So, no sooner does the news come that New Line and Jackson seem to have settled on a director for the forthcoming HOBBIT film (unfortunately not Jackson himself, though we can still hope this will change) than the news comes down that the Tolkien Estate has filed a $150,000,000 dollar lawsuit against New Line. There are many versions of the news story available online; I found the most helpful to be Kristin Thompson's account, which links to the basic announcements and has some thoughtful commentary on their implications.

Basically, the Tolkien Trust (representing the Tolkien Estate) and HarperCollins (as Tolkien's publishers) are suing for unpaid royalties (7.5% of the films' gross), as well as unspecified punitive damages (they're charging the studio with having destroyed records, fudged accounts, and general recalcitrance over the last six years -- in short, 'Hollywood Accounting' at its worst). Finally, they're asking for the right to cancel any HOBBIT movie if they can show that the studio violated their agreement. Those wanting to see the actual Complaint filed by the plaintiffs, which is full of interesting details, can find it at

(my thanks to Wayne Hammond for posting this link on the Mythsoc list).

Given that this lawsuit comes at a point when New Line is said to be reeling on the brink,* if they didn't pay the Tolkiens back in 2001-2004 when they were rolling in money it seems unlikely that they'll be able to do so now. So the likely outcome seems to be that the HOBBIT movie will get put on hold, New Line's option will lapse, the rights will revert to Zaentz, and he'll re-license it to another studio, probably with Jackson and his team still involved. We'll see.


*at least in part because they expected THE GOLDEN COMPASS to be another blockbuster. Instead, it's only made back about half of what they spent to make it. Too bad. The Catholic League is claiming its 'boycott' was responsible; given that almost no one knows they were even trying to prevent folks from seeing the film (on the bizarre grounds that the director had taken out all the references critical of Christianity in the original story), I find this, in the words of Lewis Carroll, 'a sentiment subject to doubt'. In fact, I strongly suspect if the director had had the guts to film something closer to what Pullman actually wrote they'd have done better. Now we'll never know.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

And Now, It's Bats

So, last year it was bees who were undergoing catastrophic population collapse. Now comes a story about a massive bat die-off underway in the Northeast, particularly New York and Vermont, and spreading rapidly.

This is particularly disturbing, given that they've still not figured out why a large percentage of America's honeybees died last year, other than to give the phenomenon a name ("Colony Collapse Discover", or CCD).* And, while many people are inexplicably afraid of bats (mainly because of the rabies myth), we need them, both as pollinators and as devourers of vast quantities of bugs. The fewer bats, the more mosquitoes--which is bad in these days of West Nile Virus and depleted bee populations.

I'm old enough to remember all the honeybees and butterflies we had in our clover-covered backyard every summer when we lived in Monticello, before pesticides brought their numbers down to the small remnant we see today. We avoided the total disappearance Rachel Carson had warned us about by banning DDT just in time, but though stabilized (until recently) neither has ever recovered. Nowdays I see far more bumblebees than honeybees, a complete reversal of the way things used to be. I'd hate to see the same thing happen to bats, and for the last of the honeybees to go the way of the Chestnut and the Elm.

Time to put out a bat house, I think. They need all the help they can get . . .


*personally, I suspect the extreme stress commercial honeybee colonies are under these days, and the profoundly unnatural way of life they experience by being fed on corn syrup and constantly trucked crosscountry from crop to crop, as the key underlying factor.

Monday, February 4, 2008

I am Interviewed . . .

. . . by the NATIONAL REVIEW. You can listen to the ten-minute audio interview here at their NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE site:


This was recorded about a month ago; listening to it now, I'm grateful to find that I seem to be reasonably coherent and that either I avoided too many 'umm's or else they seamlessly edited them out. Having listened to some of the other interviews posted on the same site in preparation for my own, I'm inclined to credit this to John J. Miller's being a good interviewer. And they certainly cover a wide range of topics and authors, from Rbt E. Howard's CONAN to a new biography of Joseph McCarthy.

Most of what I say in the interview will be familiar to anyone who's read my book; I think the one point I stressed that I may have only mentioned in passing before is the degree to which THE HOBBIT marks an ambitious step in Tolkien's career as a writer. It is his first book-length work of fiction, more than twice the length of ROVERANDOM or the 1930 QUENTA. Only THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, or all Tolkien's previous work, is as long, and that was composed of many short tales linked by a frame story modeled upon Morris's THE EARTHLY PARADISE and, besides, left unfinished.

The one point in my book I'm surprised no one has mentioned yet in any of the reviews or discussions I've seen? My argument that, according to my reconstruction of the original outline for THE HOBBIT, the Battle of Five Armies was originally to take place not at the Lonely Mountain but on Bilbo's return journey, in the Anduin River valley between Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains. I suspect this is simply because that comes so many hundreds of pages into the book(s) that not that many people have made it that far yet. We'll see.

--John R.