Wake up, Polly Parrot.


The Lord Has No Clothes
by Brian Plante

By now, if you have any interest at all in it, you've already seen the movie Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. The movie has been getting rave reviews, and is a shoe-in for the Hugo award, and might even win an Oscar.

I suppose you liked the movie. I suppose you also liked the book before that. You probably suppose that I, a science fiction and fantasy author, must surely have also liked the movie and book.

I liked neither.

Oh, it wasn't a bad movie. The scenery was beautiful, the cinematography breath-taking, the special effects outstanding, and the acting solid. But at three hours long, it made my butt hurt, and we're probably still another five or six hours away from the tale's climax. Sorry, fantasy fans, but Tolkein's story is bloated and ponderous. I felt that way about the book, and the movie mirrors the same faults as its source material.

Part of the problem is the whole "fat fantasy trilogy" syndrome. Tolkein wrote LotR as a single, long novel, but the publisher forced him to break it up into three separate books. What the publisher should have done was make him cut it down to a much shorter, focused, single novel.

For better or worse, LotR set the standard for the modern fantasy story, so now nearly all such stories are trilogies, or even longer, and each book in the series is 500+ pages. I truly miss the days when books were usually singletons of 250 pages or so. I just don't believe that many authors can sustain my interest in a story for 1500 pages, and I am extremely reluctant to begin reading a new series if I know I'm going to have to read a handful of other volumes to complete the cycle.

Maybe it's just me. Fantasy fans love to lose themselves in a complex new world. I do, too, but I don't agree that you need 2000 pages to do it. There are lots of books in my "to be read" stack, and there's just not enough time to spend on these bloated multi-volume series.

The numbers show that I'm in the minority here. Fantasy series books are very popular these days, winning much shelf space away from science fiction books. Science fiction has been fighting back, bulking up most of the books far above the 250 pages that used to be normal, and turning stories that would have been singletons in years past into multi-volume cycles. Sure there were series books in the Golden Age (e.g. Asimov's Foundation series) but those books were usually shorter in length, and generally stood on their own two feet, without making you have to read all the other books in the series. Nowadays, publishers expect SF and fantasy authors to write series books. Three-book contracts are common because they don't want to spend money publicizing a book unless the same audience can be expected to follow along for volumes two and three.

Okay, back to the subject at hand: I was bored of the Rings. Tolkein used the episodic type of story similar to Homer's The Odyssey. The point of view character (Frodo/Odysseus) has a mission (destroy the ring/return home), but along the way meets a variety of people and places, battling enemies and befriending allies. It is a common story structure in fantasy, and to a lesser extent in SF (the "cosmic tour" books like Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama). I'm not usually satisfied with these odyssey stories, as their main purpose seems to be to delay the ending long enough to collect some minimum number of plot points. I don't get the feeling that the story is moving at all times to its conclusion. After Frodo and his buddies fight one monster, they move on -- to fight another, and another and another. At the end of the film, there's no real resolution; Frodo survives another battle and just walks off, presumably to set up for the next group of enemies or friends he'll meet in the next film. This is going to get pretty monotonous in that next movie, since it begins in the middle of the story, and won't really resolve anything. I think we can safely miss the middle movie altogether, and cut to the chase in the third film.

You don't agree? You loved the movie? Good for you. There are plenty of movies in the theaters and books in the bookstore, and not all of us will like the same ones. That's okay. Frankly I thought Monsters, Inc. was the best fantasy film of the year, beating out LotR, Harry Potter, Atlantis, Shrek, and Unbreakable. But so far, I haven't heard anyone in the media or any of the online places hang out say anything negative about LotR. I'm reminded of the fable of the con man who sold the king a suit of invisible clothing. As the con man explained, they were such fine clothes that only the smartest people could see them. I guess, then, I'm like the little boy at the parade who was the only one to speak up and admit that he couldn't see the king's clothing. I guess I'm the stupid one.

Copyright © 2002 Brian Plante

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