Originality

Not More F**king Elves!


Tolkien wrote "The Lord of the Rings". It was very good. Now write something of your own.

There is a story, the veracity of which I am unsure, about a group of writers at Oxford University called the “Inklings”, which featured J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis amongst its members. These literary giants would meet to discuss literature, and to read extracts of their current projects to each other. Legend has it that Hugo Dyson, during a reading from Tolkein’s seminal The Lord of the Rings, irrately declared “Oh God, not more f**king elves!

I have some sympathy with Dyson’s position.

Understand that I am a big fan of The Lord of the Rings (though it is far from a work without flaw), and I started off writing fantasy in my early-to-mid teens. But nowadays, I can hardly stand it, and actively shy away from anything under the label “fantasy”. I know it’s an illogical position, but it is not entirely without reason.

Today, on a writing-themed forum which I frequent, a new writer had started a thread asking for something along the lines of a reference book for fantasy races and religions “widely accepted” by known fantasy authors. I know that new authors are prone to misunderstanding, and Christ knows I probably did when I set out, but as I threw my hands up in despair it occurred to me that this is exactly what turns me off fantasy.

Particularly the case with high fantasy, there seems to me to be a real dearth of originality. The beautiful noble elves, immortal and above worldly troubles. Greedy, bearded dwarfs, who can’t stand elves. Goblins/orcs which are deformed things, really only animals to be slaughtered by the heroes. Elderly, bearded wizards, who play the (grand)fatherly role. And of course, some magical mcguffin which drives the plot along.

I had a little twitter outburst on sunday morning which was related to this. It was directed at a story in the Independent about Christopher Paolini’s latest novel. The tweet said:

Yes, it’s churlish (and misspelt- “excied” should be “excited”, typing on my Kindle can be a pain at times), but Paolini has always exemplified to me what’s wrong with fantasy. His books are manufactured, repackaged tropes. Having inspirations is fine, but when your writing looks like a patchwork of other peoples’ then you have problems. Eragon, his first book, was an unimaginative mix of Anne McCaffrey’s brilliant Dragonriders of Pern books, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars.

The excuse always seems to be that he wrote it at 15, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, I was writing at 15, and I was determinedly trying to be original. Yes, what I wrote was almost certainly awful, but it was mine. Paolini cobbled together a novel of rip-offs which was only published because his parents owned a publishing house.

It’s ironic, because there’s so much potential for imaginative originality in fantasy as a genre. But so often it ends up pigeon-holed in ridiculous stereotypes, with orphaned farmboys grinding out the same miserable quests over and over. And there is life in fantasy. The work of Neil Gaiman, for example, is brilliant. Terry Pratchett uses humour to break the relentless grim seriousness of it. And HBO’s recent series Game of Thrones (adapted from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series) was excellent; it’s only concessions were dragons and a little bit of zombie-ness, and the only dwarf in it was beardless and far more interested in whoring than mining.

Lord of the Rings was, as a child, one of my favourite books. It still is. But the endless cavalcade of would be imitators has left me weary and jaded. Aspiring fantasy authors, heed Hugo Dyson’s advice: “Not more f**king elves!”

Dude, Where’s My Originality?


The Swedish "Let the Right One In" was released in 2008- so why is there already a Hollywood remake?

Remakes. I have serious issues with remakes, particularly in the film industry. And I’m not the only one, the internet is full of people with gripes about it. But now is my turn.

My thoughts on this were prompted by a friendly little discussion over at the TTA Press Forums, about Let Me In, the US remake of Swedish film Let the Right One In. Now, I haven’t seen either film (yet), but I have to wonder at the remaking of a film only two years after it’s initial release. Given the gestation period of films, this must have been conceived around the time that the Swedish film was released.

So why do films get remade? I think Pete Tennant hit the nail right on the head, saying that it does fundamentally come down to money. The American studios realise that if they remake it, they can make a whole pile of money off the back of it. And that’s the primary force behind remakes. If it’s been proved to work once, it’ll work again right?

The same philosophy has been behind a number of originality-based problems in the film industry. Unleashing Rob Zombie on the Halloween franchise, the lacklustre and unnecessary Nightmare on Elm Street remake, the seemingly endless parade of Saw sequels. Even The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (another Swedish film) is being remade in an American image for release next year.

The studios are aware that if they trot out something with a recognisable brand, then people will flock to it based on that alone. Maybe the fact that they invariably turn out somewhere between mediocre and utter crap is unrelated, or maybe it’s a symptom of them not thinking they need to work as hard.

The fact is that original films are harder work. They have to be made better (probably), they have to be advertised harder, and there’s none of the “sheep” guarantee that people will turn out to see it. But they are an injection of vitality to the industry, which sustain it creatively. And they can be done successfully.

My two favourite films so far this year are probably Inception and Kick Ass. You might argue with me as to the value of those two films, but I personally loved them. And they were original films. Well, Kick Ass was an adaptation of a graphic novel, but I’ll allow it. They weren’t remakes of foreign films, or even of old genre classics. They were new stories, based on nothing else than some writer’s imagination. So huzzah.

Of course, there are other arguments for remaking films. There’s the subtitles argument. I myself have no problem with subtitled. Dubbing is always an awful idea, because it somehow always manages to destroy the film. But I like subtitles. Some people, however, don’t. I don’t get it, but whatever. That might be a reason for remaking a film, but I have to say that on its own it’s a pretty poor one. In my experience a film takes something (whether a lot, or just a general sense) from the culture in which it is made, and which it is set. That’s part of the reason that Americanisation has become so pervasive (not a criticism, surprisingly), because Hollywood films are revered the world over. But as soon as you try and transplant a film from one culture to another, you start running into weird problems.

I’m not so much against retreading old ground. J.J. Abrams Star Trek was pretty damn good. I’m a massive fan of Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. The remake of V sucked because it was awful, not because it was a remake. What’s important though, I think, is not to forget respect and originality. Respecting the original work, and putting your own original take on it, will go a long way to make it look like less of a money-grabber, and less of an insult to the original.