Category Archives: Review

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – An Epic Failure of Adaptation

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a perfect storm of predictability.

Hobbit01If you decide to adapt a single novel into a movie trilogy, the middle story, the bridge, is the hardest one to pull off successfully.

Having the middle story as part of a prequel makes the project a recipe for failure with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as the main course.

In the film, a group of dwarfs continue their quest, heading to an abandoned dwarf kingdom hidden under a mountain that contains a massive collection of gold and jewels.  The kingdom is now home to a huge, overly-chatty dragon.

On their quest, they cross paths with a bunch of big spiders, angry elfs, and a hunky seaman.

Their goal is to get a precious stone that the dwarf leader can use to bring the fractured dwarf tribes back together and they need the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to retrieve it.

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There were so many problems with this film, its hard to believe it made it into production.  Lets go over a few:

1) It’s a prequel.  Most viewers will have read/watched the Lord of the Rings prior to watching this film, which means they know the following:

  • The tension between the elfs and the dwarfs gets resolved and end up working together.
  • Gandalf is never in danger, since he leads the efforts in Rings.
  • Bilbo is never in danger, since he’s in Rings too.

So, three major points of conflict or suspense are diffused.

2) It’s the middle film of a single quest.

  • Since the trilogy is really a single quest, you know they make it.  You never doubt they will survive the journey.

Which means another major point of suspense is lost.

And there are other problems.

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3) The bad guys are computer generated:

  • Our brains react differently when two people are involved in a stunt than when two computer characters are.  The reason?  Danger.  It’s why people love car races or watching football.  The risk is real.  This is the same reasons we love amazing stunts by real people in real places.  Your brain can’t imagine how they pulled it off.
  • When characters are fighting computer generated bad guys, your brain never worries about them, never tries to figure out how they survived.  Your brain becomes passive.  A passive audience is a films worst enemy.
  • In Rings, the hand-to-hand combat scenes were with real people in make-up (along with some computer generated augmentation for scope and effect).  In The Hobbit, the bad guys are 100% fake, which makes their interaction with real actors 100% ineffective.

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4) Dragon TMI:

  • In the story we learn this dragon can only be killed by a certain type of arrow, which can penetrate his skin.  Legend had it that the dragon was nicked by one of these arrows and it knocked off a couple of scales, making him vulnerable.
  • Near the end of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug they show two things they shouldn’t have.
    1) the dragon does, indeed, have a few scales missing.
    2) there is one super arrow left.
  • So, what does this tell me?  It tells me the dragon gets killed by that arrow.  And, as luck would have it, this dragon killing won’t happen in this movie, but in film #3.
  • Which means, The Hobbit not only destroyed suspenseful moments in this film, they’ve actually undermined suspenseful moments in the NEXT ONE!

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All that being said, you can save a middle film of a trilogy if you leave the audience satisfied by surprising them at the end.

  • Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back – “I am your father.”  Enough said.
  • Hunger Games: Catching Fire – The games were a ruse for a rebellion.

The Hobbit’s ending wasn’t surprising at all.  Dragon gets loose and heads to a nearby town, the one with the super arrow.  Gee, I’ll talk about for as long as it takes my theater seat to return to its upright position.

But, if you can’t surprise anyone with the ending, then maybe you could surprise the audience by killing off one of the heroes.  Someone important, preferably.  But, no, EVERYONE survives this movie.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a shining example of a series of bad decisions made by Hollywood just so they could make money.

1) make a prequel because the Rings made serious $.
2) turn the one Hobbit tale into a trilogy to make serious $.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Hollywood wants to use The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to make more money.  Why should it?  After all, nothing else in the movie is surprising either.

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Book Review – Wounds

Wounds, by long time, successful Christian author Alton Gansky, delves into the victims of a serial killer whose motive is evil and whose crimes are biblical.

woundsGansky’s approaches the subject matter in a way I love, not as Christian fiction, per se, but as a book that has characters who are actively Christian.

This is a big difference to me.

In my experience, Christian fiction novels tend to be preachy and geared specifically toward Christian fans, where fiction with Christian characters are just good stories that includes characters who happen to have a strong faith.

Due to this successful approach, Wounds would be enjoyable by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In the story we follow detective Carmen Rainmondi, who leads the team of San Diego police working to catch the killer, while still struggling with the on-going emotional toll of the murder of her sister years earlier.  When one of the first victims turns out to be a local seminary student, she crosses paths with Dr. Ellis Poe, a frail, reclusive man who not only can help the police make connections to the serial killer”s motives, but also has insight into the death of Rainmondi’s sister.

Gansky’s novel moves relatively quickly and the author does a great job of bringing us into each scene and location through the type of detailed descriptions that can only come from someone who has been there.  The title, Wounds, not only refers to the marks on the victims, but the hidden damage the main characters each possess that have helped shape them into the people they are today.

The book is an easy and enjoyable read.  Devout Christians may connect the dots sooner than non-believers, but that doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of the storytelling.

Wounds is a good read for anyone the fan of crime drama, either Christian or not.

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Adaptation Choices

“I have an image of Prim in a white room, strapped to a table, while masked, robed figures elicit those sounds from her.  Somewhere they are torturing her, or did torture her, to get those sounds.”

In my last podcast I talked about the process of adapting a screenplay to a novel.  The opposite path can be taken when adapting a novel into the screenplay, but instead of looking for ways to fill your story, you look for ways to streamline the novel into an effective screenplay.

catchingfire2A lot of tough choices have to be made during such a process.  Locations may be trimmed, characters combined into one, etc.  Then, that script, that blueprint, is given to a director to be turned into a series of visual images.

The first Hunger Games film, directed by Gary Ross, was one of the best film adaptations of a novel I had seen.  It captured the life and essence of the book perfectly and the additions and changes to the screenplay aligned to a T with the novels original feel and mood.

When I read the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire, the story was more vast and the action, much bigger.  I was concerned if Ross, who nailed an intimate feel in the first film, with a lot of handheld camera work, would be able to pull off the larger action sequences in the second book.

Ross, not believing he had enough prep time to direct the second film, stepped down and Francis Lawrence was hired to direct both the second film, Catching Fire, and the third and fourth films based on the last novel, Mockingjay.

In Catching Fire, both in the book and the movie, during the games Katniss finds herself stuck listening to jabberjays scream in Prim’s voice.  It is a horrendous sound that wreaks havoc on Katniss’ fragile psyche.

The quote from the Catching Fire book that started this blog entry shows what Katniss is fearing, that in order for the jabberjays to mimic a tortured Prim, Prim, herself, would have had to be tortured.

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In the movie, Katniss is stuck in the jungle, forced to hear these screams for an hour.  The film director chooses to show Katniss covering her ears and screaming, trying to block out the sound.

This adaptation choice was an exceptionally weak one.

Author Suzanne Collins explained perfectly what Katniss was imaging had caused these horrendous sounds.  Lawrence, the film director, should have shown us that in the film as well.

Film is a visual medium.  If the director would have chosen to inject flashes of the images ricocheting through Katniss’ mind, we would have be thrust into her psychological shoes, and we would have become an active participant in a very disturbing moment, like we were in the book.

However, by the director only showing Katniss’ reaction to the sound, we are passive, like Peeta, sitting on the other side of the force field, watching her in agony.

A very, very poor choice.

Both novels and films have one primary goal, to emotionally engage the audience.  They do this by putting us in the protagonists point-of-view as much as possible.  In novels, you do this by hearing what they think, what they fear and what they dream.  In film, it has to be done visually, otherwise we’re a passive observer eating popcorn in an air conditioned theater instead of in the mind of the hero stuck in a jungle facing her greatest fear.

That adaptation choice, either by the screenwriters or the director, was the wrong one and wasted one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the story.  Instead of jarring us into Katniss’ world, it just became another hurdle the contestants had to overcome in a long series of challenges.

I hope in the next two films, when given the opportunity, they make more powerful and effective choices when adapting the novel into a film.

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The Book of Jotham – Book Review

The Book of Jotham, written by Arthur Powers, is a novella written from the perspective of a mentally challenged man-child who becomes a disciple of Christ.

BookOfJothamJotham is cared for by Mary and others during Jesus’ ministry and his innocence gives him insight into Christ’s real identity. Some of the apostles question why God would create someone like Jotham, who appears to be at a disadvantage, but Jesus defends him, knowing the purity of his heart.

As a novella, The Book of Jotham is published by Tuscany Press and won Tuscany’s 2012 Best Novella prize last year.

The idea of writing the Gospel accounts from the perspective of Jotham gave a fresh perspective on the material.  In line with Jotham’s mental challenges, his sentences are short and simple and innocent.

This approach works well to express Christ’s story in a new way, but I have to admit that, by the end of the book, I wanted more.  I wanted more description, more insight, more words. Reading a novella where most of the sentences are under ten words, many of them just one or two, dampened my reading experience over time.  The novelty wore off and I grew frustrated.

Granted, the author had to stay honest with the character and approach and I applaud him for taking such a bold step, but it eventually did not jive with my personal tastes.

For others, it may not bother them at all and they may think I’m nuts.  That’s okay too.

As a novella, The Book of Jotham is a quick and easy read that is well written with a unique style and voice, giving a new way to experience Christ’s ministry.

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Awakening – Book Review

Awakening, by Claudia Cangilla McAdam, is a marvelous book that expertly weaves many of the Bible accounts around the events of Good Friday into an enjoyable young adult novel.

awakeningMcAdam uses a simple and effective device to bring this ancient world to new life and does so with such wonderful invention and skill that you find yourself surprised by the stories you have heard so many times before.

Awakening, published by Sophia Institute Press, follows the touching story of Veronica, a young teen struggling with the loss of her father and brother.   Her relationship with her mother has become strained as the world she knows and loves seems to be falling apart around her.

Struggling with a high fever, she falls asleep and awakens to find herself in Jerusalem during the time of Christ.

As a matter of fact, she not only is living in Biblical times, she is one of the characters in the Bible, the young girl who was brought back to life by Jesus himself.  Yet, unlike that little girl, she knows what is about to unfold.  She knows Jesus is about to be betrayed.  She knows he will be crucified and buried.  What should she do?  Try and stop it from happening or watch Jesus suffer and die?

Here is where McAdam’s skill as a writer shines bright.  Attempting such a retelling is fraught with danger.  Will she do so respectfully?  Will she resort to cliche?  How can you retell a story we’ve heard so many times with a new voice that doesn’t diminish the events it relives?

McAdam brilliantly weaves characters from Veronica’s modern-day life into her biblical one.  Within a few pages you find yourself transported along with her, believing that her family is in the inner circle of the followers of Christ.  As Veronica juggles learning how to live in the Biblical world with her knowledge of what will happen there, we can’t help but be drawn into the story.

The reader finds themselves where most people have only dreamt of existing; in the presence of a living, breathing Jesus.  How wonderful would it be to be transported back and to have a conversation with Jesus?  Or to be at the Last Supper?  How magical would such an experience be?

That’s what McAdam’s book brings, magic and awe.  I can’t delve into the details about how she interjects Veronica into the events around the Good Friday without taking away from McAdam’s mastery of storytelling, but she subtly ties numerous Biblical events seamlessly together in a way that makes them fresh and new again.

An amazing feat.

Awakening is an enjoyable, worthy read for young adults and older.  I highly recommend it.

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Catholic, Reluctantly – Book Review

There is a lot to like in Catholic, Reluctantly, however it is missing enough dramatic weight to make it memorable.

This book, published by Chesterton Press, is the first in a series of young adult Catholic novels that revolves around the students and parents involved in creating a new Catholic school called John Paul II High School. The students include:

  • Allie, a cafeteria Catholic who previously attended a public school until she was involved in a gun scare.
  • George, a top wrestler who has a crush on Allie.
  • Cecelia, who is incessantly bright and chipper.
  • J.P., a troublemaker.
  • Brian, the smallest student with the strongest moral compass.
  • Liz, who helps out.
  • James, a self-righteous loner.

catholicreluctantlyThe book starts off on the first day of school, as all of the kids struggle to fit in and feel welcome. George and Allie feel the most isolated, as they are one of the few whose parents aren’t also the teachers. George, friends with most of his classmates, has given up a promising high school wrestling career to be there and Allie is only attending because her parents are afraid to let her stay in the nearby public school.

The bulk of the book has the teens dealing with each other, J.P.’s pranks, and the schools tenuous existence. Eventually they get involved in events at the competing public school where they are challenged with promoting the faith, pornography, bullying and bias.

The numerous small challenges the teens face are great examples of using your faith to make good moral decisions and/or stand up for what is right, no matter what the consequence. Plus, the different scholastic lessons and social events are positive examples as well.

As a parent who home schooled his two children, I know how realistic these characters are and how challenging being a moral teen in a fallen world can be.

The biggest problem with this book, and it is a problem, is that nothing major happens. There are hints of future big events, like how the school property resides on valuable land, or the creepy, unknown student involved in the gun scare that may be planning something greater. But, there are no big payoffs in this first installment.

I think the issue here is that the author (or authors, as a group of writers are working together to pen the series) treated this first book as one in the installment instead of a stand-alone book.  That’s a serious flaw.

If this were a stand-alone book, with nothing coming afterwards, then this story would have been told very differently. The creepy gun guy storyline would have been the focus and the consequences would have been substantially higher.  It would have resonated with you long after you put the book down.

In future books in the series I hope the authors realize they need to make each individual book as powerful as possible, which will make the entire series powerful, instead of making a series of books that, only combined, become powerful.

As it stands, Catholic, Reluctantly is a quick and easy read, but not very memorable. Hopefully future books in this series will create greater dramatic tension and consequence.

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A Pius Man – Book Review

A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller, by Declan Finn, is equal parts intriguing and frustrating.  As a self-published novel, it is one or two professional edits away from being a top-notch thriller.

pius-manA Pius Man is the first in a trilogy of books and deals with the threats against a newly elected Jesuit Pope and his attempts to canonize Pope Pius XII, who served as the head of the Catholic Church during World War II.  The complex and compelling story involves representatives from nearly every branch of international enforcement agencies, from Vatican police to Mossad to Secret Service to Egyptian police, ex-Special Forces, Interpol, to free lance mercenaries, spies and a Hollywood stuntman to boot.

These forces work together and against each other in an attempt to uncover the connection and ultimate goal of a series of murders involving al-qaeda operatives, scholastics, and priests, all of whom were involved in investigating Pope Pius XII.  Each team member comes in with suspicions and preconceived ideas about the others and through their deep and intertwining investigations learn the true agendas behind their reasons for being there.

Finn has obviously done a tremendous amount of research, both about the Vatican and Pope Pius XII.  As the book examines, in the sixties and seventies there was a lot of new claims that Pius XII was in bed with the Nazi’s and did nothing to help the Jews from the slaughter that awaited them. These claims were mostly based on suspicious sources (some of which were forged) while proven documents contradicting these claims were mostly ignored.  It is this tension between Pius XII’s real actions during one of the world’s darkest moments and these false claims that Finn uses as a catalyst for the story.

More often than not, Finn does a good job of weaving into the story corrections about inaccuracies of Catholic belief and history.  Most of these morsels of information are related directly to the investigation, while others are bit clunky in the text.  However, as a Catholic who has had to defend the church’s beliefs and stances from the ignorance of others, I appreciate Finn’s attempts to clear the air.

There are a few things that stand out and get in the way of this book reaching its full potential, simple things that a professional editor would have fixed quite easily.  For example, there are eight main characters in this book, many with appropriately middle-eastern names, and yet Finn rarely calls them by the same name twice in a row.

There is one character, for example, whose name is Sean Ryan.  Within a single chapter he can be called Sean, Ryan, Sean Ryan, Sean A. P. Ryan or Sean Aloysius Patricus Ryan.  Multiply that by eight characters and put that in the middle of two vans under a hail of gunfire and rocket propelled grenades and you quickly lose track of who is doing what.  The simple standard of introducing a character once and, thereafter, using a single version of their name outside of dialogue would have eliminated this confusing and completely unnecessary obstacle for enjoying the story.

Even though it was recently published, I’m not sure when the book was written, because it feels like it has been sitting around for a while.  For example, when characters talk about picking up disposable cameras at the airport, it screams “ten years ago.”  This, too, was a distraction.

Another very odd choice had me stumped.  Although a small part of me appreciated his thinking outside of the box, I was more than confused by Finn’s choice to, at the end of multiple chapters, suggest the reader go online to a website and type in a key phrase to learn more about a character or subject.

I have never heard of an author promoting the idea of having the reader put the book down to do something else.

Finally, I think Declan Finn is the one of the best names for an author I’ve ever heard.  It just screams political thriller.  I don’t know if its a real name or a pen name, but either way, it rocks.

I hope Finn invests a few dollars to revisit this book, updates it and gives it fresh edit.  If he does, he could have something really special here.

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