Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sexism vs. Realism in Fantasy

Fantasy, in particular epic fantasy and historical fantasy, receives many complaints of sexism from some corners. While some of those are quite justified, others are not. To make writing this post easy, from here on, when I refer to fantasy, I am referring to the Tolkienesque genre that I usually refer to as epic fantasy, including all its near cousins, but excluding all modern settings such as urban fantasy.

There is one thing that separates fantasy from other genres (except maybe historical fiction) and that is its reliance on history. Particularly medieval and ancient history. I personally feel we have a somewhat stilted view of history because it is dominated by men when in reality the percentage had invariably been 50/50. However, there are a great many situations, many of them copied by fantasy authors, that were historically dominated by men, in excess of 90%. War, battles, adventure, quests, and the like dominate fantasy. When we use history as our guide, women are uncommon. And let's face it, as a society we know this so there is a perception that women in these situations, without a good reason, reduces believably. Fantasy authors could easily craft their own worlds where that is not the case, but that strays from the medieval model and skirts the edge of the genre.

So rather than judging a fantasy book on how many male characters or female characters they have, we should be judging on the quality of characters to determine if we should judge the writer and his work being guilty of sexism. If we take these historically based settings and look at how the writer has cast the roles, it will tell us a lot about how they view women. A long, hard, military campaign will be mostly men. Historically they had camp followers, something fantasy tends to avoid. But they also had the occasional female fighter and a scattering of other women who might be found, though this was more the exception. Agincourt had no women present, while some were occasionally reported in the crusades. So during a battle it would be unlikely to find any women present so we should not expect this in fantasy. It happens with some frequency, such as Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. If we take the genre as it has come down to us, as rewritten medieval history where magic exists, then this is to be expected and is not sexist. We must examine the nature of the female characters to determine if the writer is being historically accurate or sexists. Eowyn is a good example. She is not masculine in any way. She is niece to the King and is given charge of the kingdom when he and her brother ride off to war. She is capable so she follows, disguising herself and helping out Merry. When her uncle falls in battle, she is right there, fearlessly defending him against the Witch King of Angmar. It turns out that because she is a women, she can kill the Witch King and she succeeds in doing just that. So while Tolkien doesn't offer us many female characters, both Eowyn and Galadrial are just the sort we'd wish more of.

When you move away from the battlefield, a more normal ratio of characters should dominate. A visiting prince would meet the servants and others of a castle owner's family, but would be there as a guest and the number of occupants of the castle might vary considerably from just a few people in a small family to a huge extended family. In time of war a male owner might be absent and his wife would be in charge. The more people depicted, the more women should be included. Tolkien did not do a good job in this respect. Other writers since have done better. Oddly, even women writers tend to go to the castles and cities to create more female characters.

The one writer I feel excellent at being non- sexists in both composition and characterization was Robert Jordan. He started off with a group of men and women from a small town, his world features female magic users, strong female characters - very much equals of the men, and some romantic tension, but also some solid friendships between genders. When I read his Wheel of Time books, I felt a realism that is usually lacking.

One thing to keep in mind when looking for sexism in fantasy is the gender of the writer and how intimidated they may be by writing the opposite gender. I've noticed that this particularly strikes men who don't feel they can write women. It also relates to their personal experiences. Most men who have served in the military have done so during the time when only men were soldiers. Experience has tremendous impact on how each writers tells a story. Rather than calling sexism anytime the ration falls below 1/1, we should accept that not everyone has had the same experiences, not everyone is comfortable writing both genders, and not all stories take place in settings that call for equal representation of the genders.

What matters is the nature of the characters. Has the writer given us a women who could be their sister, mother, wife, or daughter, or is she a stereotype? Does she have a real role or is she there for sex? Does she have a mind of her own, or is she a puppet? I've read some sexist trash from the fifties and found it quite offensive. What some want to label as sexism is just an unbalance, which does exist in some situations and in some people's experiences. We should strive to attain as much balance as possible, but in a genre so closely tied to the real history of our world and to war, it is inevitable that some stories will not have balance so we must look to what they writer offers us to judge the charge of sexism fairly.

It isn't sexism if it is realism. Realism is what all the good writers strive for. Solid, real, female characters are what we are after. Role models for readers. Women we'd all be proud to know in real life. I'll take well written female characters in a good story over just trying to crunch numbers. Now if you can do both, that is the best of all worlds, but not all authors can do that. I'd rather we continue to strive for more balance and have good stories by great writers who can give us good female characters. Quality over quantity. Above all I want realism. Historical realism does not always lend itself to casting a story with an equal number of male and female characters. So let's be practical in how we judge sexism in fantasy. Let's strive for realism and get as many good female characters in as we can given the setting. If we do that, sexism in the genre will continue to recede to obscurity.

The Hobbit - A Movie Epic

I've read a lot of reviews for this last installment of The Hobbit and I've found that not one of them had justifiable complaints. But, rather than review just this last part, I have to look at this as one movie in three parts.

Epic movies don't come to the theaters very often. It seems to be a lost art that most often comes to us on the small screen in the form of miniseries. We get the occasional movie that stretches to 2 1/2 hour and the rare one at 3 hours, but making a 4 hour movie is a lost art. Instead we have movies that come to us in parts. Several movie series have seen their final installments arrive as two part movies.

In The Lord of the Rings, we had the three separate volumes of the story as three separate movies. Much was cut out for the theatrical release and was restored for the Extended Editions. The extended edition of Return of the King is over 4 hours long.

When adapting The Hobbit, it went from one, to two, to three movies and when you see them you understand why. Not much was added in the way of material from the book itself, but we are treated to backstory and the side adventure of Gandalf that are not in the book, but found in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Plus we get to see the entire Battle of Five Armies, which the book only presents from Bilbo's perspective. The result is a second epic saga that has been just as successful as the first. Yet many criticize it for taking one book and making it into three.

I feel I first have to address this criticism, and that Jackson let the scripts get bloated. First, the nature of the way J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are very different. The Hobbit was written as a children's story and is light and playful, even though it deals with some pretty dark events. Plus it is only from Bilbo's perspective. Tolkien even rewrote the Bilbo/Gollum scene so that it would fit with how the events are related in The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo's adventures are told quickly and it flies from one to the next. The film includes all these events and the theatrical versions even seem rushed as we go from Bag End, to Rivendell, through the Misty Mountains to Mirkwood and at last to the Lonely Mountain. Even the bonus material lifted from The Lord of the Rings appendices are brief, leaving most of the films to focus on the main story.

Too much emphasis is placed on the size and page count of The Hobbit without regard to how much story there is there. The old 70's animated version managed to cram all that into a single short movie, but it does so by leaving things out. After crafting the brilliant epic movie trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, it is no surprise that Jackson tackled The Hobbit with the same attention to detail and depth. This is no longer Bilbo's telling of the tale, but a narration of all the events that transpired. As with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit comes alive with the addition of the missing material in the Extended Editions.

But you do have to wonder why a nearly half a million word epic like The Lord of the Rings could be so brilliant in three movies (long movies I would like to note) and a less than 100,000 word children's novel takes three movies (of not quite the same length) to achieve the same thing. A lot of it is what is found between the covers. I already mentioned how The Hobbit was written, but I have to now come to The Lord of the Rings. This is no longer a book for children. It is a literary epic containing within its pages a deep description of the world in which it takes place. In the Hobbit, Bilbo travels through the lands, but relates little. In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo travels further and we are given the full details of the locations, history, culture, and depth to the characters in a writing style that I initially found hard to read. Reading The Hobbit, you are zipping through Middle Earth, while when reading The Lord of the Rings, you are savoring every step of the journey.

This means that to tell the two tales in the same way, you must take those words in The Lord of the Rings and change many of them into the images, costumes, sets, landscapes, and feeling of history that drip from the pages while with The Hobbit, you must pull those details from The Lord of the Rings to flesh things out, including the missing parts of the story where we at long last get to see what Gandalf was up to. So that results in a single novel ending up as three movies. In particular the epic battle at the end of The Hobbit, which the book so glossed over because it was only from Bilbo's perspective (and he is unconscious for a good chunk of it).

That criticism out of the way, the next I found was that the effects looked cartoonish and the action was outrageous. Having watched The Lord of the Rings many times, I found the effects in each installment of The Hobbit to be better and more realistic. The action was incredible and much more realistic than that of The Lord of the Rings. I read complaints about Legolas's antics, but they were tamer than those in The Lord of the Rings. I think a big issue people have had with The Hobbit has had nothing to do with the visual choices or the writing, it has had to do with shooting it at 48 fps. It has a tendency to strip away the illusion that 24 fps gives film and makes the images look like television and cuts the ability of the human mind to accept the illusion being offered. So I really don't recommend seeing these in 3D first.

The last complaint that I found really tiresome was that motivations were not given for some actions. Well, this is likely either a fault in the original material or a fault in the viewer's ability to pick up on clues. I found no issue with motivation. Most was given in the previous parts of the story. And with a multi-part epic story like this, there is no reason to expect every detail to be laid out in each film. It pretty much requires viewing the previous movies first, and in this age of television series that demand the same thing, it is idiotic to expect the third installment of a film series to lay out elements that have already been laid out.

Now to my more direct feelings on each of the films. I enjoyed all three, but Battle of the Five Armies is my favorite. While An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug felt rushed and almost flew through some sequences too fast, this third film did it right. I'll be interested to see what they add for the extended edition, but I can't imagine how it could make it better. I found the story wrap up to bring the saga to an emotional close. The deaths at the end (with a story that was first printed 3/4 of a century ago I wouldn't think this would count as spoilers) were emotional and the ending was satisfying. The character journeys were well developed and nicely wrapped up.

When it comes to rating these movies with the three part of The Lord of the Rings, I would have to say that The Battle of Five armies comes in second while An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug were just below the older trilogy. That is not to say they were bad, they are just the least of a set of six outstanding movies. And I don't think this was Jackson's fault, but due to the material in The Hobbit. He told it the right way in the right amount of time, but the story is not quite as compelling when the big baddie gets away here. I can't wait to have all six extended editions and watch them in the proper order.

Jackson's choice of bracketing segments is genius. He placed it somewhere between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the events in the film) so that you can either watch this new trilogy first, or the older one, and enjoy it either way. Very brilliant and a fantastic way to end this trilogy and bridge to the next. And then there is Billy Boyd's song. Absolutely fantastic.

The Hobbit trilogy is a fantastic addition to the fantasy film genre and it will take its place as an outstanding piece of cinema.