Saturday, April 28, 2007

Eragon - and 300

I watched a few rather disappointing movies recently. Some readers will remember my review of Christopher Paolini's Eragon, which, despite it's flaws and lack of originality, I had quite liked. So of course I had to go and catch the film Stephen Fangmeier had made based on the book, which finally released here a couple of weeks back. Boasting of a sterling cast, which included legendary actors like John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons, and special effects that would bring fire-breathing dragons to life, the film appeared promising. It didn't live up to that promise, though - to put it briefly, it was terrible.

I now know why the film Eragon has received consistently bad reviews. Everything that made the book enjoyable and complex has been cut out, leaving only the bare bones that made for an insipid, two-dimensional film. I know that movies based on books rarely live up to expectations (except for films like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) - but surely they can at least stick to the plot and try to make it work? And if Peter Jackson could have made such fantastic films out of Tolkein's incredibly complicated The Lord of the Rings, a book that Paolini himself drew liberally upon in both Eragon and its sequel, Eldest, couldn't Stephen Fangmeier have given us a passable movie version of Eragon? Everything went wrong in Eragon - Ed Speeler, who played the title role, was wooden and amatuerish, the script was shoddy, the backdrops all too clearly created in a Hollywood studio, the acting, with the exception of the big names, pathetic - and Saphira was just not blue enough! From a sapphire blue dragon whose scales would shine as brightly as gems, she was transformed into a blue-grey dinosaur with a tail, who was just not awe-inspiring. At various points majestic, frightening, lovable, stubborn, impish, quirky, wise yet child-like, Saphira, Paolini's best and most original creation, was reduced to little more than a talking winged steed. Much as I like Rachel Weisz, I have to say that she didn't bring Saphira to life - and the beautiful, loving relationship that Saphira and Eragon, as Rider and Dragon, shared, was dealt with in only a few perfunctory lines of dialogue.

John Malkovich's Galbatorix was menacing enough - more so when you consider the fact that he did not have much to go upon, as in the books, Galbatorix, despite being a constant presence, never does make an appearance - but then, when has Malkovich ever disappointed? Jeremy Irons made for a brilliant Brom, but here again Fangmeier slips up - the bond that Brom and Eragon come to share, as mentor and protege, surrogate father and son, Riders with shared powers and destinies, is not allowed to develop. So we never get to see how Brom shaped Eragon, a mere farm boy, into a Rider, or how they both learn to trust each other with their lives; instead, we are supposed to believe that Eragon learnt how to wield a sword all on his own, and began using his magical powers quite, well, magically. Brom's death fails to move because we never get a sense of the kind of person he is, and Saphira's last gift to him is puzzling, because we don't understand why she should do so much for him. And key characters, who make Eragon the book such an exciting read, are unceremoniously dispensed with - Roran, Eragon's cousin, whose transformation from village apprentice to warrior is as powerful as Eragon's, only appears in the first 10 minutes of the movie; Angela, the lovable herbalist/fortune-teller is reduced to a Barbie look-alike in a lot of gold bling who enters and exits within a confusing span of two minutes; the fearsome Razac, modelled on Tolkein's Nazgul, and who are as indestructible as the latter, are casually killed in a very short battle; the Urgals were, as my husband said, nothing more than tattooed WWF wrestlers; and Solembum, the wonderful were-cat, is absent altogether.

Sienna Guillory's Arya leaves a lot to be desired - it is very hard to imagine her as the beautiful, brave, clever and inscrutable elf princess. And while Garrett Hedlund is capable enough as the tortured Murtagh, his character, too, is glossed over - the announcement, 'he is Morzan's son', is met with next to no emotion. The one who stands out, however, easily the best thing about the film, is Robert Carlyle, in the role of the Shade Durza - he is chilling enough to send very real shivers down your spine. Powerful, arrogant and cruel, he sweeps through the film dripping scorn and disdain for the mere mortals that dare to stand in his way - Durza was so brilliantly played that I actually hated to see him die. It's hard to tell why the people responsible for this film actually made it, since they robbed it of its very essence, leaving in its place yet another action adventure meant for children, and not a very good one at that. Did Paolini have any role to play in the making of Eragon? Did he react at all to the destruction Fangmeier and Peter Buchman (the scriptwriter) had wrought upon his book? There probably will be a sequel to the movie as well, as Eragon ends with a shot of Galbatorix and Shruiken, his black dragon, both roaring with anger at their defeat - but unless, like the Harry Potter movies, Eldest is made by another, and better, director, I think we can safely presume that it will be as big a disaster as Eragon is.

Far more disappointing, because there were far too many expectation attached to it, was 300. After the gritty, in-your-face, dark Sin City graphic novels, made brilliantly into a film by Roger Rodrigues and Frank Miller, I have been a die-hard Miller fan. While I haven't read 300 yet, the film didn't come anywhere close to the celluloid version of Sin City. Dripping testosterone, the film was all about CGI, male bonding, the glorification of war, and the age-old divide between the mythical 'East' (in the form of the Persians, led by the god-king Xerxes) and the 'West' (exemplified in the Greeks, particularly the Spartans, the repository of all that is brave, and good, and noble). Laced heavily with rather blatant racism (the Persians, who all look suspiciously like members of some long-lost African tribe, are cowards, at best; at worst, they embody in themselves every form of depravity known to man - be it treachery, barbarism, or kinky sexual fetishes that would make even the Marquis de Sade look like an unimaginative schoolboy), 300 is actually considered by some to be part of a psychological warfare being levied against Iran, in tandem with the impending threat of attack from the US government. This very male film, made by a man for men of all ages (there is only one female character in the film, King Leonidas' wife, who sums up her role, and that of all Spartan women, in one sentence - 'Only Spartan women can give birth to real men') takes off from the socialisation that all little boys are subjected to, which says that unless you go aggressively charging through life bloodying every demurring nose within sight, you're not worthy of being called a 'MAN'. So there's loads of rhetoric, lots of decapitations, artistically spurting fountains of blood, severed limbs, battle-cries, in the midst of which the noble 300 fight their beautifully choreographed way through, ankle-length cloaks, which, if worn in real battles, would trip the persons wearing them right under the closest sword, swirling gracefully. Yet somehow the battles fail to move, the war-cries don't elicit a corresponding stirring of hearts (the way they did in LoTR, for instance). All one can ask at the end of what a newspaper report called 'the Spartan workout video' is - which self-respecting Spartan would go into a battle fought with spears, swords and arrows wearing only the briefest of chaddis?