Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Dragonhood Down The Ages

Brian made an interesting post recently about the new Hobbit/Lord of the Rings prequel films. I'm looking forward to their release, partly because I'm a fan of Guillermo Del Toro's work, but mostly because I just love The Hobbit and think it actually makes a much more 'filmable' piece than The Lord of the Rings. Those films had their moments but were ponderous, over-long and full of misplaced humour that I just didn't like. That was an unfortunate consequence of the nature of the source material - which isn't a criticism of the books; Tolkien had no idea when he wrote them that anybody might ever consider wanting to turn them into blockbuster movies.

A lot of the discussion centres around Smaug, and I am given hope by Del Toro's encouraging noises in that regard:

Smaug should not be "the Dragon in the Hobbit movie" as if it was just "another" creature in a Bestiary. Smaug should be "The DRAGON" for all movies past and present. The shadow he cast and the greed he comes to embody- the "need to own" casts its long shadow and creates a thematic / dramatic continuity of sorts that articulates the story throughout.... One of the main mistakes with talking dragons is to shape the mouth like a snub Simian one in order to achieve a dubious lip-synch. A point which eluded me particularly in Eragon, since their link is a psychic one.

To me, Smaug is the perfect example of a great creature defined by its look and design, yes, but also, very importantly, by his movement and -One little hint- its environment - Think about it... the way he is scaled, moves and is lit, limited or enhanced by his location, weather conditions, light conditions, time of the year, etc. That's all I can say without spoilers but, if you keep this curious little summary you'll realize several years form now that those things I had in my mind ever since doodling the character as a kid had solidified way before starting the shoot of the film.

This is good stuff; a director who seems to understand fantasy and has genuine passion for the real deal, not its diluted derivatives.

Dragons have become almost boring over time. Actually, on this point I think I can see where China Mieville was coming from with his banalifying systematization criticism of D&D; Statting out dragons was a noble impulse on the part of the designers (what could be more iconic than adventurers slaying dragons - and how else to do that if they don't have Stats?) but it demystified and de-romanticised the things to the point where they became standard. Check out this picture from the 3rd edition Monster Manual, for example:

A perfectly acceptable picture (although with the slightly cartoonish look that characterised 3rd edition), but one that I'm sure you'll agree doesn't convey much in the way of awe or terror. It's almost anodyne.

I also blame the Dragonlance books, which were responsible for a lot that was bad about 2nd edition AD&D in general: over the course of those books dragons went from being terrifying ancient reptilian demigods to humdrum, ordinary, rather pathetic creatures - like overgrown, scaled, flying horses. Nothing could have been more bland than end-of-series Dragonlance dragons.

It wasn't ever thus. Compare the picture above, for instance, with the great John Howe's picture The Death of Smaug:

Admittedly the 3rd edition Green Dragon picture isn't an action shot, but I still know which of the two has more majesty, mystery, wonder and romance. I hope 4e goes some way to rectifying the problem, but I remain to be convinced.


  1. Thanks for the link!

    Den Beauvais' dragons will always be my favorites, I think, especially the ones he did for the covers of Dragon Magazine.

    As for del Torro, I was very heartened when he mentioned both Maleficent from "Sleeping Beauty" and the dragon from "Dragonslayer". I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

    - Brian

  2. I think that the Lord Of The Rings feels like much more of a film than the Hobbit.
    With talking animals in the book im afraid it may end up looking like a Disney film.

  3. That is a danger. But I think the Hobbit is more manageable as a film than the LOTR - it won't require as much cutting, and the story is snappier.

  4. I rather like the drawn-by-a-naturalist aesthetic in my bestiaries. It doesn't evoke as much emotion from the subjects, but it really sells the idea of a bestiary, which is a big draw for me.
    It would be neat to see a more medieval bestiary approach some time. The drawing would quite blatantly share only a passing resemblance to the genuine articles. It would be almost pictographic, like a medieval European's 3rd hand impression of a crocodile.