Hollywood loves a literary blockbuster. It gives them a ready made plot with the accompanying audience, who salivate over the prospect of their beloved classic making it to the big screen. The problem is that adapting a book to film is not as easy as it sounds. Characters, plot twists, sometimes even whole storylines are cut in order to fit a 400 page book into a two-hour movie, and sections are re-written in order to make them work in the context of filmmaking. (The constant marginalization of Neville in the Harry Potter films comes to mind here.) And any time a writer/director producer/studio executive chooses to make these changes, the ready made audience tends to turn ugly.
And if they are science fiction/fantasy fans, the word ugly doesn't even cover it.
Eragon is based on a novel written by wunderkind Christopher Paolini. Home schooled, Paolini started writing the book after graduating from high school at age fifteen. He and his sister spent hours creating languages for the book, a wholesome activity that by far beats the usual hair pulling and name calling. His parents self-published the book in 2002 and Paolini spent much of that year touring schools and libraries to promote the book. (Before you scoff at such a thing, sales were not too bad, especially when he would routinely sell a hundred copies in a day.) More importantly, during this tour, the stepson of Carl Hiaasen, writer of Hoot, bought, read and then raved about the book. Hiaasen brought the book to the attention of his publishers, and the rest is history.
Let me stop here and admit some bias. I love the book. I have read it several times and frequently recommend it to others. In fact, as a grade 7 and 8 teacher, I am constantly pushing this book onto my students who show any interest in fantasy. (Future fantasy authors may send their donations of gratitude to Revolution SF.) While some reviewers have pointed out that the story owes a great deal to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I would like to point out that most modern epic fantasy owes a great deal to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. They are watersheds in film and literature. They are going to influence anything that follows them, the way Hitchcock, DeMille, Shakespeare and Dickens did in their day.
As wonderful as those two epic sagas are, they owe a great deal to the legends, myths and archetypes that underlie Western culture. It's why they are so appealing. Don't believe me? Read Beowulf or Gilgamesh and stop trying to earn your Fantasy Connoisseur Society membership card.
Rant over. Back to the movie review.
So it was with breathless excitement that I reacted when I saw the supersize movie poster at my local megaplex. And an underlying creeping terror that they would screw this up. Early reviews on the Internet were not good. (The news that Saphira the dragon had feathers caused me to reach for a paper bag.) I was so worried, that when I contacted the guys at Revolution SF about the review, I even asked if they covered therapy. (Still waiting on that answer, Joe.)
This past Saturday, the husband unit and I arrived at the megaplex and with my large tea and medium size bag of Nibs (which cost me the left kidney of any future children), I settled in to watch.
Overall, this movie wasn't great, but it wasn't as bad as I feared it would be.
Irons in the Fire
If you see this movie, watch it for Jeremy Irons. He is everything that Brom, the ex-dragon rider turned village storyteller who takes Eragon under his wing, should have been. He is absolutely brilliant. And like Alec Guinness, who he has been compared to, he decided to breathe real life and craft into his lines and you forget that he is acting. It is really too bad that the Academy isn't even going to look at this movie, because this is a nuanced performance that could be used as a masterclass in acting. In the scene where Eragon tells Brom the name of his dragon, there's a very complex look that passes over his eyes. As a fan of the novel, I knew what that meant and I was awed by it.
In the novel, Eragon and Saphira choose her name together. Eragon runs through a list of dragon names that he has heard from Brom. Saphira is the one the blue dragon likes best. It turns out that it was also the name of Brom's late dragon. Jeremy Irons captured the joy that the name brought to Brom and the pain of her being mentioned again, as well as the pride that the dragon that would bring back the Riders would be named after his beloved partner and steed. Unfortunately, the movie chooses to have Saphira tell Eragon her name, so this moment is lost to those who haven't read the book. But the fact that Irons puts that into his acting shows what a master craftsman he is. When Brom's inevitable death occurs, the movie is much poorer without him.
Not So Great Acting, Clumsy Direction
The rest of the cast (with one exception – see below) do the best job they can, but some of them aren't up to it (Ed Speelers as Eragon, I am talking to you; William Mosely, Peter from last year's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, would have been a much better choice) or really aren't given much to do (Djimon Hounsou as Ajihad). There was also some miscasting. As I watched Robert Carlyle (who you may remember from The Full Monty) play Durza, I thought that Brad Dourif would have been better.
First-time director Stefan Fangmeier clumsily handles the story, giving in to the desire to shoot a pensive Eragon looking out at a sunset with lots of dramatic music that had even me thinking of a similar scene on Tatooine. He may be a great special effects supervisor, but he needs to mature a wee bit more as a director before he directs another high-profile film (or any other film based on a book I love, for that matter).
The special effects are very good. I am again amazed at how far cinema has come since Clash of the Titans, but one of the things that really stuck in my craw was the characterization of Saphira the dragon. When she hatches, we are treated to Nermal of the dragon world. With her big eyes and little tufts of hair on her head, the intent was for the audience to go "awwwwwww". Instead I found my teeth on edge. She is a dragon. A dragon. Say it with me now: draaaaa-gon. This is supposed to be a fearsome creature, not a Muppet Baby. And don't get me started about the feathers.
Yes, they looked leathery and scaly, but Paolini makes clear references in the book to Saphira's wings being a membrane. I was certain that this change was so that they could have the Saphira plush toy ready for the Christmas season, but a careful search of the Internet finds a video game, a board game, some collectible swords and knives. Oh, and a version of Uno. Who knows what inspired this idiocy? Or if it's a who, they need to be slapped. Hard. Repeatedly.
Phoning It In
Perhaps my most scathing commentary is for John Malkovich, who plays king and baddy Galbatorix, who, by the way, doesn't even really appear in the first book as a full-fledged character. In the book Galbatorix is only referred to by other characters. In the movie, he seems to be inserted to give it more dramatic tension. It doesn't work. Part of the problem is that by giving Galbatorix such a central role, you are taking away time from the Eragon-focused narrative of the novel. You are also stealing screen time from some really interesting characters, like Murtagh, Angela and Solembum.
But the biggest issue is Malkovich's portrayal itself. I am actually a fan of his work, so I was looking forward to his turn as the evil Galbatorix. I was so disappointed. I got the impression that Malkovich was putting about much effort and thought into this role as I do taking out the garbage. Remember, Malkovich can do creepy and menacing. In fact, when he gets going he is right up there with the cinema's best. (I see him as a more intellectual Christopher Walken.) But in this role, there was no spark, no malice. He really was phoning this performance in. The scenes he was in ended up as down right boring and uninteresting; not good when he's supposed to be evil and terrifying.
Eragon could have been a damn fine movie, building on the success of the novel and giving fans an interpretation worthy of their devotion. Instead we got a watered down version of the tale. Given its box office, from $23,000,000 to $9,000,00 in one week, I don't think that we are going to get a cinematic version of Eldest, the next book in the trilogy. Or maybe I hope we don't, because I'd hate to see what good old Hollywood would do with that more complex tale of what happens to Eragon and his cousin Roran.