Sunday, April 26, 2009

The War that Inspired a Story - 1812: The War that Forged a Nation

I was reading an article that compared the situations around the War of 1812 to the situations around the current war in Iraq. While it didn't really enlighten me too much, it did pique my interest in the War of 1812, an event that I knew very little about. After bouncing over to the trusted source of info, Wikipedia, I went over to Amazon to see what books existed on the subject. After some research I found that "1812: The War that Forged a Nation" was considered a very accessible overview of the conflict.

I have to say that the book is a solid read, moves at a brisk pace taking you from the many issues that lead up to the war (both official and unofficial) up to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent and the battles that occurred afterward (since it took so long for word of the treaty to arrive by sailing ship from Belgium). Some people have complained that the language in the book is too familiar. But the writer is going for an audience who is not familiar with all the people, places and events. This is not a book for people interested in details and depth. It is an overview and told in a conversational style.

So now I know more about the War of 1812, now what? Well I can use it for story ideas of course!

One of the reasons I enjoy history is that if it is presented right, it's a story. The War of 1812 lends itself to all kinds of possibilities. First is the most obvious, a story that takes place during the war. You've got several factions to pick from, Americans, British, Native Americans, Canadians, Spanish, French and even a pirate or two. You can go wide and attempt to write something epic that covers the entire war, "Gone with the Wind" style. Or you can go tight, picking up a character caught in the war, and told from their point of view. The beauty is that the reasons for the war were never really clear (even to the participants). Sure there was the official reason of sailors rights and oppressive British control of the seas, but many other reasons were just as obvious and not stated (the United States thought parts of Canada would look great on their map). It would be easy to have a Canadian point of view in the story, or maybe even the reluctant militia man sent to cross over into Canadian soil - but not to defend his home, but to take land from the British (something many militia men refused to do).

Then there are the less obvious routes. Add some supernatural elements or even go for an alternate history look. Maybe the British ended up defeating the US in the war. How would that change things? Or maybe one of the reasons the US was able to win the Battle of Lake Champlain was because of some kind of new steam powered weapon.

Of course you could easily push the story into a space opera setting, with all the factions becoming alien worlds, sailing vessels becoming star ships and President James Madison becoming a purple skinned alien with eight arms and one leg. But keep him in the 1800's clothing of course, I mean who wants to get rid of that.

It's also easy to take one element of the war, something trivial or maybe something that just catches your eye and turn it into a story. Maybe a story based on the idea that the British could stop any ship in international waters, search and confiscate any run-away British sailors (or people they claimed were British) and put them to work on their own ships. Again you could put it into any type of setting and with some tweaking come up with something unique.

So for those of you who don't like history but love writing fiction, give this a try. There are a ton of events to pick from, all it takes is a little research and some imagination, and a whole new world of storytelling can open up.

Have you ever used historical events or figures to fuel your writing? If so, how did it work out? Ever have a historical event capture your imagination, causing you to want to know more?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Lion Roars - The Lion King

Disney animation got a nice kickstart in 1989 with "The Little Mermaid". It brought back some hope that American animation could be something more worthwhile than endless reruns of "Smurfs" and strange Japanese hybrids like "Transformers" and "GI Joe". For a while Disney kept releasing top class animated efforts based on their successful model with: "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin" and climaxing with "The Lion King".

In a way "The Lion King" was the most experimental of the new style Disney films. It wasn't based off a fairy tale (and seemed to be based on a Japanese anime by the name of "Kimba the White Lion" but that can be disputed either way). It was scored by a man who worked primarily on film scores: Hans Zimmer. Instead of using a full blown Broadway style to the film, they chose to use a more pop oriented sound, supplemented by Elton John. In addition, this movie was to use more computer animation than the previous installments, especially in the climactic wildebeest sequence.

The result was one of the most successful Disney animated films of all time. The music was on the radio constantly, and Lion King plushies were in every house. I was working in the video store at the time of it's release, and I can tell you we sold a ton a Lion King tapes and Laserdiscs. Many declared it the best Disney film ever, and while I was quick to dispute that, I was willing to admit it was top notch Disney.

It had been a few years since I'd seen the film, probably back when it first came out on DVD. I was interested to see where it fell in the pantheon of Disney films, now that we've seen where Disney ended up heading (into the realm of "Hercules" and "Chicken Little") and where Pixar took us (with "Toy Story" up to "Wall-E"). Would "Lion King" still be on its high perch or would it be deposed?

Upon my recent viewing of the big four ("The Little Mermaid" through "The Lion King"), I think that my ratings have fallen into pretty much the same place they fell before. I think "Aladdin" trumps "Lion King" in overall entertainment value and as a complete experience. I think part of that falls into the fact that Disney really hit the perfect balance with their model in "Aladdin". The "Lion King" as conventional as parts of it are, is really pretty experimental for a Disney film.

Even if the film is based on "Kimba: The White Lion" it is also based on the same basic story as "Hamlet". In this case we get to see how the good king, Mufasa, interacted with his family and subjects, instead of hearing it all second hand. We also get to have Hamlet be a cute little lion cub in these sequences, which helps enormously when the king is killed. Another twist in the tale is that Simba feels responsible for the death of his father and runs away. So instead of a brooding introspective Hamlet, we get a carefree but guilty Simba. Of course things have to get down and dirty with the finale, and "The Lion King" doesn't skimp too much - lots of fire, rain and stark landscapes as Simba and Scar battle it out. It's actually pretty hellish and reminded me of the feel of "A Night on Bald Mountain" from "Fantasia". It ends with Scar being torn apart by his hyena lackeys. Yeah, pretty gruesome for Disney, even if it shown in shadow.

What is also interesting is the use of music in "The Lion King". While "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" all used the Broadway musical format, and had the songs actually move the story forward - the songs in the "Lion King" are more decorative. "The Circle of Life" contains one of the themes of the film, but the actual song itself doesn't have anything to do with the plot. Compare this to the opening numbers of "Beauty" and "Aladdin" and you have songs that present the main character and their world, marrying the animation and words of the song - just like a musical. In fact the only song from "The Lion King" that really fits the mold of a musical is "Be Prepared", Scar's song about his plan for pride-domination.

The flip side is that we get a full blown film style score from Hans Zimmer. As good as Menkin's score music is for "Aladdin", Zimmer is able to actually capture the power of the story in his score. He fuses ethnic sounds, his traditional muscular synthesizer sounds (which will echo his future work on "Gladiator" and "Kung Fu Panda") and a great use of voices to elevate the scenes and accent the action. Zimmer's work is consistent and is much different from what Disney had tried before. They would get a similar type score when they hired Jerry Goldsmith to work on "Mulan".

But enough about music, how about the cast. Nearly every main voice in "The Lion King" was some kind of film or television celebrity. Compared to "Aladdin" where the biggest celebrity voice as Robin Williams, this was a big turn around. Here we can see the birth of the use of an all celebrity cast, and it works for the most part. Much of the animation even managed to capture the look of the actors and fused it well to the animals (Jeremy Iron's facial expressions translate well to Scar's furry mug).

However some of this casting robs the picture of it's effectiveness because you are immediately presented with an actor's voice that you know well. Suddenly Mufasa becomes Darth Vader or worse, Thulsa Doom from "Conan the Barbarian". Does Mufasa enjoy cannibal orgies? For me, Robin Williams worked as the genie, because the character was a magical being, one that was capable of "phenomenal cosmic power". It would make sense that he was a over the top and filled with antics. Since his voice was the only real recognizable one, it didn't detract.

"The Lion King" doesn’t' feel as smooth in this department. In fact, it works better to cast unrecognizable voices (celebrity or not). The only real condition should be acting skill. Check out Pixar's work in "Ratatouille". There were some big names lending their voices to that movie, but I only recognized Peter O' Toole and only at the very end (the character looked nothing like him and that helped).

Of course part of the reason "Lion King" works well is that the basic story is solid and its execution is well done. Who would have thought that Disney would attempt a story dealing with fratricide and revenge - but here you go. In addition, these elements aren't blunted. Mufasa's death at the hands of his brother is horrific (not graphic, but visually potent). Simba's reaction to the death and the way Scar twists the guilt knife are done very well and allow us to truly hate Scar and sympathize with Simba. If Disney had softened these moments with comedy or a song - it would have robbed the power of the finale. Thanks to the set up, when adult Simba climbs Pride Rock (with the help of Zimmer's score) we feel that Simba has redeemed himself, saved his family and his people and brought justice back to the world.

In the future Disney would attempt to tackle such weighty movies as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and deny the darkness of the story, injecting humor and songs where they were not needed. They would tackle history with "Pocahontas" and create a muddled narrative with some seriously bizarre choices that make the film an oddity. They would tackle "Hercules" and made what should have been a rollicking adventure story into an inspirational sports film!?!

"The Lion King" was an experiment that worked. It has some weak points (and they were exacerbated in future Disney films), but as a whole it's a solid film. It's interesting to see what Disney did and didn't learn from this film. Eventually many of the good points were utilized by Pixar in "Toy Story" and it wouldn't be long before the idea of creating a story first and building the film around it would allow Pixar to push to the top of the heap in American animation.

What do you think of "The Lion King" and it's place in the Disney cannon of animated films? Do you think that the Disney renaissance of the early 90's was a fluke? Do you think that traditional cell animation (like "The Lion King") is a relic and that Pixar dominates because of its amazing computer animation?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Rome if you want to - Rome

I recently read about Roberto Rosselilini, a famous Italian director who, in the later part of his career, suddenly stopped making movies. He believed film was dead and that television was going to be the new medium. Unfortunately he felt that most of the shows on television were complete crap (and this was back in the early 70's, I wonder what he would make of "reality" television). So he decided to bring history to life on the small screen creating television movies about famous historical figures.

I wonder what he would have made of HBO's "Rome". The series plunges the viewer into the ancient Roman world around 54 BC up to around 30 AD. It's full of war, sex, intrigue, double crossing, romance, tragedy, triumph, and heroism. So not only are you entertained by watching it, but the series has something for everyone and you get to learn a bit about history while you are watching.

The series covers all the high points of the early Roman Republic including the rise of Julius Caesar, his battles against Pompey, his assent to Emperor and his murder in the senate. In the second season, the aftermath of the death of Caesar entangles famous names such as Brutus, Mark Antony, Octavian, Cleopatra and Livia. The series ends with Octavian becoming Emperor over Rome and beginning the Roman Empire.

The series also introduces us to figures who aren't quite so lofty as generals, senators and Emperors. We meet lowly soldiers like Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Slaves like Posca and Eirene. Thugs and nar-do-wells like Timon and Quintus. We get a clearer insight into some of the powerful ladies of Rome, such as Atia, Octavia and Servillia. By weaving these other characters, some of them real some of them created for the series, the writers pull us into the action. We understand Vorenus' struggle to connect with his family after spending years battling barbarians in Gaul. We connect with the conflict of Timon who's dedication to Atia conflicts with his Jewish beliefs. And speaking of Atia, her scheming and battle of wills with Servillia is one of the highlights of the show. Both women are equally matched, but fate keeps dealing them deadly blows. It's fascinating to watch how they handle fortunes blessing and curses and how they deal with each other.

By creating such interesting characters and weaving the history as well as some interesting fiction (what really did happen to Caesar and Cleopatra’s son?) a show was created that not only brought the ancient world to life but held our attention. Watching the show on DVD with the historical track running at the same time is a real treat (for anyone interested in history). It repeats itself a bit here and there, but for the most part it goes into detail on all kinds of things from Roman diet (dormice!) to the types of units used during famous battles. All in all it is a package of entertainment and enlightenment all wrapped into one. I think Rossellini would have approved.

Do you think that it's possible to bring together history and entertainment in television? Did you see Rome? What did you think of it?