Eragon: The book was better
By Lady Liberty
* out of ****
I'm a big fan of Christopher Paolini's wonderful the Inheritance series. From the moment I heard that the first book in the series was being made into a movie, I couldn't wait to see it. The film finally opened this weekend, and you can bet that I was there on opening night. An hour and a half later, I left the theater deeply disappointed. While Eragon remains a brilliant and satisfying read (I can say this with all the more authority having just re-read the book prior to seeing the movie), the film adaptation was sadly lacking.
Eragon (Edward Speleers) is a poor farm boy living outside the village of Carvahall. Abandoned by his mother as an infant, he's grown up in the loving care of his Uncle Garrow (Alun Armstrong) and his cousin, Roran (Christopher Egan). It's not quite an idyllic existence — the entire country is under the iron-fisted control of the evil King Galbatorix (John Malkovich) — but Eragon is content. But everything changes when he's out hunting and, instead of a deer, he finds a pretty blue stone.
Unbeknownst to Eragon, the stone is a dragon egg. The egg ends up in his hunting grounds when those guarding the egg — including the pretty elf, Arya (Sienna Guillory) — are ambushed by the King's henchman, Durza (Robert Carlyle). Before she's captured, Arya uses magic to transport the egg out of Durza's reach. Unintentionally, that puts the egg right into Eragon's hands where, a few days later, it hatches.
When King Galbatorix hears that a dragon has hatched, he's incensed and determines the dragon and any allies must be taken captive or killed. Eragon doesn't know the danger that he or the newly hatched Saphira are in, but he begins to get some idea when he hears the village storyteller reminiscing about the days when dragons flew with riders on their backs and defended and protected citizens. Brom (Jeremy Irons) goes on to say that dragons are no more because Galbatorix destroyed them all.
Agents of the King come to Carvahall in short order where they summarily torture and kill as they seek Eragon and Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz). Luckily for the boy and the young dragon, Brom knows a bit more about dragons than he's said, and he spirits the pair away before they can be captured. Telling the boy that their best chance is to go to the Varden — a group of freedom fighters who have risen in opposition to the King — Brom leads Eragon toward the distant Boer Mountains.
Eragon and Saphira take advantage of any and all that Brom can teach them along the way, but Eragon only fully begins to see what he's up against when he begins to dream of Arya her defeat at the hands of Durza. At almost the same time, he learns that the King's henchmen are hot on his heals. Eragon, Saphira, and Brom rush onward, but there's some doubt as to whether or not they can reach any sanctuary before the Ra'zac are upon them. And even if they do, Galbatorix won't let anyone rest until Eragon and Saphira are dead!
Edward Speleers did a good job in the lead role, particularly considering Eragon is his acting debut. While it took me a little to warm to him (he doesn't look as he's described in the book), I began to believe before long. Jeremy Irons was an especially fine choice to play the irascible Brom. His craggy looks and his tough demeanor were perfect. Most of the rest of the cast was fine, though far less believable. John Malkovich and Robert Carlyle in particular were hammily melodramatic which took a good deal away from both their believability and frankly the quality of the film itself.
Although negative comments about many performances are impossible not to make, I'm convinced that not a single actor was at fault. Rachel Weisz was woefully miscast — though a terrific actress, her voice was simply too light and weak to personify a dragon. The rest of the poor performances are, I believe, entirely the fault of the director. Stefan Fangmeier was making his directorial debut with Eragon, and his inexperience was painfully obvious (at the same time, his extensive prior experience with special effects working with ILM likely helped give Eragon some of its visual highlights). I suspect it was also his unsure hand that had caused more than a few really lousy edits.
The special effects were, in the main, quite good. I have personal objections to the idea of a dragon with wings that appeared feathered, but the dragon in general was beautifully done. Most of the magical effects were also nicely managed. Make-up, on the other hand, was drastically stinted (were there budgetary constraints?) to the point of detriment. Arya is an elf, yet she appeared entirely human — even her ears. The Urgals are horned monsters, but in the film, they're merely ugly humans with a few dirty facial tattoos. The Ra'zac are disgusting, but they're not at all as described and they're frankly lesser. And the dwarves? They're very, very tall...<cough> Don't even ask me about the sets. The exteriors are terrific; the interiors are just the opposite.
Worst of all, however, was the screenplay. Penned by Peter Buchman (his only previous effort was Jurassic Park III — 'nuff said), the dialogue was never more than average and much was downright painful. And the liberties he took with Mr. Paolini's book are quite literally inexcusable! I understand poetic license, and I understand the need for brevity (though "brevity" in this case often degenerated into "incoherent"). What I do not understand — and what I cannot forgive — is taking the brave and heroic Roran and turning him into a pacifist and coward; the pond scum that was the butcher Sloan and making him sympathetic; the indelible contributions of Angela and making them all but non-existent; and suggesting the patriot Brom had committed shameful acts by casting a real blow for freedom.
I suppose it's possible that those who haven't read Eragon might find the film marginally entertaining. To them, I say: If you liked the movie, you'll love the book! Buy it and read it. To those who didn't like the movie, I say: The movie bears little resemblance to the book. Buy the book and read it. If you like fantasy at all, my guess is that you'll love the book. As for myself, I'll hold out hope that someday someone will love Eragon enough to dedicate himself to making a movie that actually does the book justice. Where's Peter Jackson when you need him?
POLITICAL NOTES: The notion of a power-hungry ruler who ruthlessly enforces his own authority and wishes bears pretty obvious parallels to the real world. Certainly, the bravery of those who will stand up for freedom also translates nicely. But while we can say that these things are obvious, that doesn't mean they're not completely true. (I'm also tempted to comment on the notion of conscription depicted in the film, but I strongly suspect that the writer only used the idea as a device to cut great swaths of applicable plot away from the storyline.)
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Eragon is raged PG-13 for "battle sequences and frightening moments." I don't know that any child too young to have read the book will be able to follow the storyline, either. There were gaping holes in the plot that I was able to fill in from my own knowledge, but I suspect at least some of those holes would be a problem for many of those unable to do the same thing. That being said, some of the battles are a little much for small children as are the King's scarier minions. As for everybody else, I recommend Eragon highly. The book, that is...
*** out of ****
Let's be honest, here: Charlotte's Web is not my kind of movie. But a friend who dearly loved the book saw the movie on opening night, and she couldn't stop talking about how much she'd enjoyed the film and how faithful it had been to her much beloved E.B. White tale. Having endured a movie the same night that was significantly less than faithful to its source (click here for my review of Eragon), the lure of seeing at least one good movie this weekend was irresistible, and so I bought my ticket.
Just as in the classic book, the story opens with the birth of Wilbur (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay) in the spring. Unfortunately, Wilbur is the runt of the litter. Since he's unlikely to survive, Mr. Arable (Kevin Anderson) prepares to take the piglet outside and do away with him. But his daughter Fern (Dakota Fanning) is having nothing to do with that kind of thing. She tells her father he's not being fair, and she promptly takes the piglet from his arms and promises she'll care for it herself.
Piglets, of course, don't stay tiny and bottle-fed indefinitely. Fern's mother (Essie Davis) insists that Fern give the growing piglet to her uncle (Gary Basaraba) to keep in his barn. Reluctantly, Fern agrees. Wilbur, of course, is lonely without his constant companion. He gradually comes to know the other denizens of the Zuckerman barn, but none will be his friend, largely because they all know something that he doesn't: in the fall, he's to be slaughtered and smoked into ham for Christmas dinner.
Late one night when Wilbur is feeling particularly lonely, a disembodied voice tells him to go to sleep. Wilbur soon learns that the voice is that of a spider named Charlotte (voiced by Julia Roberts). Not long after that, Charlotte becomes his first new friend. Wilbur's joy doesn't last long, though. That's because Templeton the rat (voiced by Steve Buscemi) doesn't have the sensitivity of the other animals, and he lets it slip that the smokehouse out back will be Wilbur's next home.
Needless to say, Wilbur is first stunned and then despondent. Charlotte, who doesn't have many friends herself, vows that she'll save Wilbur. The problem is that she has no idea how on earth she'll keep her promise. Eventually, though, she comes up with a plan. And over the course of the next weeks, all of the animals come to root for Wilbur and to admire one very clever and brave spider.
Charlotte's Web is a simple tale intended for relatively small children. That doesn't mean that it isn't filled with interesting characters, though, or that it isn't an entertaining story. It's both those things and then some. Those characters are brought to life by a cast the likes of which has rarely been assembled. Joining Julia Roberts and Steve Buscemi are John Cleese (a sheep), Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer (geese), Kathy Bates and Reba McIntire (cows), Robert Redford (a horse), and Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin (crows).
Of course, even such a stellar cast couldn't have made this version of Charlotte's Web what it is if not for some truly stellar special effects. The animals' mouths move when they talk of course, but so do their tongues and lips. They have facial expressions, and yet at the same time look just like pigs — or cows, or rats as the case may be. Add to this some gorgeous cinematography, inspired edits, and a delightfully adapted script, and you've got the makings of a very nice movie indeed.
As I said, Charlotte's Web isn't really my kind of movie. After seeing it, I have to admit that it still isn't. While I appreciated very much its many wonderful technical qualities, it didn't do a whole lot for me otherwise.
I will tell you this, though: I was sitting in a theatre full of young and obnoxious children (I know for a fact they were obnoxious because no small number of them were running wild in the lobby when I arrived). I was understandably more than a little unhappy at the thought of being trapped in a theatre for the next hour and a half with them. But the entire time Charlotte's Web was rolling, those kids were utterly enthralled. I didn't hear a sound but for laughter until the applause at the end. I can't give you a strong recommendation for the movie myself, but I'm pretty sure they just did.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Charlotte's Web is rated G. I'd offer only one caution to parents: If your child doesn't know — and I mean really understand — where meat comes from, do not take him or her to see Charlotte's Web. The idea of slaughtering a sweet little pink pig who — more than once — heart-rendingly says he just wants to live, is not how they ought to find out. Older kids aren't going to care for Charlotte's Web much more than I did, either. But nostalgic adults and elementary school students are going to be utterly charmed, and with good reason.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.