Gritty or Glittery?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of gritty media: books, films, and video games characterized by darkness, angst, violence, and square-jawed men brooding over inner conflicts. From Wolverine to Walter White, we’ve seen plenty of angsty characters on the large and small screens. Books—even young adult literature—feature people killing (and dying!) in all sorts of creative ways. The video game industry continues making games with guns, gore, and roughly one in every five words of dialogue being the f-bomb.

Angst! Darkness! Square jaws!

Angst! Darkness! Square jaws!

Why is gritty media popular? That’s a tough question to answer. I suppose there’s some truth to the darkness and violence in these media, and it resonates with people. We all feel sadness, discouragement, and anger. Some face depression, abuse, self-destructive impulses, or equally “gritty” problems.

Finally, gritty media often seems mature, sophisticated, or “grown-up.” All of this begs the question: Is it?

While gritty media has become more popular in past years, there are still plenty of lighthearted books, films, and video games: “glittery” media, so to speak.

Light! Smiles! Goofy braces!

Light! Smiles! Goofy braces!

Throughout history, comedy has nearly always taken a backseat to tragedy. Shakespeare’s most famous plays are his tragedies; Mark Twain’s cynical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is celebrated over his cheerfuller books; P.G. Wodehouse’s clever comedies are largely eclipsed by the gloomy writings of his contemporaries. It seems humor and optimism can’t be taken seriously.

While there are certainly good things to say for gritty narratives, I don’t believe grittier is necessarily better. A purpose of art is to reflect or represent truth; the truth is that life isn’t always gloomy. A Farewell to Arms or The Things They Carried may be brilliant depictions of the horrors of war, but peace is no less real than violence. I think it’s absurd to suppose, say, Anne of Green Gables is necessarily an inferior book because it reflects joy and sentiment instead of pain and despair.

In the end, it’s a mistake to judge the quality of a thing by whether it’s gritty or glittery, tragic or comic, cynical or optimistic. That said, I would love to see people take glittery media more seriously. Can we study humorists like P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber more widely in schools? I’m sure students wouldn’t mind putting down The Lord of the Flies. Can we have fewer gritty superhero movies and have more like Marvel’s quirky Guardians of the Galaxy? We could use a break from gloom and doom.

The world is an awfully dark place, but there’s a little light left. Some stories remember that, and I think they’re worth taking seriously.


This post was originally published on October 24, 2014. TMTF shall return with new posts on Monday, September 5!

462. About Storytelling: Subverting Expectations

Not long ago, I began playing a little game titled Recettear: An Item’s Shop’s Tale, and promptly decided it may be the best thing in the universe.

I exaggerate, but Recettear is delightful all the same. It’s set in a standard fantasy world of monsters, swords, and magic, with one important twist: the player doesn’t control an adventurer. The player controls a shopkeeper: a sweet, chipper girl named Recette who must pay off her absent father’s debts. Recette’s motto: “Capitalism, ho!”

Capitalism, ho!

Capitalism has never been cuter.

Fantasy games have always had shops. They’re a ubiquitous feature in the manner of inns, dungeons, and bosses. Gamers accept them without thinking. Heck, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single fantasy game that doesn’t have some kind of shop.

Recettear turns the cliché of the fantasy-game shop on its head. This time around, the player isn’t fighting to save the world—he’s fighting to make that next debt payment. A player can’t just waltz into dungeons; she must hire an adventurer to keep her safe while she searches for items to sell. Recettear shows the behind-the-scenes struggles of keeping a fantasy-game shop open for business, providing a twist on a well-worn trope.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale represents a brilliant creative tactic: subverting expectations.

After a certain number of stories, we begin to see patterns. The good guys win. Things end badly for the villain. Depending on the story’s tone, either romance happens, or it doesn’t—either way, we can usually see it coming. If Sean Bean is in a movie, his character probably dies. We expect these things. We figure out that stories usually work a certain way.

It’s neat, then, when stories come along that work differently.

Consider, for example, how Disney’s Frozen handles the love-at-first-sight cliché. In many previous Disney films, the guy and the girl fall in love hilariously fast. I mean, seriously, the prince in Cinderella decides to marry the eponymous heroine before he even knows her name. They dance for one scene, and then he wants to get married. It’s actually kinda creepy.

Love is an open door, I guess

Will you marry me? Oh, and what’s your name?

Frozen is different. (Spoilers ahead, in case anyone cares.) The movie sets up the love-at-first-sight cliché between Princess Anna and her crush, Prince Hans. Shortly after meeting, they decided to get married. I mean, they sing a cute song and everything. When they share the news, however, they’re met with incredulity and derision. “You can’t marry a man you just met,” declares Anna’s sister flatly. Later on in the film, Kristoff reacts in pretty much the same way.

When I watched Frozen, I wasn’t expecting the movie—a Disney movie about princesses, mind you—to mock the love-at-first-sight cliché. But it did. And it was refreshing, funny, and simply delightful to see.

Let’s look at a more literary example: Father Brown, the mystery-solving priest from the stories by G.K. Chesterton. Detectives in fiction are often marked by certain characteristics, which are best exemplified in Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective of all: intelligence, logic, curiosity, emotional distance, and a strong sense of justice.

Father Brown subverts practically all of these.

Father Brown (alt)

He isn’t your garden-variety sleuth.

He’s a perfect foil to Sherlock Holmes—the Anti-Holmes, if you will. Holmes is tall, thin, emotionless, and just. His brilliance is painfully obvious. By contrast, Father Brown is short, stout, deeply empathetic, and merciful. His intelligence is belied by his humility and simpleminded manner. Holmes solves mysteries by careful reasoning; Father Brown solves them by common sense and an intuitive understanding of human nature. Holmes kills his greatest enemy; Father Brown redeems and befriends his own archnemesis.

Everyone expects Holmes to be brilliant. In a charming subversion, everyone dismisses Father Brown as a superstitious simpleton, which makes it all the more satisfying when he apologetically solves the mystery right under their noses. It’s another terrific subversion of audience expectations, and it makes for great reading.

We’ve all come to expect certain things from fiction. How exciting when fiction gives us things we don’t expect!

456. TMTF’s Top Ten Dragons

A while back, TMTF ran a top ten list of hot guys in fiction—guys who are literally hot, I mean. As I made the list, I was strongly tempted to fill it with fire-breathing dragons. I eventually wrote about other fiery characters, saving the dragons for a future top ten list.

That time has come. Today is a day of dragons.

Well, I won’t let this introduction dragon—sorry; drag on—any longer. There’s no claws, um, cause for further delays. These dragons hail from tails, I mean, tales of all kinds, old and new. (Heck, am I ever ember-rassed—embarrassed, I mean—by these dragon puns. I thought they were clever, but the scales have fallen from my eyes… so to speak.)

Feel the heat, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Dragons!

Be ye warned: Here there be dragons, and also spoilers.

Before we begin, a quick note: I considered including Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock on this list, but it’s clearly not a dragon. It’s a Jabberwock. There’s a difference… I think.

10. Elliott (Pete’s Dragon)

Elliott

In this classic Disney film, Elliott is the dim-witted but well-meaning protector of Pete, an orphaned boy. Elliott communicates in good-natured grumbles, mumbles, and clicks. He can also turn invisible, which allows him to hide from grownups (and made less work for the film’s animators). Nearly everyone assumes Pete’s dragon is an imaginary friend, but that doesn’t stop him from being a faithful one. A remake of Pete’s Dragon will soon be released, but its oddly furry Elliott won’t replace the lovably derpy original.

9. Trogdor the Burninator (Homestar Runner)

Trogdor the Burninator

Have you ever wanted to draw a dragon? It’s easy! Just follow Strong Bad’s simple, step-by-step instructions—and witness the creation of a beloved Internet icon. Trogdor the Burninator began on a sheet of notebook paper as the letter S, followed by teeth, “spinities,” angry eyebrows, and a beefy arm “for good measure.” This silly sketch quickly spawned a cheesy death metal song and a couple of browser games, and went on to become one of the Internet’s most enduring memes. Strong Bad puts it well: “When the land is in ruin … only one guy will remain. My money’s on Trogdor.”

8. Ran and Shaw (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Ran and Shaw

There are basically two types of dragons. The Western dragon, rooted in European folklore, is a fierce beast. The Eastern dragon, born of Asian mythologies, is nobler and wiser. These dragons are that second type. Ran and Shaw are godlike creatures who guard the secrets of firebending, an ancient martial art. They are silent and mysterious, helping only those who prove themselves worthy, and adding to the fascinating lore of my all-time favorite show.

7. Mushu (Disney’s Mulan)

Mushu

I just declared Eastern dragons wise and noble, but Mushu is an exception to the rule. This tiny dragon is sent to aid the heroine of Disney’s Mulan by the spirits of her ancestors. (They meant to send a bigger dragon, but Mushu went instead.) This irreverent spitfire is full of bad ideas, but his heart is in the right place. Forget Malificent. In this story of war and loss, Mushu makes us laugh, and earns his place as Disney’s best dragon.

6. Spike (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic)

Spike the dragon

This young dragon is a dude in a world of candy-colored ponies, and he knows it. He survives as any self-respecting male does when surrounded by emotional females: he makes sarcastic remarks. Behind the snark is a kid who is in turn earnest, selfish, thoughtful, and insecure. In a couple of unexpectedly deep episodes, Spike comes to terms with his identity: neither a pony nor a typical dragon, belonging to neither group, yet finding acceptance in both. And did I mention his deadpan snark? Spike may not be the most consistent character ever written, but I like him.

5. Eustace Clarence Scrubb (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

Eustace the dragon

By the time the Dawn Treader, a ship battered by wind and waves, reaches the safety of a deserted island, Eustace Clarence Scrubb is sick of everything. This ill-tempered brat abandons his fellow passengers and goes for a long walk, which ends with a nap on a dragon’s abandoned treasure. He awakes, in the fine tradition of Gregor Samsa, transformed into a monstrous vermin—a dragon, actually. This outward change is horrifying, but prompts a positive inward transformation. As a dragon, Eustace finds his humanity, and eventually regains his human form in a scene that echoes the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ. Eustace may be only a temporary dragon, but he’s quite a good one.

4. Hungarian Horntail (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

Hungarian Horntail

In the Harry Potter series, the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is notable partly for training witches and wizards, but mostly for child endangerment. (A troll and a three-headed dog in the first book alone? Really?!) By the fourth book, Hogwarts has made child endangerment into a formal competition with the Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which teenagers face giant freakin’ dragons. (No wonder Harry Potter is controversial.) The spiked Hungarian Horntail is the deadliest of these, giving Trogdor some serious competition in the “spinities” department. I love how the various species of dragons in the Harry Potter books seem so believable, with different breeds having different countries of origin; the Hungarian Horntail is the coolest by far.

3. The Dragon (Beowulf)

We’re dipping into the classics here with the unnamed dragon from Beowulf, the Old English epic. (I recommend the poem; it’s fairly short, and modern-language translations are surprisingly readable.) After conquering a couple of frightful monsters, Beowulf finally meets his match in this dragon, and dies shortly after killing it. This beast made literary history. According to Wikipedia, it’s an early archetype of the Western dragon, establishing classic traits such as hoarding treasure and breathing fire. John Gardner’s novel Grendel adds its own interpretation of the Beowulf dragon, depicting it as a nihilistic philosopher. Huh.

2. Toothless (How to Train Your Dragon)

Toothless

Toothless is basically my cat, but even more adorable. He can also fly and shoot concentrated blasts of explosive energy, which I’m pretty sure my cat can’t do. In the film How to Train Your Dragon, the Viking lad Hiccup defies his culture by refusing to kill this injured dragon. The dragon, which Hiccup names Toothless, rewards his compassion with fierce loyalty and adorable affection. In the original book, Toothless is actually kind of a jerk; this is a rare case in which the movie is way better than the book. Toothless is cuter than your average dragon, which makes him pretty much perfect.

1. Smaug (The Hobbit)

Smaug [alt]

Yes, Smaug is number one on this list. Of course he is. Inspired by the Beowulf dragon, Smaug is the ultimate example of his kind: cruel, vindictive, petty, vicious, powerful, and scary as all heck. After destroying an entire kingdom, he haunts the land for many long years. The entire story of The Hobbit builds up to Smaug, and it doesn’t end with him: Smaug’s death ignites a battle between three armies, which is interrupted by legions of goblins eager to claim the dragon’s hoard. Even in death, Smaug causes all kinds of horror, and I consider him the greatest dragon ever imagined.

Who is your favorite dragon? Fire away in the comments!

453. Fans, Geeks, and Cosplay: A Momentary Study

Geeks are fascinating creatures. In a perfect world, someone would make a nature documentary about them, and it would be narrated by Morgan Freeman. Tragically, since I don’t own a video camera and can’t afford to employ Mr. Freeman, I’ll have to keep writing blog posts about geeks instead of producing that well-deserved documentary.

Yes, it’s time for another brief exploration of geek culture. Today’s subject is cosplay, the hobby (or art, depending on your point of view) of dressing up like characters from movies, comics, video games, or other media. It’s sort of like wearing Halloween costumes, but really… hardcore.

Lord of the Rings cosplay

Here’s some Lord of the Rings cosplay.

The word cosplay is a portmanteau of costume and play; it denotes not only the hobby, but also specific examples of it.

Dedicated cosplayers often create their own cosplays. This sounds easy, but flipping heck, some cosplays are complicated. Depending on the complexity of the costume, a cosplayer may need the expertise of a tailor, makeup artist, leatherworker, blacksmith, or even computer modeler (for 3D printing).

Cosplayers show off their creations by attending geeky events (such as conventions) in costume, or by holding photo shoots and sharing the photos via blogs or social networks. Some fans are so good at cosplay that they do it professionally. In order to promote their brands or products, companies may hire professional cosplayers to mingle or manage booths at conventions, trade shows, or other events. Some cosplayers don’t merely dress as characters, but act and speak like them in improvised performances.

While some cosplay strives for perfect authenticity to its source material, other styles may feature creative twists on familiar characters, or gender swaps.

Darth Batman and Lady Link

On the left is a gender-swapped Link from The Legend of Zelda. On the right is… wait, is that Darth Batman? That is AWESOME!

What separates cosplay from other forms of dressing up? Costumes feature in some holidays and cultural events, but their purpose is nearly always rooted in tradition, religion, or symbolism. Cosplay, by contrast, is an expression of enthusiasm for a particular work or character. (Halloween costumes can be a bit cosplay-ish.)

Aided by the spread of the Internet, cosplay has gained prominence in just the past few decades; the term itself originated in the eighties. However, dressing up as fictional characters has a long and rich history. For example, just off the top of my head, I recall a scene in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott in which a couple of its characters dress up as literary figures for a fancy dress ball. Cosplay has evolved as a hobby in recent times, but its roots are firmly planted in centuries of human history.

Like many geeky hobbies, cosplay sometimes carries social stigmas. Cosplay may be considered childish, creepy, or inappropriate.

I’m not a cosplayer, but I usually disagree with these stereotypes. Cosplay is a creative hobby. It often requires superb dedication and all kinds of specialized skills. Like dressing up for Halloween, it’s fun for a lot of people. It can be inappropriate, certainly—but generally as a reflection of inappropriate media or characters. If a cosplay is in poor taste, it’s probably because the media it represents was in poor taste first.

Sadly, not all of the stigmas against cosplay come from outside its community. Fans and geeks can be as cruel as anybody. Over the years, some cosplayers have been criticized or insulted for having the wrong body type, skin color, or physical features for cosplaying certain characters. That’s dumb.

Perfectly fine cosplay

Black Captain America? Plus-size Batman? Cool. I see no problem here.

Do you see that black guy cosplaying Captain America, a traditionally white character? He’s a cosplayer. He’s not actually Captain America. It’s okay. Everyone can stop freaking out. The chubby fellow cosplaying Batman? He isn’t Batman. He lacks Batman’s muscular physique, and he’s smiling happily, which isn’t terribly Batman-like. Does it matter? He’s having a good time. So is the black gentleman in the Captain America suit, and the lady rocking Link’s iconic green tunic, and whatever mad genius created Darth Batman.

Cosplay isn’t about rules. It’s about fun, acceptance, and coming together as geeks to wear goofy costumes. Anybody should be able to cosplay as whatever the heck they want. After all, isn’t that the point of cosplay? Isn’t cosplay a chance to be an actor without a stage, becoming a completely different person, if only for a little while?

I don’t cosplay, but I understand why so many people have embraced it as a hobby. I respect them. I wish more people did. In fact, generally speaking, I wish more people respected geeks instead of assuming the worst of them. Heck, while I’m at it, I wish more people respected other people. That would be a great start.

I’m not planning ever to cosplay… but if I did, I bet I’d make a pretty good Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, or even a tolerable Tenth Doctor. Just a thought.

444. Adam Turns into the Hulk and Rants about Noisy People

Caution: This blog post contains furious ranting. Sensitive readers, and readers averse to things being smashed, are advised not to continue.

Do you know what really gets my goat? Noisy people in public places. When folks around me in church or at the movies make a lot of noise, my goat is really and truly gotten.

Gets my goat

I would almost rather be surrounded by goats than by noisy people. Almost.

I understand that most people are sometimes a little louder than they mean to be. I sure am. That said, how can anyone excuse talking over a movie at the theater, or worse, a service at church? Do people not realize their chatter is disruptive, uncaring, and rude?

I try not to get angry about little things, but seriously… this one infuriates me. And do you know… what happens… to things that infuriate me?

They… they get… smashed.

YOU TALK, I SMASH!

NOISY PEOPLE IN PUBLIC PLACES ARE WORST PEOPLE. HULK NOISY AND SPEAK IN ALL CAPS, BUT NOT IN CHURCH OR AT MOVIES.

(SPEAKING OF MOVIES, HULK JUST SEE NEW CAPTAIN AMERICA. WAS GOOD. NEEDED MORE HULK.)

LOUD PEOPLE NOT SO BAD IN MALLS AND RESTAURANTS AND OPEN SPACES. BUT NOISY PEOPLE ARE WORST IN CHURCH AND MOVIE THEATER. OTHER PUBLIC PLACES NOT STRUCTURED AROUND CENTRAL EVENT. NOISE IS FINE THERE. NOISE NOT DISTRACT FROM EVENT.

CHURCH AND MOVIE THEATER ARE DIFFERENT. THEY ARE STRUCTURED AROUND EVENTS. CHURCH AROUND MUSIC AND SERMON. MOVIES AROUND MOVIES. NOISE IS RUDE THERE. NOISE DISTRACTS FROM EVENT.

THERE IS IMPLICIT UNDERSTANDING AT CHURCH AND MOVIE THEATER THAT NOISE SHOULD BE KEPT TO MINIMUM. NO PHONES. NO CHATTER. WE ALL KNOW THIS. WE SHOULD NOT DISRUPT WITH UNNECESSARY NOISE. WE WORSHIP GOD OR ENJOY SHOW. THAT IS PURPOSE OF CHURCH AND MOVIE THEATER.

PURPOSE OF CHURCH AND MOVIES NOT FOR AUDIENCE TO MAKE NOISE. NOT FOR GOSSIP OR CHATTER OR COMMENTARY OR CLOWNING AROUND. RUINING EVENTS FOR OTHERS BY MAKING SELFISH NOISE IS IMMATURE AND INCONSIDERATE.

THERE ARE ONLY FEW EXCEPTIONS TO RULE FOR NO TALKING AT MOVIES.

NOISY CHURCHGOERS ARE MORE GUILTY THAN NOISY MOVIEGOERS. CHURCH SERVICE IS TIME FOR WORSHIP LORD GOD ALMIGHTY. NOT TIME FOR SMALL TALK. YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER. DO UNTO OTHERS. CHAT AFTER CHURCH SERVICE. HONOR GOD BY LISTENING.

CHURCH AND MOVIE THEATER ARE PRIVILEGES. PRIVILEGES COME WITH RULES. RULE OF CHURCH AND MOVIE THEATER IS NOT MAKE NOISE. IS NOT THAT FREAKING HARD.

HULK NOT GO TO CHURCH TO LISTEN TO CHURCHGOERS CHATTER AND GOSSIP. HULK NOT GO TO MOVIES TO HEAR MOVIEGOERS’ COMMENTARIES. HULK GO TO CHURCH TO BE NEAR GOD AND TO MOVIES TO WATCH MOVIES.

LET HULK DO THESE THINGS. PLEASE. HULK TIRED OF HEARING INANE CHATTER WHEN HULK JUST WANT TO WORSHIP GOD OR WATCH MOVIE. PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL. AT LEAST BE QUIET. PLEASE.

HULK OUT!

…What was I talking about? Noisy people? They’re the worst. That’s all.

441. TMTF’s Top Ten Hot Guys in Fiction

Do you know what this blog needs? Hot guys. This blog needs more hot guys.

What? You think hot guys are an inappropriate subject for this blog? Oh, I disagree. I won’t discriminate against anyone for being totally smoking hot. I think this post is long overdue.

It’s a burning question: Who are the hottest guys in fiction? There are a lot of potential answers, so let’s warm up with a list of ten.

We’re turning up the heat, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Hot Guys in Fiction!

10. Calcifer (Howl’s Moving Castle)

Calcifer

This friendly fire demon is not only helpful and adorable, but also sounds exactly like Billy Crystal. (Wait, he’s actually voiced by Billy Crystal? Well.) Calcifer may not be the hottest guy on this list, but he’s certainly hot enough to fry eggs and bacon.

Cooking with Calcifer

That’s pretty hot, right?

9. Anger (Inside Out)

Anger (Inside Out)

This one is easy. I mean, the dude’s head is literally on fire.

Hot guy. No doubt about it. Great movie, too.

8. Mario (Super Mario Bros. series)

Fireball Mario

Mario isn’t always hot, but he occasionally throws fireballs. These whirling spheres of flame aren’t terribly large or threatening, except when they get out of hand. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) When Mario cuts loose with the fireballs, things heat up pretty quickly.

Mario's Final Smash

Bowser is another hot character from the Super Mario Bros. series, but I chose Mario because this list has quite enough scaly fire-breathing monsters. Speaking of which….

7. Charizard (Pokémon)

Charizard

Charizard is labeled a Fire-type Pokémon, and for good reason. His flaming tail is a life sign, like a pulse… but more likely to burn down buildings. Charizard also breathes fire.

Totally hot, man.

6. The Fury (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

The Fury

This crazy cosmonaut hails from my favorite Metal Gear Solid game as a member of the Cobra Unit: a team of supervillains working for a rogue Soviet colonel. The Fury is a pyromaniac through and through, packing a flamethrower and a jet pack—which, I can only assume, were standard issue for Soviet cosmonauts prior to the sixties.

When the Fury finally gives up the ghost, it’s with delusions, explosions, and surreal shrieking heads of fire. So hot.

5. The Guys in the Seventh Circle of Hell (Dante’s Inferno)

Seventh Circle of Hell

The circles of Dante’s hell offer various horrors, from violent winds to ceaseless whippings. It’s the seventh circle that most closely resembles the classic image of hell as a fiery place, with a river of boiling blood and flakes of fire drifting to the ground. “Thus was descending the eternal heat, whereby the sand was set on fire, like tinder beneath the steel.”

You can bet the sinners in hell’s seventh circle are pretty hot.

4. Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Zuko

In the fantasy world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko is a firebender: a martial artist who redirects chi (spiritual energy) and unleashes it as fire. Firebending is awesome. It can be used to warm tea, heat bathwater, or do this:

Firebending

Zuko is the show’s most dynamic firebender, learning from dragons and experimenting with advanced forms of his art. He never did learn to make a good cup of tea, but he’s still a really hot guy.

3. Hades (Disney’s Hercules)

Hades

At first glance, Hades looks like a shady uncle to Anger from Pixar’s Inside Out. Don’t be fooled. The smooth-talking god of the dead from Disney’s Hercules often loses his cool. (Pun intended. I’m still sorry.) When his temper flares (I’m so, so sorry), those flames rage out of control.

Yes, Hades is a hot guy… but he’s the master of the underworld, so what did you expect?

2. Smaug (The Hobbit)

Smaug

Do I even need to explain this one? Smaug is a dragon. He breathes fire. Dragons breathe fire. Hot.

It would have been easy to fill this list with dragons, but I limited myself to one. I chose Smaug because, of all the dragons I considered, he hit the best blend of hotness and cultural significance. (Next time, Toothless. Next time.) Smaug is far from the only hot character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books; Sauron is represented by a fiery eye, and Denethor was pretty hot right at the end of his life.

1. The Human Torch (Marvel comics)

The Human Torch

I don’t really have anything to say about the Human Torch, except that he’s literally on fire, burning at impossibly high temperatures that would reduce ordinary men to greasy little piles of soot.

I can think of no hotter guy in fiction.

Who are your favorite hot guys or gals in fiction? Fire away in the comments!

440. Christianity in Video Games

In my last post, I wondered whether video games can be art. They’re fun, sure, but can they be anything more?

My own belief is that video games have artistic potential. Whether they actually fulfill that potential is an entirely separate question. For the most part, they favor fun over artistic expression, leaving weighty subjects to other media.

Religion is an especially weighty subject, and its effect on art is incalculably great. Christianity in particular has inspired art for two thousand years, and some of it isn’t particularly religious.

Of course, much of the art informed by Christianity is overtly religious in nature: works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, classics like The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy, music like Handel’s Messiah, and countless more. However, Christianity has also influenced many secular works—watch nearly any movie by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers and you’ll see what I mean.

Pulp Fiction

The book of Ezekiel is apparently a bit more vengeful than I remembered.

Yes, the influence of Christianity has reached some unlikely places. It begs the question: If video games have artistic potential, have they used any of it to explore the subject of Christianity?

The answer is… hardly.

Christianity has informed many video games, but its influence is mostly superficial. Many games draw upon Christianity for its cultural or symbolic flair—or, if I may put it another way, its flavor.

The Legend of Zelda, one of the most important games ever made, uses Christian iconography not to make a point, but rather to convey an impression. For example, the game’s protagonist has the symbol of a cross on his shield.

Zelda NES screenshot

Is it just me, or does the hero of The Legend of Zelda look like he’s going from door to door with a Gospel tract?

I don’t know why the game’s developers put a Christian cross on the shield. Perhaps it was inspired by the cross designs on shields in medieval Europe. Maybe it was supposed to represent nobility, righteousness, or heroism. Either way, this symbol of Christianity is literally front and center in one of the greatest games of all time.

Incidentally, the game features another Christian symbol: the Bible, whose title was translated for Western versions as the Book of Magic. In the game, the Bible empowers the protagonist to throw fireballs, which isn’t something Bibles generally do. (At any rate, mine doesn’t.)

I’m going to discuss a few more games in this post, but for full disclosure, I should admit that I haven’t played most of them. I know them mostly by reputation, by reading about them, or in one case by following the game’s story on YouTube.

Christian imagery shows up occasionally in video games, many of which avoid association with the religion itself in order to avoid controversy. This has led to fictional religions that bear outward resemblance to Christianity—particularly to Roman Catholicism.

Video games such as the Final Fantasy series sometimes feature Christian (especially Roman Catholic) elements such as priests, churches, cathedrals, holy water, and baptisms.

Final Fantasy VII church

Can we take up an offering to repair the church in Final Fantasy VII? It could use a new floor. And some more pews. And a table in the back for coffee and doughnuts.

A few games even tackle the subject of religious corruption, but always within fictional religions whose resemblance to Christianity is only superficial.

Of course, some video games take a more direct approach, depicting Christianity itself (instead of a fictional religion) for its imagery, culture, or history.

The Hitman series—which, as its name suggests, is all about assassinations—uses “Ave Maria,” a song based on a Christian prayer, as its theme. It may be meant to evoke a somber mood, or perhaps to suggest an ironic parallel between the Church and the syndicate that employs the eponymous hitman. Either way, the series doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about Christianity; the games merely borrow from it.

The Assassin’s Creed series uses religion as a backdrop to its fictional history. The first game takes place in the Holy Land during the Crusades, and the second in Italy during the Renaissance. That second game apparently ends with the player beating up Pope Alexander VI, which seems weird to me. What developer, when given the limitless possibilities of game design, decided to make a game that climaxed in a fight against a fifteenth-century Pope? Did that developer just assume that all Christians are evil? Should I be offended?

There are a few games—just a few—that try to say something meaningful, whether good or bad, about Christianity.

The Binding of Isaac is an indie game named for the biblical account of Abraham nearly sacrificing his own son. It follows a young boy through an underworld of twisted imagery: much of it Christian. The game seems almost blasphemous with its lurid imagery and grotesque monsters.

The Binding of Isaac

This is, um, not a game for children.

I’m not sure what point The Binding of Isaac is trying to make. The game definitely has something to say. It may be an exploration of how religion can be abused, or maybe an outright censure of Christianity. I’m in no hurry to find out; I prefer my video games not hopelessly gloomy, thank you.

The most interesting treatment of Christianity I’ve seen in a video game comes from Bioshock Infinite, a story-driven first-person shooter. (For the uninitiated: a first-person shooter is a game in which the player shoots things from a first-person perspective, simply enough.) The game doesn’t focus on religion itself as much as on what it brings out in people.

The original Bioshock game is set in Rapture: a ruined underwater dystopia. It was built by an atheist who was convinced he could harness the potential of humankind in an enlightened society. The city fell apart, its remaining inhabitants fighting for the survival of the fittest.

No gods or kings

Welcome to Rapture?

By contrast, Bioshock Infinite is set in Columbia: an airborne city bustling with religious folks and overseen by Father Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet. Despite its bright exterior, Columbia is also a dystopia. It reflects not a Darwinian struggle for survival, however, but the ugliest blunders of American Christianity.

The religion in Bioshock Infinite is the Christianity that excused slavery, oppressed Native Americans, reviled foreigners, and mistook love of country for love of God. It’s an exaggerated picture, but also one based on history.

Bioshock Infinite mural

Welcome to Columbia?

I appreciate that Bioshock Infinite doesn’t blame Christianity for Columbia’s problems, but acknowledges how it has, throughout history, sometimes brought out the worst in people. The game suggests the problem is not with faith, but with human beings.

Fortunately, Christianity also brings out the best in people. The game’s debt-ridden protagonist, Booker, is hired to rescue a woman from Columbia on the promise that his employer will “wipe away the debt.” As the game unfolds, it becomes clear that Booker’s debt isn’t just a matter of money. He needs to be forgiven.

Besides forgiveness, Christian themes in the game include baptism and longing. The latter is beautifully expressed in the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is part of the game’s soundtrack.

Bioshock Infinite isn’t a perfect game, and its depiction of Christianity is definitely upsetting. However, it’s a more ambitious and nuanced take than I’ve seen from any other video game, and I respect it for that.

While a few games offer thoughtful explorations of Christian themes, others exist simply to appeal to a religious market. They’re the worst. They often steal their ideas from other games, and they’re nearly always terrible.

What are your thoughts on Christianity in video games? Let us know in the comments!

435. Getting Old

I have a birthday this month. I’ll be twenty-something. Don’t ask me how old exactly, because I’ve forgotten. I’m getting old, guys.

I’m reaching the decrepit stage of life at which my memories fade like the flowers of the field. My senses dim. The sun and moon and stars go dark. My mind falters. My strength ebbs away. I can almost see the vultures circling over me. “Soon,” they tell each other. “Soon.”

Circling vultures

Given the amount of coffee I drink, any vulture that eats me will end up with quite a caffeine buzz.

All right, I may be exaggerating a little; twenty-something isn’t so old. After all, I work with old folks, so I should know.

I work in the memory care unit of a nursing home, assisting dementia patients and forgetful retirees. My own memory is abysmal, so I fit right in. Besides, I can tell the same jokes every day and the residents never tire of them. I know that I too shall be a forgetful old person someday. I’m already a forgetful young person, so I have a terrific head start.

I sometimes wonder what my life will be like when I’m an old man… assuming, of course, I don’t perish in the Mad Max-style wasteland America will become if Donald Trump wins the presidential election. (I’m joking.)

Immortan Trump

Seriously, though, are we quite sure that Donald Trump and Mad Max’s Immortan Joe aren’t the same person?

Getting old is rough, guys. The guy who wrote Ecclesiastes knew it. The mind and body, not just the memory, stop working as well as they should. Independence becomes difficult. Pain becomes all too common. The world, with its changing culture and evolving technology, seems ever farther and farther beyond comprehension. No one else seems to understand or remember the old things, the good things.

As the residents at the nursing home play bingo and watch reruns of Green Acres and The Lawrence Welk Show, I ask myself: How will members of my own generation spend their declining years? Will we sit around surfing the Internet? Will we watch reruns of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead on future-Netflix? Will we play games on antique systems like the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo 64? How old-fashioned and out of touch will we seem to young people sixty years from now?

Heck, for all I know, in sixty years senior citizens might be plugged into Matrix-style computers to spend their final years in the comforting embrace of virtual reality. My own job as a nursing assistant might be outsourced to robots like Baymax from Big Hero Six. (I would be okay with that, honestly.)

If Baymax cared for me in my old age, I’m sure I would be satisfied with my care.

As another birthday comes and goes, and I inch ever closer to my inevitable demise, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds. If I reach the age of the folks at the nursing home, what will the world look like?

I’ll face the world one day at a time, I suppose. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead. I had better keep piling up canned food and clean water in case Trump wins this year’s election. In the wasteland, fortune favors the well-prepared.*


*For the record, all of my jabs at Donald Trump are in good fun, and not to be taken seriously. Please don’t deport me.

431. My Creative Heroes

Creative people are fun, quirky, smart, and responsible for most of the entertainment in my life. (The rest of it comes from acting silly in public to make my younger brother uncomfortable.) I have many creative heroes: people I know personally, people on the Internet, and professionals in the media.

Today’s post honors three of my creative heroes, one each from the media of film, video games, and literature. I admire and respect the heck out of these people. If I were the sort of person who cries and gives hugs, I would embrace these heroes of mine and weep tears of joy and gratitude. I’m not, however, so instead I’ll ramble about them, because rambling is what I do.

John Lasseter

[Update: I wrote this post long before the #MeToo movement exposed Mr. Lasseter’s history of sexually harassing coworkers and others. While I admire his creative genius, I hasten to add that success and talent are never acceptable excuses for being a sleazebag.]

I considered naming Hayao Miyazaki one of my creative heroes, but this brilliant Japanese filmmaker is also demanding and grouchy: not qualities I admire in anyone, creative or not. John Lasseter, like Miyazaki, is a legend; unlike Miyazaki, he seems like a nice human being.

John Lasseter

Lasseter’s career is one of the most incredible rags-to-riches stories I know. As a boy, he dreamed of working for Disney as an animator. He achieved his dream—only to be fired after just a few years. His mistake was annoying his superiors by experimenting with a brand-new form of art: computer animation.

Heartbroken, Lasseter drifted to a division of Lucasfilm, which later became an independent company called Pixar Animation Studios. (You may have heard of it.) For a decade, Pixar pioneered computer animation with masterpieces like Toy Story and its sequel, both of which Lasseter directed.

It seems strange to us nowadays, as we enjoy terrific films like Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia, but just ten years ago Disney’s animation studios were stuck in a losing streak. Their films found neither commercial nor critical success, and their fans yearned for the good old days of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Disney, the most successful animation company in history, had sunk to the unimaginable low of mediocrity.

Faced with this crisis, Disney’s newly-appointed CEO, Bob Iger, did the only sensible thing: oversee Disney’s purchase of Pixar, and then put Lasseter and his colleague Ed Catmull in charge of basically everything. After more than twenty years, John Lasseter returned to the studio that had fired him—as its chief creative officer. His employees welcomed him with cheers and applause.

In the following years, Lasseter renamed and restructured Disney’s main animation studio, canceled cash-grab projects and lazy sequels, and oversaw the release of superb films from both Disney and Pixar: all while wearing colorful Hawaiian shirts.

I admire John Lasseter for his creative vision, which blends an appreciation for tradition with a dedication to cutting-edge innovation. Mr. Lasseter emphasizes teamwork, strives for quality in art and storytelling, and seems like a genuinely nice guy. He’s one of my heroes, and a colorful one at that.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Several decades ago, the president of a company on the verge of financial collapse made a desperate plan to salvage unpopular hardware. He tasked a young employee named Shigeru Miyamoto with creating a new game for old arcade units. That game was Donkey Kong, that company was Nintendo, and that employee went on to create Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and many of the greatest video games ever made.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Nintendo is awesome, and Shigeru Miyamoto is the genius behind many of its successes. Many of the turning points in the history of video gaming hinge on Miyamoto’s games. Donkey Kong established the platforming genre. Super Mario Bros. helped save the video game industry after it crashed in the eighties. Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time pioneered movement in a virtual 3D space, and the Wii experimented with motion control.

Miyamoto has helped shape the video game industry for nearly four decades, but you wouldn’t guess it to look at him. He’s a mild gentleman who enjoys music and gardening, and walked or biked to work until his company pressured him for his own safety to drive. For a creative visionary, he seems entirely down to earth.

Nowadays, Miyamoto is more of a creative consultant for Nintendo than a game designer. He is notorious for “upending the tea table” during game development, flipping design concepts on their heads. (His suggestions are game-changing, so to speak.) Miyamoto seems like Nintendo’s idea guy, stepping in when a development team needs a boost.

I admire Miyamoto’s design philosophy: he values fun over fancy graphics or technical intricacy. Most of his games are based on his own life experiences, from exploring woods and caves as a child to gardening as an adult. (He even made a game inspired by his attempts to lose weight!) His work is colorful, charming, fun, and friendly. Nintendo is basically the Pixar of the video game industry, and Miyamoto-san, like Pixar’s Mr. Lasseter, is one of my heroes.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course this man is one of my creative heroes. Really, they don’t get any more creative than J.R.R. Tolkien. The man created an entire world—an earth with its own geography, mythology, languages, cultures, genealogies, and thousands of years of history—and he did it in his spare time.

J.R.R. TolkienLong before he published The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was a noted academic renowned for his groundbreaking work in literary criticism. He lectured, graded papers, translated old texts, published books, raised a family, and still found time somehow to create his own vast, private, intricate mythology.

Tolkien was irrepressibly creative. For example, every year his children wrote to Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus—and, incredibly, Father Christmas wrote back. For twenty-two years, Tolkien played the role of Father Christmas to amuse his kids: writing and illustrating stories about his misadventures at the North Pole. These letters were published as a children’s book after Tolkien’s death; I’ve read them, and and they’re delightful. Even in his little pet projects, Tolkien’s creativity and cleverness were astounding.

Of course, Tolkien’s greatest project of all was Middle-earth and its stories, the most famous of which is The Lord of the Rings. The sheer size and intricacy of Tolkien’s world is astounding; by some estimates, it’s the largest and most complex ever created by a single person in all of human history. Tolkien’s influence on literature and pop culture is literally incalculable.

In his vast mythologies and in his little stories for children, at work and at home, J.R.R. Tolkien was incredibly creative, and he’s one of my heroes.

Whew! That was a long post. What can I say? Creative people inspire me!

Who are your creative heroes? Let us know in the comments!

428. An Open Letter to Hollywood 2: The Sequel

Dear Hollywood Executives,

I know you’re all very busy, so I’ll try to keep this short. It’s been a while since my last letter, which I assume you all read, and another one is due. Consider it a sequel.

You’ve made a few small improvements since my last letter. For example, you actually made a Deadpool movie. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good. (I’ve also heard that it’s extremely vulgar, but Deadpool’s gotta Deadpool, I guess.) So many superhero movies are all doom and gloom, because, y’know, heaven forbid comic-book stories be fun for anybody. Irreverent takes on the genre like Deadpool and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy are a welcome change. It’s okay for superhero movies not to take themselves so seriously. We don’t mind, honest!

Speaking of superhero movies, can we get a bit more diversity? Please? Take the Avengers, otherwise known as the League of White Guys. (They have only one female member: a token femme fatale with no superpowers.) I don’t read Marvel comics, but I know they feature more than white dudes. I don’t have anything against white dudes—I am one, as a matter of fact—but flooding superhero movies with them is unfair, uncool, and frankly kinda boring.

To be fair, I must congratulate you on giving Black Panther, the no-nonsense African superhero, a part in the new Captain America movie, and working toward giving him his own film in a couple of years. For a change, the black guy won’t be just a sidekick. He’ll be the hero.

Black PantherIt will be nice, after more than a dozen Marvel movies, finally to have one whose hero isn’t a white American (or quasi-British) male. It’s a step in the right direction. Keep stepping, ladies and gentlemen. Keep stepping.

I’ve already written about video game movies and portrayals of Christians in secular media, so I won’t repeat myself here. Just go read those blog posts. I will, however, emphatically repeat my appeal for a Metal Gear Solid movie. It should happen. It needs to happen. Please, please, please, make it happen. I will give you anything to make a Metal Gear Solid movie, unto half my kingdom. (I won’t actually give you anything for making the movie, but I will buy tickets to see it.)

Look, I’ve even done some of the casting for you.

Metal Gear Solid movie Now you just need to make the movie. Please do.

As long as we’re discussing film adaptations: Why don’t you adapt more old books? As you struggle to come up with ideas, consider the thousands of terrific stories available at your local library. I once made a list of books that would make great films, and you’ve made only one of them (Ender’s Game) with a second (Ben-Hur) on its way. Seriously, I want a film version of The Man Who Was Thursday almost as much as I want that Metal Gear Solid movie.

Incidentally, I hear Martin Scorsese is working on an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence: a brooding and powerful novel about the silence of God.

SilenceIt’s exactly the sort of obscure, slow-paced book you Hollywood execs won’t touch with a ten-foot boom pole. Mr. Scorsese thinks differently. Learn from Mr. Scorsese, Hollywood.

Moving on from a good director to some really bad ones: Why are you still letting Michael Bay and M. Night Shyamalan make movies? Why?! Just stop. Stop. Staaahhhp.

On a brighter note, Disney and Pixar have been making some outstanding movies lately. I’m glad to see that animation is not merely surviving on the Hollywood scene, but evolving and thriving. As long as you have Disney and Pixar, Hollywood, I think you’ll be all right.

I could go on, but that’s probably enough for one letter. I hope it doesn’t seem too harsh or demanding. For all of my grumbling, I really appreciate good movies, and I suppose I have you Hollywood people to thank for them. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen, for making my life a little brighter, and occasionally a little more explode-y.

Peace,

Adam

P.S. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could just put Disney’s John Lasseter in charge of everything? No? Well, there was no harm in asking.