In the past few months, I finished some stupidly long books, films, and video games. Some are truly lengthy; others feel overlong due to tedium or slow pacing. A few are well worth their length. The rest overstay their welcome.
In this Review Roundup, I’ll take a quick look at Les Misérables, Metal Gear Solid 4, The Once and Future King, Secret of Mana, Rise of the Guardians, and The Godfather Parts I and II.
I’ll try to keep this short. Spoilers: I’ll probably fail.
I read the abridged Les Misérables a few years ago. It was fantastic. Set in nineteenth-century France, this epic story follows an escaped convict named Jean Valjean. His journey from grief to grace to redemption spans decades, interwoven with tales of war, crime, revolution, and romance. The abridged Les Misérables is one of the finest novels I have ever read.
The complete, unabridged Les Misérables is a badly-paced novel burdened with boring details and jumbled together with a bunch of essays. The story moves with all the grace of a drunken hippo with a blindfold and only three legs.
As a writer, I usually respect an artist’s original vision. Not this time. In this case, I think the artist’s original vision is deeply flawed. The book has too much detail and a number of subplots that go nowhere, but those aren’t its worst faults. At frequent intervals, the novel is interrupted by rambling essays about minor details. How can readers stay invested in the tale of Jean Valjean when it’s constantly derailed by the author’s digressions on street lingo or the Battle of Waterloo?
For example, at the climax of the novel, a band of freedom fighters makes a heroic last stand against the army in Paris as Jean Valjean flees through the sewers. In the next chapter, the author kills the story’s momentum with an essay describing how much money the city of Paris loses by dumping its sewer waste in the river instead of converting it to manure. Never mind Jean Valjean’s sewer escape! Never mind the martyrs of the revolution! All that must wait until the author finishes ranting about sewers several chapters later.
If the author really felt his opinions were so important, he should have published them separately. Les Misérables was written as a serial, but when it was finally published as a complete work, his digressions could have been included as appendices at the back of the book.
Read Les Misérables—the abridged one. For heaven’s sake, don’t waste your time on the unabridged version.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Metal Gear Solid 4 is a video game that thinks it’s an action movie.
In the, um, distant future of 2014, war has changed. A group called the Patriots has made war a business. Meaningless battles are fought all over the world by privately-owned mercenary companies, fueling a worldwide war economy. Using technology, economics, and the media—and nanomachines, of course—the Patriots control everything.
War has changed, and so has Solid Snake. This legendary soldier has aged prematurely due to a terminal genetic condition. Snake has become, in his thirties or forties, an old man with less than a year to live. When his former commanding officer asks him to undertake one last mission, Snake sets out to bring down the Patriots and end the cycle of war before the whole world burns. After all, what does he have to lose?
In the past couple of years, I’ve come to love the Metal Gear Solid games. I keep comparing them to the films of Quentin Tarantino. Packed with dialogue and populated by larger-than-life characters, they are violent, campy, stylish, contemplative, and frequently ridiculous.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is characteristically Metal Gear Solid-ish, and it does a superb job of pulling everything together. The games that preceded it are radically different in tone and story. Metal Gear Solid is a military thriller with shades of Tom Clancy’s novels and superhero comics. (It would make a great movie.) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty starts as an action game and spirals off into postmodern intrigue. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a James Bond-style adventure set in the sixties. MGS4 somehow ties together plot threads from previous games, uniting them in a triumphant (and surprisingly cohesive) conclusion to Solid Snake’s story.
The gameplay and level design of MGS4 are polished for a fairly smooth experience. For the first time in the series, Snake actually pilots one of the eponymous Metal Gears in an exhilarating clash of giant robots. A couple of the other boss fights are brilliantly designed. Tracking and shadowing targets adds a little variety to the usual shooting and sneaking.
After three games of sneaking around in the shadows, a giant robot fight was long overdue.
If the game has a problem, it’s the cutscenes—scripted scenes that take away control from the player. These are superbly produced, but also really long. I mean really, really long. I spent probably a quarter of my time with the game watching instead of playing. MGS4 is a movie superimposed on a video game.
I also have a serious problem with the game’s portrayal of women. The Metal Gear Solid series has its share of good-looking ladies, but the babes of MGS4 aren’t sexy spies or cute scientists—they are freaking PTSD victims. Several of the game’s bosses are traumatized women trapped in armored suits and forced back onto the battlefield. When their powered armors are destroyed, these ladies crawl out in skintight bodysuits as the camera ogles their curves. I think it’s supposed to be sexy in a PG-13 kind of way, but it comes off as creepy and insensitive. There are just a few of these scenes, but yeesh.
It had a few disappointments, yet I really enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The game is a must for fans of the series. For new players, I recommend Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as a better introduction.
The Once and Future King
The Once and Future King is a poignant tale of failure. Based on Arthurian legends, the novel follows King Arthur from his childhood studies under Merlin to his final regrets as an old man. Woven into Arthur’s story is the tale of Lancelot, Arthur’s greatest knight, who follows his own ambitions and makes his own mistakes.
It’s quite a long novel, but unlike Les Misérables, every page is worthwhile. It reinterprets the Arthurian legends, setting them centuries later and giving their characters much greater complexity. Arthur, for example, no longer establishes his Round Table (an order of knights governed by chivalry) for the sake of honor or conquest. The Round Table is reimagined as a redirection of violence from selfish to noble ends. Arthur is more than a king. He is an inventor of civilization.
At first, the novel is lighthearted and often hilarious. In fact, the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone is based on the early chapters of The Once and Future King. The difference is that in the film, Arthur’s coronation is a happy ending, whereas in the book, it’s only the beginning of his struggles. The tone goes from funny to tragic as Arthur grows from a boy to a man.
The Once and Future King is easily the finest book I’ve read so far this year, and the definitive retelling of King Arthur’s story for our age. I highly recommend it.
Secret of Mana
I had wanted to play this game for years. Released around the same time as RPG classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, for the same system and by the same company, Secret of Mana is widely hailed as a masterpiece of the SNES era.
It’s kind of terrible.
Yeah, it looks nice. Don’t be fooled.
There are good things about it. The battle system is robust, engaging, and way ahead of its time. Secret of Mana looks great, with bright colors and attractive old-timey graphics. Its menus are neat. I can understand why the game was so well received in its day. However, its weaknesses greatly outnumber its strengths. The music is forgettable, the story is an undeveloped stream of clichés, the game design is frequently obtuse, and the game settles into a rhythm of dull repetition that lasts way too long.
If you’re looking for an RPG classic, for heaven’s sake play Chrono Trigger and leave Secret of Mana in the nineties where it belongs.
Rise of the Guardians
I had low expectations for Rise of the Guardians, but it wasn’t bad.
The film recasts Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and other figures of childhood lore as Guardians: members of a league that protects the happiness of children. When the Boogeyman tries to darken the world with nightmares, the Guardians recruit an amnesiac Jack Frost to restore the belief and hope of kids everywhere.
Despite its generic title, Rise of the Guardians is a colorful, well-paced fairy-tale film. (Unlike the other media in this Review Roundup, it doesn’t feel particularly long.) The Guardians are mostly likable; I particularly enjoyed Santa Claus as a gruff Russian and the Sandman as a silent protagonist. The villain is sinister and well-developed. By far the weakest link is Jack Frost, whose angst, amnesia, bland narration, and boy-band looks hit all the wrong notes.
It isn’t a classic, but Rise of the Guardians is all right.
The Godfather Parts I and II
The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are allegedly two of the greatest films ever made. I decided I should see them. It was, as the Godfather himself might have put it, a recommendation I could not refuse.
The first Godfather film tells the story of the Corleone family, an Italian-American crime syndicate led by the eponymous godfather, Vito, and later by his son Michael. The second movie follows Michael as he consolidates power, and flashes back to Vito’s arrival in the United States and rise to power as a criminal kingpin.
Oh, and the first one consists largely of Marlon Brando making this face:
Seriously. This is his default expression.
The Godfather movies are fairly old, and a lot longer and slower than contemporary films. They move at the leisurely pace of novels. (If it were made today, The Godfather would probably be a television miniseries, not a series of films.) The meticulous pacing allows for character development and plenty of subplots, but definitely makes watching the films a chore.
The Godfather movies boast great acting and complex characters. Vito is not just a literal godfather to his godson, but a sort of father-figure to his community. His life of crime is governed by strict rules of honor and loyalty. Michael, at first an innocent young man, hardens into a ruthless mob boss who abandons his father’s principles. In telling their stories, the films touch upon themes such as revenge, responsibility, betrayal, tradition, religion, corruption, and family.
The Godfather and The Godfather Part II reward patient viewers with the epic story of a family’s descent into darkness. If you’re looking for something easy to watch, however, you had better look elsewhere.
What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!