Adventurous thoughts

Hey everybody!

Birthday week continues here at spalanz.com, and I wanted to talk a little bit about creative writing today. Well, like I said at the top of the week, I was thinking of presenting something of a microcosm of my first year within the week. Indiana Jones is a great theme for this, with the amount of stuff that it has spawned over the years.

A few years ago, I entertained some dreams of adding to that spawn myself!

As a child, I was utterly enraptured by the sense of adventure in the Indy films, and used to try to continue and recapture that adventure long after the credits had rolled. As life wore on, I thought about the possibility of making something of those adventures by writing essentially fan-fiction, an idea that eventually mutated into my own original story idea. Somewhere, I’ve got a lot of stuff written down for an adventure story set in the 1930s and featuring a globe-trotting academic. I’m not entirely sure where, though I am sure that if I found that stuff, I would be fairly unimpressed with it.

The basic kernel of my idea was for a character who wanted to be Indiana Jones, possibly a schoolfriend or somesuch. The idea that this guy who he sat next to in class was off fighting Nazis and unearthing religious artifacts really fired his imagination, so he got together with another guy and they set off to have their own adventure. While George Lucas has described Indy as a guy who’s always getting in over his head, my guy was just inept from the get-go. I think he was fluent in Ancient Greek and Arabic, as he was a scholar of the dark ages and early medieval period, but he wasn’t much good at anything else.

The guy along for the adventure with him was also a medievalist, and had something of a fascination with medieval weaponry. I suppose this was an answer to Indy having a whip – this chap used a flail at one point, and I think I wanted to show him train with tonfa and three-section staff (I don’t remember the actual Chinese name for this). There was also a lady along with them, who was fluent in several languages, and an elder-statesman-like chap who may or may not have been a college professor.

Yeah – a large part of the adventure took place in China.

The story had something to do with breaking into an international gemstone smuggling ring, and trying to prevent the theft of some kind of legendary stone. It might have been my inability to develop this effectively that proved the undoing of this endeavour. Part of the story took place in Africa – I think I originally wanted to involve Egypt, but then felt it was too hackneyed and wanted to move into Nubia or someplace. My intrepid band was foiled at this stage, but decided to forge ahead through India and Nepal and into China, where the final showdown would take place.

For the villain of the piece, I envisaged all sorts of crazy, though I think I eventually settled on a Dutch guy. Diamonds, you know? Anyway.

Along the way there would be boat chases along the Ganges (or similar), airplane chases over the Himalayas, car chases through Peking, and midnight excavations with traps and terrors at every turn. It was going to be awesome.

And yet, it remains unwritten. A loss the world will no doubt have to bear! I think what put me off was The Mummy 3, which I haven’t seen, but which sounded too much like my projected tale, with its oriental setting and whatnot.

However, there were also a number of challenges that I felt insurmountable at the time, foremost among them being how could I write something this close to an adventure classic and still keep it original? A fear of becoming derivative was a constant companion. Another major consideration was whether I was intelligent enough to write it. I mean, it’s a story about a group of highly intelligent academics, and I suppose my constant insecurity led me to believe I couldn’t pull it off convincingly when I wasn’t in that same stratum. The vast majority of my notes for this story were mainly educating myself on things like weaponry and toxicology, for instance, to say nothing of ancient history of Africa and Asia…

I began to think instead of something more fantastical, which I could control – my fantasy story that I talked about some last summer. If I’m making everything up, then it’s much easier to write than having to do all that research – no matter how interesting it was! My fantasy story originally began life in 2006, but soon overtook my adventurer story, though neither has made any real headway!

It’s a series of ideas that have refused to go away, however, and every so often I find myself fondly looking back and thinking I might actually make something of it. I suppose time will only tell on that score…

Anyhow! We’re getting close to the end of Birthday Week now, but I hope to have something faintly interesting for you to end the week with… stay tuned!

The further adventures of Dr Jones!

Hey folks!

I’m continuing the Birthday Week theme today, with a look at the further adventures of Indiana Jones! Yes guys, there’s more to this franchise than some movies! (And, I think, a Disney ride?)

I get really excited when I discovered there were books and comics for a series like this. Last year I discovered comics for Ghostbusters, and was in awe! I discovered Indy books five or six years ago now, and snapped up what were described to be the best – the quartet by Max McCoy.

Indiana Jones

There are a dozen or so novels from Bantam, published during the 90s in the aftermath of Last Crusade, and McCoy wrote the final four. Some of the earlier books are apparently goofy, but these last four are apparently much better.

Well.

I haven’t read any of the earlier ones, but these chaps can be really pretty weird!

A small confession, I’ve only actually read three of the four pictured above, having not made it to Secret of the Sphinx. Why? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I can’t honestly say that they’re the best books I’ve ever read.

They do have a classic adventure feel to them, and they obviously have the characters that we know and love from the movies. But overall, they just don’t feel like Indiana Jones. There are a lot of moments where Indy is completely out of character, predominantly in terms of speech patterns, that make me wonder what on earth I’m actually reading. A lot of the movie tie-ins that I’ve read in the past have been successful because the characters feel like those from the source material, and speech is a big part of that.

Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone began really promising, with a jungle adventure that serves to explain the remark from Temple of Doom about Indy’s activities in British Honduras. I was enraptured! But it soon fell quite flat, though there was the one saving grace that these books are really easy to read – I’m a slow reader, but I read half of this novel in a day. This book also brings Mussolini’s Fascists to the Indyverse as enemies, and it works pretty well.

The stilted dialogue, often arising out of the apparent need of the author to educate us, has made me think that perhaps these novels are aimed at a much lower age range. Not that I’m a snob or anything, but I sometimes felt I was being talked down to during this book.

My biggest criticism, however, comes from a sort of side-McGuffin. Indy is in British Honduras to retrieve a crystal skull, which he doesn’t realise is cursed. Indy winds up believing said curse, which causes big problems for him throughout the three novels I’ve read. Seriously? What happened to his Raiders attitude, of a lot of hocus pocus and the boogieman? Hm.

Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs is a bizarre one. Derivative of Temple of Doom, we see Indy head to Outer Mongolia by way of Shanghai, which leads to some gratuitous cameo appearances, but also fails to hit the spot for me. Remember in the second movie, Wu Han dies reminiscing about the many adventures he and Indy have taken? It always felt like they’d been buddies for many years, not the barely two years this novel sets it at. Also, Wu Han is barely in the adventure. But anyway.

Another entirely superfluous cameo comes at the very beginning, where we see Rene Belloq seemingly meeting Indy for the first time also. Some Nazis appear, but the main villains of this piece are Mongolian bandits, which also fell a little flat for me – we have Indy in China around the time of the conflict with Japan, why not investigate that a little? There is a lot of history here that has remained largely ignored by the West, I feel – perhaps because we had a lot going on with the growing Nazi threat in Europe – but it would have been really good to see it explored.

Anyhow, this is followed up by Indiana Jones and the Hollow Earth. I have to admit, while I’m a big history fan, I didn’t really get the reference here – fortunately, all these books have a historical afterword that explains some of the real-life references made, seemingly in keeping with the need to educate. Apparently, a lot of intellectuals thought the Earth was hollow, with substantial space ripe for colonisation under the surface. Hm. It’s a notion that was kind-of explored in my absolute favourite science fiction novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, though I hadn’t realised it had actually been given serious thought until reading this, so I suppose the novel succeeded on that front!

While the other two novels are a bit weird, this one is downright odd. To start with, I don’t feel like it flows very well. The Nazis are the villains of this book, but there is a substantial part in the first half of the novel that feels like it should be a separate adventure, which really damaged the pacing for me. The premise of the novel is that Indy has been given a stone that leading members of the Thule Society are looking for, but after an extended altercation with the Nazis, they disappear from the narrative while Indy goes off on a treasure hunt, to raise the funds to pay Belloq (in another gratuitous cameo) for information as to the whereabouts of the crystal skull from book one. The search for the skull brings about the end game, an Arctic expedition that brings the Nazis back, but by this point there feels like too much going on, and the two strands of Thule Stone and Crystal Skull stories don’t really fit properly.

I suppose, of the three, I feel cheated the most by Hollow Earth, because it could have been so much better than it turned out to be, with the Thule Society references (remember my love of Tannhauser and alternative-history?)

Indiana Jones

But what about the comic-book adventures?

There are quite a few comics for the franchise, from Marvel’s adaptations of the films to Dark Horse’s endeavours of the 1990s. I’ve come quite late to Indy comics, picking up the omnibus when it came out in 2008, and have only actually read one of these stories, the adaptation of the Fate of Atlantis video game.

It’s another strange story, that sees Indy globetrotting in a whole host of contraptions, and while the initial setup looked like it could be going somewhere interesting, it ended up being just a bit weird and goofy again.

So this is something of a theme for the Indy literature out there, really, and leads right into Indy 4, too.

The Indiana Jones films have always taken some mystical object of religious significance, and spun a story around it of adventure and hijinks that has some sort of personal/moral level to it. These stories that I’ve been talking about here have taken a broader approach, by having the mystical object merely a historical artifact of some sort, and use it as an excuse to go on some random adventure almost for the sake of it. Which is partly the problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for me. The vital element of any sort of reason for the adventure has been taken away, and we’re left with something that’s just empty.

The stories are pretty good if you just want some escapist adventure to read, and they’re all pretty quick to get through, too. Unfortunately, however, they don’t really feel like Indiana Jones stories! But hey, that’s just my opinion – if you’ve read any, let me know what you think!!

Indiana Jones!

You love it!

Indiana Jones, for me, is one of the all-time awesome movie series. The adventure! Just awesome. I’m not about to launch into some hefty critique of these films, as there are plenty of such things knocking about online. Instead, I’m just going to put some random thoughts together for your general amusement on why I love these films – it’s my blog’s birthday, dammit!

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw these films, though I do recall a dark period of only having Last Crusade on vhs (for you young kids, that’s physical tape in a plastic cassette, none of this dvd shiny!). Raiders of the Lost Ark was always the more serious film, I seem to remember – you couldn’t just watch it, it seemed to demand your attention, though obviously rewarded you for doing so. As a child, I didn’t really care all that much for Raiders. There was too much going on, plot-wise, and while I did enjoy the truck chase sequence, it didn’t really do it for me. I was also heavily interested in Mesoamerican/Pre-Columbian history, and felt cheated by the film’s opening not delivering on a jungle adventure, but that’s beside the point.

Harrison Ford Raiders of the Lost Ark

As an adult, I can now appreciate Raiders for the masterwork it is. It’s not just a great film, it’s a great experience. There’s a deep sense of history for these characters, and whenever I watch it, I find myself wanting to know more about them – let’s see how Indy and Sallah met! Let’s see more of Marcus!

The character of Marcus Brody is something of a disappointment for me, incidentally. Don’t get me wrong, I think Denholm Elliot is superb. It’s the character that disappoints me. In Raiders, he’s something of a father-figure for Indy, there at the beginning and the end of the adventure. He comes across as a really important figure in Indy’s life. Then in Last Crusade, when we get Indy’s actual father, he’s kinda sidelined into a buffoon. But there has to be more to him than this! What is he good at? We never see him shine the way we do the other characters, except those all-too-brief glimmers here and there in Raiders. I feel Marcus is a lot more than we see in these films, and could be a real force to be reckoned with when you’re on his turf.

René Belloq is another of these characters that I’d love to get to know more about. The darker side of Indy, I’d like to see him on his own escapades, rather than just stealing stuff from Indy, or acting just as a Nazi toady. Let’s see why he thinks he’s as good as Indy.

I’m one of these people who is secretly fascinated by Nazi occultism, and I’m a big fan of alternative histories such as that of Tannhauser or Hellboy (no doubt, future blogs will explore these!). As such, I really enjoyed the business of the Nazis searching for the Ark, and the historian in me has never seen anything wrong with Nazis in film. This period of history happened, after all, so I don’t see why we should shy away from it. But anyway!

Temple of Doom is my all-time favourite Indiana Jones movie, though it has taken this spot only very recently. I’m not sure how I can really get my thoughts across without sitting you down in front of the movie and pointing out everything that is just awesome about it, but let’s try.

The scope of this movie is truly epic. The Temple set is just frighteningly awesome in the very truest sense of the word – it inspires awe. The story has a genuine arc for the character of Indy, going from an almost-mercenary, contract treasure-hunter to someone who can see what happens when relics are blithely taken away from people. Willie Scott may be an annoying character, but she too deepens as the story moves along.

The story is also really quite dark for its genre, which helps to make it much more grown-up than the others. It’s still a great adventure film, but there is a very clear message coming through in this one of archaeological morality, which is a debate that rages to this day.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The cinematography of this film is absolutely incredible. Douglas Slocombe has been rightly praised for his work, but he really pulls off a tour de force with this one. The scene in the temple, where Indy is forced to drink the black blood and goes through that transformation, is quite possibly my favourite in the whole of cinema, just for the cinematography.

That sense of history from Raiders pervades this film, also. Just what adventures did Indy share with Wu Han? What happened in British Honduras? Inquiring minds need to know!

Of course, the film is not without its faults, not least of which is the blatant racist portrayal of the Indian subcontinent. The banquet scene takes the monkey-brains-metaphor to its extreme in what I assume was meant to be a joke, but instead just falls offensive. Depictions of the Thuggee, and incorrect portrayals of Kali all mount up to a fairly embarrassing film in this respect, and you can’t really brush it under the carpet in the same way you can with the Nazis.

For me, however, it doesn’t detract from what is still a fantastic film.

Last Crusade was, for many years, my favourite of the three. I can vaguely remember it being released, and it was a big deal in my childhood. Something that I particularly liked about the film was just how stylish the Nazis were in this one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expressing admiration! But there is definitely more of the 1930s chic about this film than in the others. It was also interesting, for me, to have a more European flavour to the film, and seeing more of the history that I’m familiar with.

I do enjoy the early history of Christianity, and a film about the holy grail obviously allows us to explore this more. Heading off to the Middle East was both inspired and problematic, for me though. The sense of location has always been a strong point to these films, but long periods in the desert just made it feel like Raiders all over again. Also, that is NOT the Grail Temple, because it’s the Treasury at Petra. That was a big detractor for me, and irritates me whenever I watch the film nowadays.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

It’s not all irritating, of course. Sean Connery as Indy’s father is an inspired move. Lucas famously pitched the Indy story to Spielburg as “something better than James Bond”, so having the original Bond show up is nicely poetic. Connery is also a superb actor, and the chemistry between the two is formidable. Elsa is also a fantastic femme fatale, and it’s great to see Sallah and Marcus once more, even if they are reduced somewhat to comic relief. Even though this is still undoubtedly an Indy movie, there is much more of an ensemble feel to it because of having this strong cast around the lead.

When all’s said and done, however, it just feels too much like a Raiders rehash to me, and falls flat as a result. It’s still head-and-shoulders above a lot of other action movies, but not quite to the level of the first two films.

I suppose there’s also something perhaps a bit more personal to my love for the franchise. As a child, I was always very studious and bookish, and the character of Dr Jones showed, to me, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it actively encouraged me to be more academic at least twice in my early years. Of course, I’m not a globe-trotting professor-cum-treasure-hunter, but a mild-mannered civil servant. But Indiana Jones has made history cool and exciting, regardless of whether that history was accurate, or his methods strictly correct…

This post has so far ignored the fact that there is that turkey, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, also in existence. I’m not about to launch into any kind of critique on that, as I haven’t for the previous films, but I’d just like to say that the film is perhaps the victim of its older siblings’ successes. If you were to remove any reference to the character, and have this as one of the many adventurer-type films that Indy spawned, it’s not actually all that bad. There, I said it!

The internets seem to be awash with rumours lately of a Disney reboot, and I have to say, having had a fair few weeks now to digest this possibility, I don’t actually feel all that bad about this. So long as it’s an actual reboot that brings a completely new experience. I mean, I don’t want to see Chris Pratt (or whoever ends up in the role) rehashing Raiders, because that movie has been done, is awesome, and needs little-to-no work (just an expanded Marcus part, really). It would really need to be a brand new story, though I’m sure it’ll be good to have Nazis back for the ride as well. But I’m not going to speculate this far out, as it isn’t even confirmed this is happening yet…

Let’s just stick with the fact the Indiana Jones trilogy is awesome, with the fourth having the odd moment of goodness. If imitation is the best form of flattery, this franchise is very rich indeed.

Go watch them all today!