Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Battles, Probably Royal

with 3 comments

I usually think it’s a very bad sign when I come off writing with a screaming awful headache, and here I am sitting at the computer at the end of the morning with a screaming awful headache.

What’s more, I just went out and put Beethoven on the player, and not just any Beethoven, but Beethoven with pianos.

Have I mentioned before that I really don’t like the sound of the piano?

I make an exception for Thelonius Monk, but what’s playing isn’t Thelonius Monk, it’s “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

I’m very fond of “The Kreutzer Sonata,” but–head pounding; piano pounding.

I’m in a mood.

I’d like you to remember that I’m in a mood before you read what follows, because I’m not really okay with being yelled at.

And some of you are going to want to yell.

I am almost at the end of Tolkein’s The Two Towers, the second part of my foray into reading all of The Lord of the Rings this summer.

All of the people I’m close to who really love Tolkein say that this is their favorite book in the trilogy.

What’s more, all of them feel that this book is the one Peter Jackson got absolutely wrong in the movies, although they didn’t all have the same reasons for feeling that.

One of them told me that, in the book, Sarumon was not a Big Evil Presence but a sort of bureaucratic Nurse Ratched.  One of them told me that the Ents had been absolutely defamed.

I like the Ents.  The Ents were my favorite part of this book.  I hope they find the Entwives.

I have no idea where my other friend got the idea that the Sarumon of the book was more of a bureaucratic dictator than the standard Evil Presence of the movie.  Evil Presence seems to me to be exactly what he is in the book, and I’ve come away thinking that Jackson got that part exactly right.

But what really got to me was this–what do people see in this thing?

People have battles.  Then they sit around talking about people having battles.  Most of the battles they talk about happened a long time ago, and are described in language that sounds to me half faux-Shakespeare and half American Movie Indian circa 1935.

Fortunately for the way I read books, the faux-language stuff in restricted to dialogue and doesn’t last very long.  The rest of the book feels very well written.

But–battles?  Really?  Why?

Before you all start yelling at once–and I know there is going to be yelling–I do understand that I am in the minority here.

Most people seem to find battles very exciting, and to want lots and lots of them, in movies and in books.

It’s been a very long time since either of my children hauled me off to see a movie, but when they did those movies almost always contained long battle scenes with lots of explosions and loud noises and death and destruction.

They took me to Fellowship of the Ring three times.

And, like I said, I’m not unaware that this is what everybody else in the world but me seems to want. 

Movies and books with battle and other action scenes make a lot of money, certainly a lot more money than the kind of thing I like.

If I were a studio exec, looking for a movie project that would not bankrupt my studio, I’d defintely be on the look out for something with lots of action in it, and not for this season’s version of Remains of the Day.

And, by the way, there’s a movie that’s better than its book.

But back to the point.

At base, my problem is that I do not understand what people find interesting in action scenes.

Any kind of action scenes.  Battles are actually better than a lot of action scenes, in that they tend to be more coherent.  But–


In other words, action scenes–in books as in movies–always seem to me to be like sports.

There is some kind of arbitrary goal, defined at the beginning.  Everybody spends the next x amount of time running around furiously to achieve this goal, and the person who achieves it first “wins.”

Then my FB news feed is full of people proclaiming the enduring awesomeness of the Cubs or the Packers.

I know there are situations in the real world where I would be more attentive and care more about the outcome of physical contests.

If my country was actually being attacked, I’d find it both important and interesting to know the outcome of the battle.

What it comes down to, I think, is that I don’t find such things intrinsically interesting. 

If I’ve got actualy skin in the game, I will definitely find it all very compelling.

But if I don’t, I don’t see what there is about it I should care about.

And I especially don’t understand why I should care about the details.

It’s important to the story to know that Napoleon fails to take Moscow?


Tell me that Napoleon fails to take Moscow and be done with it.

Don’t force me through page after page of prose about who took a bullet here and who had his horse shot out from under him there, and how many yards into allied territory the enemy advanced before being forced back.

It’s that kind of thing that has stopped me from reading War and Peace. In spite of a near absolute commitment to finishing every book I start, I get to the first of the Napoleonic battles in that one and my eyes glaze over. 

It’s also why I read my way through the big battle scene episodes of Band of Brothers, one of my favorite video productions ever. 

Yes, it is very important that we won the Battle of the Bulge, but I don’t understand why, in order to know that, I have to sit through twenty minutes of big explody noises and people screaming.

A military strategist may need that twenty minutes, but I really don’t.

Of course, as I’ve said, my impatience with this sort of thing is definitely a minority taste. 

There is definitely something about battles–maybe I should say physical contests–that draws virtually everybody else’s attention.

And far fewer people find their attention drawn to the kind of thing that fascinates me.

If I was picking the projects for a movie studio, we’d go broke.

But I wish I understood what it is people are looking at when they watch these kinds of things, what they find in them that makes them excited and that feels important.

Because to me, it’s all like that thing from Shakespeare.

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Written by janeh

July 18th, 2014 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Battles, Probably Royal'

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  1. No yelling, I promise. At least not from me. I’ll speak softly in respect of your head.

    I’m not all that fond of written battle descriptions, myself, and technical exposition about this sword stroke or that firearm or a series of martial arts blows bore me silly. I tend to skim to the end of those.

    But. In good writing, the purpose of having the scenarios, book or movie, is that it gives the characters involved a chance to *respond* to the situation in revelatory ways. Do they run? Are they brave? Do they outthink the baddies on the spot or have they planned in advance some clever trick that gives them the advantage?

    In bad writing, it’s page filler, and uninspired “what happened next” page filler at that. Yawn. Might as well be minutely describing a wardrobe or listing a recipe for a meal. Oh wait….some writers do that too.

    Although I am enamored of Things That Blow Up in movies. Also, chase scenes, car or foot. This is a childish love reminiscent of why people gawk at car accidents, you just wanna see what happens. Also, fabulous special effects. Why, I’m not sure, but I am quite anticipating Sharknado 2. An instant classic, I’m sure.


    18 Jul 14 at 11:06 am

  2. It’s clear that “battle scenes” are essential to something in our psyche if only because they have continued almost unchanged for centuries in one form or another in public entertainment, from the Roman gladiatorial events through Shakespeare’s plays, swashbuckling Three Musketeers, romantic heroes as in Lorna Doone, and so on. The 20th century alone saw at least three iterations of the basic horse opera in Hollywood productions: your typical western with its hotted up chase scenes, the car chase scenes as in “Bullit” etc, ad nauseam, through the dogfighting aircraft in WWI and II war movies, and ultimately dogfighting space ships in Star Wars. New bottles, old wine.

    However, I think that well done battle scenes are important if only to show the range of human behaviour inherent in warfare. My all-time most admired war movies were those like All Quiet On The Western Front, Paths of Glory and, like Jane, Band of Brothers which was even better than Battleground my former long-time favourite. It would be wrong to say I enjoyed any of them, and I have never been able to bring myself to watch any of the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Vietnam War movies.

    It’s far too facile to simply say Napoleons and Hitler failed to take Moscow. Everyone should be forced to see the stinking mess of blood and guts without which there can be no understanding of what politicians are committing our children to when they send them off to war.


    19 Jul 14 at 1:50 am

  3. No yelling. Is a little mild tut-tottery allowed? Yes, you can say–well, you can say HITLER failed to take Moscow. Napoleon DID take Moscow. Jane, you’re off the hook, but I expected better of you, Mique,

    Onward. Yes, pretty much all writing is a matter of deciding how much space to allow for various events. I could summarize two highly touted novels as “he made a lot of money, had an affair with a rich married woman, and eventually got shot by a jealous husband” and “he wandered drunkenly around town all day, and went home toward evening.” But I’d get beaten up at the MLA conference for this, because I’m paying no attention to how the tale is told–the detail and the motivation which makes it interesting.

    Same thing here, of course. A thing can be interesting in two ways. It can be interesting in itself–and here as a military history major, it’s not to be expected that I would find the same things interesting that a Philosophy major does.

    Or it can be interesting for what it tells us about something else. In fiction, military actions are in there usually because they reveal character. What a person chooses to do and how she chooses to do it are pretty much what we have–unless we want to pretend we’ve gotten inside someone’s head and just tell the reader what he’s thinking and feeling (And why not overstamp mysteries with the killer’s name? Because sometimes we prefer to figure things out rather than have them handed to us.) Action, whether it’s Hector standing in defense of his city or Gatsby taking the blame for an accident, reveals character.

    TWO TOWERS. Jane, if I thought you had ANY interest in military fiction, I’d not have recommended Tolkien. He doesn’t do it especially well. E. R. Eddison, Jerry Pournelle and H. Beam Piper do good fictional battle descriptions–but they steal their battles. Robert Howard (sometimes) and David Drake (in his Leary and Mundy books) invent interesting battles, but it’s a rare gift. I can’t immediately think of a third author. The point of the first half of THE TWO TOWERS for me is not that Tolkien does a particularly good job of describing Théoden riding from Edoras and sortieing from Helm’s deep, but because he does a magnificent job of describing two people–the Ents and the Rohirrim–who have drifted along, trying to avoid inevitable conflicts and not to offend people who are trying to kill them. And because he shows both Ents and Men finding it within themselves to “do the deed at hand” even if this might be the last march of the Ents and might if Théoden might die in Helm’s Deep like Helm before him. Would that such a wind as Gandalf would blow the snow from our boughs–someone to call us to act on our problems and not to pretend we have none or that they cannot be dealt with.

    Ah. If I’m the guilty party, I’m misquoted. My observation was that the speech Tolkien gave Saruman was precisely the speech of our present rulers–with responsibility hidden and foul deeds covered in fair words, and that hardly any of that speech survived in Peter Jackson’s adaptation–perhaps because it cut a little too close to the bone. If you have any doubt, turn back to the scene in THE FELLOWWHIP OF THE RING in which Saruman reveals his shifting allegiance to Gandalf–then watch the equivalent scene in the movie. You’ll find a lot of magical telekinesis Tolkien didn’t have there, and hardly any of the words he did.

    There is a reason much of our ruling class has always hated LOTR. If they understood it better, they all would.


    19 Jul 14 at 9:47 pm

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