How to get the best idea

This was written in response to Ross Douthat’s call for Americans to stop enabling M. Night Shyamalan. We all love him, we all want him to create another wonderful movie, and his lukewarm box office response is not enough to push him to abandon his current approach and do that. A complete flop, Mr. Douthat reasons, will be the rock bottom necessary before Mr. Shyamalan can begin true change.

He may be right. This prompted me to share my personal theory on Mr. Shyamalan. It’s also my personal theory on how to get the best idea, whether you’re writing a story, designing a test, or figuring out the best user-centered taxonomy for a site.

I love Shyamalan’s writing, I love his directing, I love his characters. What I don’t love is how he makes all of the above subservient to an idea that forces them into unnatural, un-storylike forms.

My theory on Mr. Shyamalan: he’s been letting themes take too much control of the story. It’s like the recently-evangelized musician who thinks removing a bad lyric about Jesus is somehow betraying Jesus—instead of thinking that writing the best song possible is a better form of praise. Or the recently-transformed-by-therapy writer whose characters all act in the best interests of each other’s mental health. I believe Shyamalan becomes enthralled by an idea, and the idea drives the story, the writing, and the directing.

I heard that the killer surprise in Sixth Sense was an afterthought. This is how good ideas show up—you follow the story/research/whatever faithfully, and have faith the best idea, or juxtaposition of ideas, will present itself as a result. Clinging to *an* idea throughout the process reduces the chance that the *best* idea—the one rooted in your fullest understanding of story, characters, data, concept—will emerge.

The best way to explore a theme in a story is to establish the situation, and let it play itself out in a means true to the characters. Your concept or theme will emerge much more naturally, and people will be much more engaged.


A ll over the world on Sunday, May 2, at 15:00 UTC, photographers took shots wherever they were. Some were planned, some not (there are rainbows, etc., that could not be arranged).

The New York Times has gathered it all into a global gallery – stacks of photos reaching out to the sky, browsable by stack. Beautiful images, and once again, beautiful UX from the New York Times.


Grave’s Edge

This is one of my two published fiction shorts. It won second place in the 14th Chiaroscuro horror short contest; the prize was being paid (it worked out to about 10¢ per word) and published in the October 2008 issue of ChiZine.

If you’re interested, this was the BBC article which inspired the story.

Papua New Guinea.

I knew I was a vampire because I crawled out of my grave.

They piled the dirt over me despite my cries, and eventually I realized I was dead. I had heard stories of souls who died and did not know it. For a brief second I felt myself lucky for having the insight, and then a clod of dirt hit my eye. I covered my face with my arms and my burr-ridden wrap.

They did it at night, which is perhaps why they didn’t bury me too deep. My daughter cried and shooed the children back to the house as her husband shoveled. Shortly after I was covered she broke down completely, and her husband dropped the shovel and comforted her. I heard their footsteps recede, imagining his arm around her as he told her he would finish in the morning. I noticed I was still sucking at the bit of air slipping under the dirt-covered wool. Old habits die hard. I waited a while, hoping I would move on to oblivion. I felt the ground shake as a car passed on a nearby road. I wondered if this was what it was like to live in a cemetery.

I was not in a cemetery. I was in a shallow grave in the woods across the street from my daughter’s home. I expected she would visit at times, and cry, and I would listen and answer and go unheard. I had been unheard for some time, on my pallet in their hut, steadily growing smaller and bonier and weaker.

I had the slims, you see, the wasting disease that brought the foreign doctors with their needles, and the foreign reporters with their cameras, and which they said passed through the blood, or the remnants of love. Perhaps they were right. They came to the southern highlands and were kind, and sometimes even tried to learn our language in addition to the pidgin we all shared, the better to help us. But they were wrong. I think I got it from hating my husband. He was beautiful and blessed with a voice like a growling purr, soothing and predatory, and too many women fell victim to its persuasions. I hated him for it, even after he died wasting as I would, and what god could forgive a mother who hated the man that gave her the loving child of her heart? Obviously not mine.

So I worked until I had to sit down, and sat until I had to lie down, and lay until I died. And now I was in the underworld, beneath footsteps and any other living sound, listening to cars.

My poor daughter. How distraught she must have been to find my body. On the floor, a little stiller than usual. I wondered how long I lay before someone noticed. Probably not too long. Someone was always checking on me: I would feel a palm against my forehead, or my blanket tucked a little more securely, or water at my lips, and I would open my eyes to see my daughter, or her daughter, looking back at me with strained relief.

My body. Oh, what a foolishness—I did not have to stay here straining to hear earthworms. I did not have to remain in my grave. Every ghost story I knew freed the soul from its body. I could rise up, and leave this traitorous shell behind.

So I did. It was very difficult; I was very weak. I lifted my funeral shroud up carefully from my face, trying to make the dirt fall away from me. A little hit my mouth and I began to cough, which seemed terribly unfair. I realized I had to get used to being dead, and laughed while I coughed at how the ghost stories didn’t talk about this. Of course they didn’t. The storytellers were alive.

I sat up with difficulty, then used the crumbling edge of the grave to raise myself up. I had not walked in weeks—months, maybe—and this hurt. If I had been alive I would have said it was impossible. But dead, I knew such considerations were the lying of my mind, and would pass. I stood, tottering, for a moment. In front of me were branches and through them I could see the light seeping past the door of my old home. As I watched it went out, and I was left with only moonlight. I debated looking at my body, behind me. I was afraid. Even though death had come and gone, and I was still moving and aware, something about seeing death written on my features terrified me, made my gut ache and my breath catch like it hadn’t in decades.

But I had to look. Really, who couldn’t? And turning to look behind me, I became a pillar of salt.

My body was missing. Or rather, it wasn’t missing. It was standing.

I stood for some time, absorbing this. I don’t know how long. It seemed there was a very long pause in my mind, and all that occupied it was the empty grave I was trying not to see. Something hovered in my head, demanding my attention, and I tried to avoid it by studying the grave, the bits of brown and roots and grey leaves where the dim light struck, the abyss of the shadows where it did not. But I could not evade it for ever.

I was the undead. I was the monster. My hatred had been even stronger than I had realized, and had cursed me beyond the grave. I was the blood-sucking terror of the night, and doomed eventually by hunger and my curse to hunt the people I had lived with all my life.

What to do? I had to leave, before I lost the habits of life and began to practice the ways of death. My daughter and her husband would be in danger then. My granddaughter! They had no idea such a terrible person had lain on their floor all that time, or the man my daughter married would have removed my head and removed the danger.

I began to totter toward the road. I bit my lip, and told myself not to curse. I blinked a little at the few tears that managed to squeeze into my eyes. I was already thirsty.

A car came down the road and slowed as it saw me beneath the edge of the trees. It was two of the foreign helpers, a man and a woman. The one on my side of the road rolled down the window.

“Do you need help, mother?” The friendly intimacy of his tone struck me like a slap.

I gathered my voice, carefully. “I need to leave.” Like my legs, my voice was feeble. I would need sustenance soon.

“Are you lost?”

“No, I just need to leave.” I hoped they would take me far enough away that I would not endanger my village. I hoped I would control myself and not harm my benefactors, but if not, better foreign strangers than family and friends. I took a step toward the car, and stumbled. The car door belonging to the friendly voice opened and the young man came out and took my arm.

“Are you all right? You’re covered in dirt—did you fall? Are you hurt?”

“No.” I was anxious to get into the car, before he looked past me.

He looked past me, of course, and saw the man-sized blackness in the ground. “What the hell?” He raised his voice somewhat, to be heard to the car. “Hey, Paula, get over here!”

“Please, no. Just take me away.”

He craned his head down to look into my face. His expression was remarkably like the anxious care of my daughter. “Is that a grave?”

I didn’t speak. A middle-aged woman came up with a flashlight. “Do you need help, Reghu?” She shone the flashlight on me, revealing the dirt covering my shroud. “You poor thing, you’re filthy. Where is your home? Can we take you there?”

The young man spoke quietly. “Paula, take a look behind us.”

The flashlight danced beyond us, uncovering the grave. The woman’s other hand went to the camera around her neck, flipping it on and snapping off the lens cap as if part of herself, even as she gasped.

I sighed in defeat. Now they would know what I was, and would never take me anywhere. I was doomed to kill where I loved.

She handed over the flashlight to the man. “Hold this on the grave. I want to shoot it with the flashlight, and then a couple with the flash.” She glanced at me. “And something with both her and the grave.”

“Paula, she’s right here. You can’t talk about people like they’re elements in a still life.”

“I’m not still. I’m not alive,” I mumbled to myself.

“What was that?” he asked, face even more filled with concern. I kept silent. Maybe they would take me anyway. They didn’t seem to realize the monster I had become. The woman stepped back and took a photo of the young man and myself, with the grave just behind. She leaned in to take a close-up of the earth-stained fabric and my hand, and I shook the dirt off at her irritably.

“Please take me away.”

She let go of the camera, letting it hang, focusing on me. “Ma’am, were you in that grave?” She paused, swallowed. “Did someone bury you?”

“Please, I need to leave. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Her eyebrows went up. “I’m sorry, but you don’t really look like a threat.”

The man cut her off. “Let’s get her in the car so she can sit down, Paula. Then we can go someplace safe and talk more. I don’t really like standing in the dark near a newly dug grave, do you?”

The woman nodded. “You’re right. You know, I’d heard about families doing things like this to AIDS victims, but I thought it was just a rumor.”

“They buried me wrong,” I explained as the two led me to the car.

“Yes, it was wrong of them to bury you,” the young man—hardly more than a boy—said, correcting me gently.

“No, they buried me wrong,” I repeated. “It wasn’t their fault.”

“It wasn’t their fault they buried you alive?” the woman exclaimed. The boy shot her a warning look.

“I’m not alive, but they didn’t know what they were burying. Please,” I said as I sank down gratefully onto the car seat, and felt my legs lifted and placed in the car. “Please just take me away. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” I looked earnestly into the young man’s eyes. “Would you cut off my head, please?”

“What?” They were shocked.

“I’m dead and I can’t leave, and if someone doesn’t cut off my head I’ll hurt someone.”

The woman shook her head, and the young man put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re not dead, mother.”

“Of course I’m dead. My daughter wouldn’t bury me alive!”

“They made a terrible mistake. But you’re alive.”

“It wasn’t a mistake, Reghu, we’ve heard about this before.”

“God, Paula, be quiet, please. You’re not helping.” He paused. “And now we’ve woken up the people across the street.”

I looked at my home. He was right, a light was moving in my old home. “Please,” I said, “let’s go. They can’t know I’m like this!”

“They’ll know you’re alive as soon as they see the grave, mother.”

“But I’m not alive! I am undead,” I said, watching with dread as the door flap opened, “and I am hungry and thirsty. If we don’t leave I will hurt my family.”

My son-in-law emerged, carrying his machete fearfully. He had probably watched the car a few minutes before emerging to see what was happening. He might not have seen me, since I was on the other side of the car. “Please, quick! Quick!” I begged.

The woman walked around to talk to the man who buried me. He tucked his machete at his waist, unafraid of a woman. Initially quiet, voices were quickly raised and my son-in-law began to yell, trying to walk around to my side of the car. I stopped listening. The boy and the woman tried to stand in his way, but too soon he stood before me, his tattooed face twisted by pain and fear.

“I’m sorry,” I said, before he could speak. “I didn’t want you to know. You should’ve taken precautions.”

He stared. Then, to the young man, “She walked here? She stood on her own?”


I watched comprehension bring horror. “You knew it might happen,” I said. “When my husband got the slims, we all thought it came from the witch in the next village. She had a reason to hate him. Who’s to say the curse didn’t fall on me as well?” I was sympathetic, but angry, too. “Why didn’t you stop this?”

“What was I supposed to do?” he burst out. “Cut off your head? You should have died!”

“Yes, cut off my head!” I was very angry. “I was dead, I was not going to miss it, was I? Now I’m undead, and I’m thirsty.” I leaned toward him. “Thirsty!” The fear in his eyes pleased me; he had not been patient with me the past weeks, I did not contribute and I ate their food and I smelled. “Thirsty…” I said again, and leaned back against the car seat, looking at the woman and the boy. “Take me away from here. Please.”

“No, you can’t!” my son-in-law said. “She will kill you!”

“She couldn’t hurt a fly,” the woman said. “She could barely walk to the car.”

“She hasn’t walked in months! She had the slims, the wasting disease, we buried her. She died! She should have stayed dead! Alive, she could not have walked here!”

“Sir, your mother—”

“She’s not my mother! She’s my wife’s mother, and she’s cursed.” The noise had brought out my daughter, and he yelled at her to go back inside. Suddenly he fumbled for the knife at this waist. “I should have done this before. I didn’t think it would happen.”

Both the woman and the boy grabbed at him, but he brandished the machete at them and they backed off, protesting.

“Sir, you can’t do this! She’s not some kind of vampire, she’s alive! You made a mistake burying her and she came back.”

“There’s no mistake,” I said. “He’s right. He should end me now while he still can.”

“Mother?” My daughter had come around the back of the car. She was holding a gun, more nervously than my son-in-law carried his machete. It was an old one, hidden in the home for decades, found by my father during the years the Japanese invaded. “Mother?”

And then my daughter was on her knees beside the car, head in my lap, crying and begging forgiveness. I stroked her hair, soothing her. I told her there was nothing to forgive, she had not cursed me, her father had done that. She looked up at me. “I love you, dear,” I said. “But you must let your husband do this thing.”

“What thing?”

My son-in-law came forward and took her hand. “Come away from her. She is undead.”

“No, she’s alive! You know she’s alive!”

“No, she’s not! She walked to the car. She walked, do you hear?”

I interrupted them. “Of course I’m not alive, or I wouldn’t have been buried, would I?”

My daughter looked at me, stricken. Understanding seemed to seep into her features, but not the fear I dreaded. The two foreigners were silent now, watching. I looked at my son-in-law. “Will you cut off my head?”

He nodded, and gingerly offered a hand to help me from the car. I stood, a little more easily this time. The boy seemed about to speak, but the woman laid her hand on his arm. Shaking, my daughter pointed the gun she barely knew how to hold at them. I walked back toward the grave with my son.

We stopped at the edge. He looked at me with compassion. “You are ready?”

“Yes. Should I kneel, or lie down?”

“If you can kneel it would help.”

“You will have to help me do it, then. I have not fed and I’m weak.” He touched me again to help me kneel, then stood back, still afraid of me. I looked at my daughter, who glanced back at me and then looked away quickly. “Stand between us, please.” My son complied. The two foreigners watched uncomprehendingly, or rather, as if they could not bear what they understood.

I looked down at the emptiness. I was glad I would be leaving myself behind. Glad I was near my home, glad my family was safe. If my son had not come out, how long would I have had the strength to resist before the blood thirst took over?

I looked up at my son. “Take care of my daughter.”

“I will.”

“Thank you.” I bowed my head.


The Oliviers, the anchor riders, and the pier people

Years ago I heard an anecdote about Laurence Olivier: A journalist came to interview Olivier in his home, and was met at the door by Olivier’s friend. The friend gave the journalist a warning: to be sure he held the image he had of Olivier clearly in mind. “Whomever you expect to find,” he said. “that is who he will be.”

This story struck me as sad, and the problem as peculiarly apt to a great actor. (Of course, Meryl Streep—that other great actor of the twentieth century, and possibly the twenty-first—is the exact opposite, balanced and deeply self-aware, so obviously this loss of self is not required to act well.) Another theater soul, Nobel prize winner Luigi Pirandello, used his plays to demonstrate the interactive nature of human existence. Olivier probably related. For Pirandello, there was no “I” at the center of existence, only a series of masks worn in response to the behavior and opinions of others.

I’ve written before about the self being at the intersection of how others treat us and the choices we make, but now I’m thinking about how some people tend to fall more to one side or the other. Bart and I were talking about this, and I wanted to share his thoughts on the matter:

Some people (the Oliviers) only recognize their existence in others’ eyes and get washed out to sea and lost. Some people cling to the pier of the “I” and when the waves come, they are swamped. But the people who realize this interaction is going on face the storm. They know that the center moves, but remains the center. “They know you have to ride it out, at anchor.”

Note: credit for the title goes to Bart as well :–)


Coral tassels lariat

Coral and brass tassel earrings from my grandmother formed the inspiration for this five-foot-long, double-stranded lariat. Citrine, labradorite, garnet, carnelian, tourmaline, hessianite, aventurine, yellow jade, and freshwater pearls.

coral tassels lariat


Amber and unicorn lariat

Murano glass, labradorite, wood, abalone, and sterling beads strung together in a five-foot -long lariat; a large amber teardrop and a unicorn pendant dangle from the ends. My father bought me the Murano glass beads when I was four, in Venice; the unicorn pendant was a gift when I was thirteen from my aunt and uncle.

amber, Murano beads, and unicorn pendant lariat


Program cover, ConText XX

ConText is an annual speculative fiction convention that has a heavy writing focus. I loved it. I got to do the program covers two years in a row. This was the second year.

This year was a memorial cover, commemorating the death of one of ConText’s founders, Liz Gross, a biochemist and professor at Ohio State.

Context XIX program cover, 2006
See larger image.

For those interested in that kind of thing, here’s the symbolism applied in the picture, after discussion with one of Dr. Gross’s friends and fellow ConText supporters.

  • I used three test tubes in a rack to both indicate science, and three areas of her life suggested by her friend: science, science fiction, and Christianity.
  • White lilies emerge from one tube (digitally adapted from one of my own photos). Death and Christianity.
  • Elements and proteins emerge from another. The protein is plastocyanin, and all the elements & molecules listed are involved in cytochrome f. Investigating Dr. Gross online I found her particular areas of research involved plastocyanin and cytochrome f, so I hope she would appreciate this.
  • Science-fiction imagery and books spill out from the third test tube. One of the books reads ELeGy; her initials were ELG.

Program cover, ConText XIX

ConText is an annual speculative fiction convention that has a heavy writing focus. I loved it. I got to do the program covers two years in a row. This was the first year.

The names on the books are authors associated with the convention.

Context XIX program cover, 2006
See larger image.


Pink and peridot

A garden on your wrist. Pink tourmaline, peridot, and Austrian (Swarovski) crystal on laced strands of multi-toned green glass; sterling lobsterclaw clasp.

tasseled lariat
See larger image.


Tasseled miniature lariat

Miniature tasseled lariat and earrings; a delicate 30 inches of Swarovski crystal and glass seed beeds with sterling chains.

tasseled lariat

Sensitive plant necklace

An unusually responsive creature, the aquatic sensitive plant thrives in both sun and shadow. Here, Neptunia aquatica inspires pale citrine and carnelian blooms on subtly iridescent grey-green labradorite leaves. Like the living plant, each leaf responds to touch, swinging freely around its stem, sensitive to your moves like no other necklace. Scroll down to see a close-up and the complete necklace.

citrine, carnelian, labradorite sensitive plant necklace

sensitive plant necklace close-up

complete sensitive plant necklace

Vine-laden trellis necklace

Heavy blooms fall between jade leaves from a trellised vine. Tourmaline, jade, iolite, blue aventurine, labradorite, and even a touch of amethyst; sterling silver.

jade and tourmaline trellis necklace

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

A [as written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens]
C+ [as written by J.R.R. Tolkien]

The Two Viewers

This time, I didn’t go to the midnight opening (I did for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). I went to a matinée yesterday with two friends, one an enthusiastic fan who had seen a preview show and knew she would thoroughly enjoy a second viewing, and one a disappointed first-time viewer. They’re both right.

As a longtime Tolkien fan, it’s hard not to wonder what non-Tolkien viewers experience. If I didn’t know the books, I would probably think the movie excellent, if mildly self-indulgent. I would attribute some excessively long moments to Peter Jackson’s relative youth as a director. Artists grow by learning discretion.

In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu, there is a moment when Juliette Binoche sits in a café and dunks a sugar cube. Kieslowski wanted the cube to melt. He knew that if it took too long a time, the viewer would lose contact with the film; if it took too little, the peace of the moment would not be expressed. Five seconds was enough to make his point and keep his audience. His crew tested multiple brands, seeking a five-second sugar cube, and the moment is perfect. Bleu was Kieslowski’s forty-seventh film. Depending on how you count (measuring The Lord of the Rings as three films or one), The Return of the King was Jackson’s seventh or ninth full-length directed piece.

Continuing as an imaginary viewer, free of Tolkien’s writing through time or ignorance, I would be entranced by battles, impressed by details, and weep through moments such as the lighting of the bonfires. I might be dismayed by the length, and think several moments a little too sentimentally long-drawn. Probably I would leave very happy, thinking Jackson has successfully captured a beloved story in which I was not as invested as a Tolkien fan.

But then, I am a Tolkien fan. And the more I think, the more I mourn. Peter Jackson’s love has accomplished a great deal, it has even brought Middle-earth to the silver screen—but it has left Tolkien’s story behind.

Be warned: the following is written for those who have seen the movie, or know the books fairly well, or both. Spoilers abound for everyone else.

Will the real Denethor please stand up? And the real Aragorn, Gandalf, Faramir, Gollum…. I sound angry. I am.

I understand the necessities of transforming a book into a film. I even admire some of the ways Jackson creatively accomplishes this. In The Two Towers, he inserted a family separated by war in Rohan, then reunited later. The characters were non-existent in the books, including appendices, but their brief appearances gave the audience something to track in a complicated series of raids, battles, and travel. It was useful, clever, and in keeping with the storyline and theme.

What I don’t understand are changes which don’t just alter but diametrically oppose Tolkien’s books. Taking them one at a time:

  • Gollum, Frodo, and Sam.
    I’ll tackle this first, since it upset me most. In the movie, Gollum is trapped by his desire for the ring. He’s incapable of resisting this impulse, and actively works to pit Frodo against Sam. Now, Sam also tries to get Frodo to distrust Gollum. Helping to explain this is a moment when Sam overhears Gollum talking to himself, plotting against the hobbits. Gollum succeeds in separating the two, tricking Frodo into believing Sam finished the companions’ elven food supply behind Frodo’s back, and causing Frodo to tell Sam to "Go home." And Sam goes! On the back doorstep of Mordor, having survived Nazgul, storms, orcs, trolls, and a Balrog, Sam turns around to leave and give it all up.

    Jackson shows Gollum’s history, the centuries of corruption by the ring, and his loss of self over time. The viewer is invited to feel compassion, but also to remain untrusting. Gollum will not change, and is in no danger of doing so. He serves Frodo because Frodo has the ring. The only better situation would be to possess the ring himself. In The Two Towers, we see Gollum try to be good. By The Return of the King, this chance is gone.

    In the books, there is no pinning-the-crime-on-Sam moment. Sam is not certain of Gollum’s perfidy because he overhears him, but because he has a deep emotional distrust. There is no rift between Frodo and Sam, and Gollum is not so foolish as to try to create one. And right up to entering the caverns leading to Mordor, Gollum’s heart is uncertain. Sam’s unreasoning prejudice and cruelty drive Gollum over the edge. Later, Sam carries the ring briefly, and comes to understand what Frodo, all too familiar with the burden, understood all along about Gollum. These are not black and white characters in a clear-cut world of Good and Evil, Light and Dark. Gollum and Sam are complex people in a complex struggle, both wanting to do the right thing, both failing, both succeeding.

    For those who have seen the movie but not read the books, or not recently read them, I offer Tolkien’s final scene on the stairs1, before entering Shelob’s (the giant spider) lair. Read this, then consider Jackson’s breadcrumbs, and ask yourself if the movie added or detracted from the story.

  • Denethor.
    I’m glad I’m not the only one to feel anger over Denethor. LiveJournal’s minirth discusses the "great sucking wrongness" of the film’s treatment of yet another complex Tolkien character, reduced to a simplistic Jackson villain. I don’t want to recreate the argument, but here are my personal complaints.

    Gandalf’s treatment of Denethor and Pippin. Gandalf would never hit anyone with his staff except in battle (and then he usually employs his sword). Not only is this level of discourtesy impossibly out of character, but Gandalf is a steward himself, of Middle-earth! Although not discussed in the movie, his character is not human, but a lesser angel (as are Sauron and Saruman), whose purpose is to combat Sauron and ready Middle-earth’s inhabitants for their own "stewardship" of their world. (This, by the way, also explains Gandalf’s preternatural strength and agility, otherwise incomprehensible in an old man, as Roger Ebert pointed out on Ebert and Roeper.)

    Also wrong is Gandalf peremptorily bumping Pippin with his staff when Pippin offers service to Denethor in repayment of Boromir’s death, and Gandalf’s dismissive treatment of Denethor. See Tolkien’s words on the subject2.

    Denethor’s death. Denethor was a great man, of the same kind as Aragorn, strong, intelligent, deep-seeing, and disciplined. He was not a glutton, hunched over as if in imitation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He certainly did not flinch from his decisions. In the books, his cynicism springs from his use of a palantír (like the orb Pippin picks up early in the film), which Sauron twists and uses to show misleading information. The resulting despair drives him to attempt suicide for himself and his wounded son.

    From the book. Faramir has already been removed from the pyre:

    Swiftly he [Denethor] snatched a torch from the hand of one [a servant] and sprang back into the house. Before Gandalf could hinder him he thrust the brand amid the fuel, and at once it crackled and roared into flame.

    Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself upon the table, clasping the palantír with both hands upon his breast. And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame.

    Much more intense, and adding no more time to the story, had Jackson spent less time studying the Jacksonian Denethor’s eating habits.

    Denethor was another complex character, a good man twisted by deceit and his own pride. He was brilliant and misguided. Gandalf would not treat him with disrespect; for Jackson to treat the character as he did is an insult to the audience and the story.

  • Aragorn, Arwen, and Éowyn.
    I still don’t understand the need to undermine Aragorn and Arwen’s faith in each other by having Arwen leave for the Grey Havens. It adds to the length of the story, reduces the romance, and gives less reason for Éowyn’s despair and longing for battle.

    There are two pages in the books which completely express Aragorn and Éowyn’s thoughts. Read them here3, and then consider Jackson’s revision. There are some fantastic lines, such as Éowyn’s complaint of the role of women; and Éowyn gets the last word.

  • The Paths of the Dead.
    Another incomprehensible change. The book is much more eerie and frightening. I think Jackson’s horror film background (The Frighteners, Dead Alive) overcame his good sense at this point.

    In the book, the entire company of Rangers, Elrond’s sons, Legolas, and Gimli accompany Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn does not need a sword to pass; the same magic that holds the Oathbreakers to their ghostly existence lets them know that this is Isildur’s Heir, come to free them. Aragorn’s leadership shows itself as all follow him, including horses, and do not give in to fear or madness. Along the way they find a corpse outside a closed door, and Aragorn says:

    Through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know! For that is not my errand!" he cried, turning back and speaking to the whispering darkness behind. "Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden from the Accursed Years! Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!

    The company rides through the ravine and out into a valley, where they ride past villages and and farms on their way to the Stone. It’s too good not to offer here:

    Lights went out in house and hamlet at they came, and doors were shut, and folk that were afield cried in terror and ran wild like hunted deer. Ever there rose the same cry in the gathering night: "The King of the Dead! The King of the Dead is come upon us!"

    Bells were ringing far below, and all men fled before the face of Aragorn; but the Grey Company in their haste rode like hunters, until their horses were stumbling with weariness. And thus, just ere midnight, and in a darkness as black as the caverns in the mountains, they came at last to the Hill of Erech.

    Long had the terror of the Dead lain upon that hill and upon the empty fields about it. For upon the top stood a black stone, round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground. Unearthly it looked, as though it had fallen from the sky, as some believed; but those who remembered still the lore of Westernesse told that it had been brought out of the ruin of Númenor and there set by Isildur at his landing. None of the people of the valley dared to approach it, nor would they dwell near; for they said it was a trysting-place of the Shadow-men and there they would gather in times of fear, thronging round the Stone and whispering.

    To that Stone the Company came and halted in the dead of night. Then Elrohir gave to Aragorn a silver horn, and he blew upon it; and it seemed to those who stood near that they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo in deep caves far away. No other sound they heard, and yet they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains. But Aragorn dismounted, and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice:

    "Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"

    And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away:

    "To fulfill our oath and have peace."

    Then Aragorn said: "The hour is come at last…when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart forever."

But didn’t Jackson have a lot to fit into a short amount of time? Aren’t these changes justified by the necessities of film?

No, no, and no! First, let’s look at how many scenes/plot lines were added which never happened in the books:

  • Arwen’s trip to the Grey Havens, in which she "sees" her future child by Aragorn, and turns around to go back.
  • Arwen’s "dying" because of the war of the Ring.
  • Elrond’s meeting Aragorn in Rohan to tell him this, in which he and Aragorn bizarrely quote Aragorn’s mother ("I gave hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself").
  • Gollum setting up the classic Breadcrumbs-on-the-Cloak Gambit
  • Pippin’s sneaking to set the beacon ablaze. Tolkien’s Denethor had the beacons lit before Gandalf and Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith.
  • Pippin and Merry singing about the Green Dragon pub.
  • Pippin singing to Denethor. Though this was a nice way of covering an explanatory montage with Faramir and Denethor, Tolkien’s Denethor was ill-served by it. I do have to say Billy Boyd did a wonderful job.

Next, let’s examine some changes which did not have to affect time at all, but did affect characterization and theme.

  • Denethor’s gluttony, ineffectual behavior, and cowardice at the pyre.
  • Aragorn and Arwen’s temporary loss of faith in their relationship.
  • Elrond’s deceiving Arwen (!)
  • Frodo and Sam’s temporary loss of faith in each other, to the point that Sam starts to go home.
  • Gandalf’s inexcusable rudeness to Pippin and Denethor with his staff.
  • Language. In Tolkien’s books, characters speak as they think. Andrew Rilstone points out in his review of the The Two Towers that Tolkien greatly disliked the casualization of speech in some translations. Characters have a tendency to get more formal as they express deeper emotions, using the language to show the importance of the thought (see the appearance of "thee" in this exchange between Aragorn and Éowyn3, also linked above).

    In Jackson’s world, people are more casual and less careful of each other. The only reason I can see for this is a distrust of the audience’s ability to parse Tolkien’s words, which seems somewhat arrogant, since those are the words that made the books as beloved as they are.

On some profound level, Jackson’s psychology needs a simpler world. He is uncomfortable with formality and so must his characters be. He is uncomfortable with nuance, and so a "whispering darkness" must become glowing green ghosts. He is uncomfortable with shades of grey and so his characters must be black and white. He is uncomfortable with trusting friendship or love, and so Aragorn and Arwen lose faith, and so do Frodo and Sam. This, when one of Tolkien’s major moral themes is support and trust despite imperfections and disagreements.

Perhaps the best choice for Tolkien fans is to simply love Middle-earth. As my fiancé pointed out, Tolkien wanted to create an English mythology more than he wanted to write a work of fiction. If we look at Middle-Earth as a world unto itself, then we can choose between Tolkien’s interpretation and Jackson’s, and delight in their differences. It’s a deeper way of being true to Tolkien, and celebrating Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings as the work of love it is.

1. The stairs of Cirith Ungol

Excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers, Book Four, chapter VIII)

Having climbed the stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam rest while Gollum scouts ahead in the caverns. They are exhausted from the climb. Sam tells Frodo to sleep while he keeps watch.

And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee — but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum — "pawing at master," as he thought.

"Hey, you!" he said roughly. "What are you up to?"

"Nothing, nothing," said Gollum softly. "Nice Master!"

"I daresay," said Sam. "But where have you been to — sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?"

Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.

2. Gandalf on Denethor

Excerpted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King, Book Five, chapter I)

Pippin and Gandalf have left after Pippin’s first encounter with Denethor, Steward of Gondor. Pippin has not only offered but sworn allegiance to Denethor. Gandalf is speaking.

"He [Denethor] is not as other men of this time, Pippin, and whatever be his descent from father to son, by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those who dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.

"Remember that! For you are now sworn to his service. I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But it was well done. I did not hinder it, for generous heart should not be checked by cold counsel."

3. Éowyn and Aragorn

Excerpted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King, Book Five, chapter II)

The sons of Elrond have arrived with a company of Rangers from the North, to help Aragorn. Elrond sends word to "Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer, and the Paths of the Dead." At dinner Aragorn announces his intention to take these paths. Afterward, Éowyn confronts him alone.

[Aragorn] turned and saw her as a glimmer in the night, for she was clad in white; but her eyes were on fire.

"Aragorn," she said, "why will you go on this deadly road?"

"Because I must," he said. "Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron. I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering, in the fair valley of Rivendell."

For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. "You are a stern lord and resolute," she said; "and thus do men win renown." She paused. "Lord," she said, "if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle."

"Your duty is with your people," he answered.

"Too often have I heard of duty," she cried. "But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?"

"Few may do that with honour," he answered. "But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no."

"Shall I always be chosen?" she said bitterly. "Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?"

"A time may come soon," said he, "when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised."

And she answered: "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear pain or death."

"What do you fear, lady?" he asked.

"A cage," she said. "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."

"And yet you counselled me not to adventure on the road I had chosen, because it is perilous?"

"So may one counsel another," she said. "Yet I do not bid you flee from peril, but to ride to battle where your sword may win renown and victory. I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly."

"Nor would I," he said. "Therefore I say to you, lady: Stay! For you have no errand to the South."

"Neither have those others who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee — because they love thee." Then she turned and vanished into the night.


Occult symbolism in Gothika


Gothika is one of those films that can be interpreted in a variety of contexts, and that’s precisely what I love about it. It’s not just another horror story with a lovely heroine, but a movie that dances between mystery and the occult, while adding a thematic depth not often seen in the genre.

Note: While I will try to avoid spoilers, I will be referring to scenes and issues raised in the film, which could—well, would, of course—affect a first viewer’s experience. Be warned!

The mystery: how does a brilliant, accomplished psychologist end up accused of murder and incarcerated in her workplace? Is a persistent apparition of a young girl a murder victim, a suicide, or an externalized clue to a past trauma? Did a loving wife suddenly kill her husband, and if so, why? Who is “Not Alone”? And of course, whom can you trust? On this level the movie succeeded for me, providing clues without giving away the solution too soon, and making psychological suspense not only interesting but relevant.

As an occult horror film Gothika uses the familiar—ghosts, possession, a tragic past, questioning reality—with effective ease. From the opening session between Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) and patient/fellow inmate Chloe (Penelope Cruz), questions of possession and repressed memory are raised, to follow the viewer throughout the film. When Miranda switches from staff member to patient, does she share more in common with Chloe than their residence? I don’t want to say more about this, because I don’t want to give away too much.

I do want to speak about the themes which permeated the movie, while also fitting neatly into the plot itself. These things didn’t seem contrived, but more a natural extension of the story into its surroundings. The primary theme seems to be spiritual and psychological rebirth and growth. I’m uncertain if this is the work of the writer, Sebastian Gutierrez, or Mathieu Kassovitz, the director. Perhaps it was a collaborative effort.

Without giving a away plot details, I can only list the moments which left this impression. Here goes:

  • Water imagery. Miranda is immersed in water three times, one of which provides a salvation of sorts. Her pivotal first encounter with the mysterious young girl occurs in the driving rain, immediately after crossing a river. And water is an essential part of a metaphor occurring early in the story, showing how our only access to reality is through our perception.
  • Numbers. Miranda swims a personal best of 55 laps early in the film, something I think represents an internal, spiritual "personal best" which she reaches for in the story. She is incarcerated in room 33, a number loved by occultists and conspiracy theorists, and the age at which Jesus is said to have died and been resurrected. The number 22, which appears when a major part of the mystery is solved, is also a favorite of occultists, and associated in numerology with the ultimate self-actualized personality type. That 55=33+22 solidified my belief that Gothika‘s symbolism is not accidental.
  • Colors. Miranda Grey is frequently clothed in gray, and almost nothing is just "black and white" in this movie. Obvious, but nice. I’m uncertain if other colors, in particular red, are deliberate or not.
  • The anima sola. This is an archetypal image of a female (hence anima, not animus), imprisoned and surrounded by flames. It represents a soul in the Catholic purgatory, being purified (tormented) until it can go on to heaven. Who this is changes according to the context of the story. The anima sola is nicely counterpointed by the "Not Alone" phrase, repeated throughout the story, and also changing according to context. The same character(s) are both isolated and burning, and not alone.
  • Clues from the script. Adding to visual imagery are lines like, "Let me circumcise that for you," "Let’s go wash away your sins," and "I see everything, so I’m God," which helps reinforce the spiritual undertone of the theme. A comment about opening doors near the end further reinforces the idea of spiritual development.

I don’t really have much more to say, except that I thoroughly enjoyed Gothika.

Oh, one last postscript: watching this, I couldn’t help thinking of the astonishing Jacob’s Ladder (1990), which also blurs the edges between reality, psyche, and nightmare. Viewers who liked Gothika might enjoy this film. They might also enjoy The Crimson Rivers, also directed by Kassovitz, which is an excellent psychological suspense thriller.

Postscript. I forgot to mention that the opening with Miranda and Chloe’s session takes place on a Friday night. There’s no point I can think of in the plot that makes this worth specifying, so it is probably another key to Gothika’s symbolism. Good Friday is the traditional date of Christ’s death, and Miranda awakens three days later; Friday also has superstitiously ominous connotations on the 13th, though I didn’t catch a date in the film.


Forget-me-not earrings

Freedom of movement adds to the wild beauty of true forget-me-nots, as each bud, leaf, and bloom swings freely on the main stem, creating ever-new, living art. Iolite, labradorite, glass seed beads, and tourmaline on shepherd’s crook earrings.

forget-me-not earrings

Forget-me-not choker

True forget-me-nots, or Myosotis palustris, bloom on this delicate, unforgettable choker. Peridot, iolite, tourmaline, freshwater pearl, and labradorite petals and leaves swing on four strands of laced glass beads. A lobsterclaw clasp and chain allow a perfect fit for almost any neck.

forget-me-not choker

forget-me-not choker back lace detail

forget-me-not choker front detail

Amethyst grape earrings

These stones were being discarded by Shannon Diego, the jewelry company I worked for; I couldn’t bear to let that happen, so I got permission to use them for test pieces. The concept was rejected, but I was allowed to keep this pair.

amethyst, labradorite, and garnet earrings