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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 2, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Training Dragons and Hornblower

It's nice when quality prevails over hype. How to Train Your Dragon had a poster that made the movie look like a sappy remake of E.T. (That's right, E.T. could have been sappier.) The promos made it look mildly entertaining, but it had the kiss of death: It was being released in 3D as well.

There's a reason why they didn't know how to sell this movie. It's relationship-dependent: It's about people coming to know each other and transforming and discovering themselves by overcoming their initial judgments.

In other words, it's Pride and Prejudice with dragons. Not in the stupid-joke manner of the current spate of literary mutilations that began with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. How to Train Your Dragon is serious about its characters, its world, the societies depicted.

Serious, yes -- but also very funny. In fact, deep humor can only arise when we care deeply about the characters and their relationships. So even though there were only three of us in the entire theater during the 5:55 p.m. showing we attended, we laughed as robustly as if the theater had been packed with laughing people.

The trouble is, you can't hype a movie like this. The jokes are only funny because you know the people, care about them, and understand what's going on. The sentiment in the movie is earned -- but in the promos, there's not time to earn it.

Dragon might be animated, but it's not a "cartoon" in a way that a lot of non-animated movies are. It was easy to hype, say, Men in Black -- a great movie, of its type -- because you could show fifteen seconds of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and you knew everything about their characters and the ongoing jokes in the movie.

Show fifteen seconds of the characters of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Stoick (Gerard Butler), Gobber (Craig Ferguson), or Astrid (America Ferrera), and you don't know anything except the obvious: There's a group of Viking kids who disdain (but don't persecute) Hiccup; Hiccup's father disapproves of him; there's this girl. Cliches, that's all you'll see.

Until you get into the theater and realize that nothing is pushed too far; no character is a one-dimensional cartoon. Yes, the father is disappointed in his son -- but he loves him, and he goes back and forth between hope and despair, misunderstanding and anger. The relationship is nuanced and real.

Likewise, enemies and rivals are not easily won over, and when they do become friends, you can believe that the friendship is solid and deep. And even Craig Ferguson's character Gobber, who could have been a caricature, is all the funnier because Ferguson (the best nighttime talk show host since Johnny Carson, which means the second-best ever) gives a spot-on performance that is so real you actually start thinking about how strong and brave this man is, to keep his verve despite several maimings. Even though he's just a drawing on the screen, you think of him as real.

I thought of all of them as real -- including the dragons. Because not only were the humans well created, so also were the dragons. The dragon lore was amazingly well thought out, as were the methods both of fighting and of subduing them. They didn't dumb down Cressida Cowell's wonderful novel -- they trusted us to be smart. They kept the brains in this story.

Best of all, the dragons didn't talk.

So the opening weekend was "only" $43.7 million dollars. With the normal drop-offs, that would put the movie on track to make barely more than $100 million -- a real disappointment for Dreamworks Animation.

Only that's not what happened. The opening weekend tells you only what the hype accomplished. It's the later weekends that tell you what the people actually thought of the movie.

And what they thought was: This movie is so wonderful! You have to go see it! So the drop-off on the second weekend was only about a third. And then on the third weekend, when mediocre movies usually plummet, the drop-off was less than fifteen percent. The next two weekends, about twenty percent each.

The result is that the movie is setting up to double what the original projections would have been, based on that opening weekend -- based on the hype.

That's how the people vote for good movies -- they tell their friends. And when they think it's a great movie, they bring their friends because they want to see it again.

That's what happened in our house. First, our daughter in LA told us we had to see How to Train Your Dragon. Then our teenager here in Greensboro saw it with friends and insisted that she wanted to see it again -- with us.

Notice that everybody I'm talking about was at least 16 years old. This is not a movie for children. It's not even, really, a movie limited to family viewing -- though families will certainly love it. It's simply a good movie about people discovering each other, trusting each other, cutting each other a little slack, helping each other when they can.

It's about good people doing good. My favorite kind of story.

As I watched it, I thought: If I could have been sure that a team of writers and artists with this kind of story-sense and integrity and humor and understanding would have been in charge, I would have consented long ago to have my novel Ender's Game made as an animated film.

(But of course I would have gotten the team that made Shrek the Third or Black Cauldron. So it's just as well I held out for live action.)

If you haven't already seen How to Train Your Dragon, you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen. If you like 3D, go for it -- but you don't need it. I didn't miss it, believe me -- who needs the distraction? The effects were just fine without it, and the rest of the movie was all the more powerful because you didn't have a layer of colored lenses darkening everything and pressing down on your nose while you watched.


Speaking of my novel Ender's Game, I want to assure everyone that I had already written the short story version of it before I ever read any of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels. Because there has never been a better set of novels about military life and military thinking -- yet with powerful characterization and brutal realism.

I first read the Hornblower novels in 1977. I was working for a magazine as an editor and rewrite guy, but for three days I was nearly useless. Oh, I met my deadlines -- but every spare second I was reading through the saga of this complex and brilliant military leader.

Set during the wars between England and France, both during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the novels tell of young Horatio Hornblower's rise as a young officer. He is resourceful, self-controlled, even brilliant all along, but when he gets command of a ship, he begins to show what military genius is all about.

The trouble with writing about a military genius is that the writer has to understand warmaking at a pretty sophisticated level. C.S. Forester (1899-1966) had already written African Queen and other popular books, and had done a stint in Hollywood writing for the movies. He knew how to write "nautical novels," but he also knew how to write complicated, interesting human beings.

Hornblower is, you see, a fraud -- or at least that's how he sees himself. He deliberately cultivates an attitude of separation between himself and those who serve under him -- even the ones who are truly his friends. He works hard at showing no emotion -- because he knows it will increase his ability to command men in battle if they begin to think of him as slightly superhuman.

Meanwhile, though, after every triumph all he can think about is all the things that he did wrong; he is sure that disaster is what he deserved, and it was only averted by chance. Most of all, he thinks of himself as a coward who merely pretends to be brave -- a poltroon.

But that's not his only pretense. Carried away by gratitude for the generosity of the daughter of his landlady during a time when he was ashore striving to live on a lieutenant's half-pay, he finds himself married to a woman who adores him -- but whom he does not love. Yet he does his duty -- part of which is never to give her a hint that he does not love her as devotedly as she loves him. So during their entire marriage, she never realizes how eager he is to get away from her and live again onboard his ship.

He does find true love twice, and is unfaithful to his wife with one of the women during a period of captivity in France; it adds to his guilt when he escapes and comes home to find that his wife died in childbirth, leaving behind his only surviving son (two earlier children had died of disease). By Hornblower's own measure, he is simply not a good man.

But by our measure, he is a man who makes things happen, who grasps the whole situation in battle and thinks always ahead of his opponent and the elements. When things go wrong for him, he finds a way to make the best of it; he knows when it's time to surrender rather than let his men die for nothing, having accomplished all they could.

And Hornblower passes the money test. During that era in the British Navy, when captains captured an enemy ship and brought it home to port, the value of the ship and its cargo was divided among captain, officers, crew, and the admirals they were serving under -- and the officers of all the other ships that were within sight when the capture occurred.

The result was that a fortunate victory could make a captain wealthy for life, keeping him permanently in the upper class, regardless of whether he remained in service or retired on half pay.

Hornblower, without wealth or prospects of his own, desperately needs such a capture -- but time and again he is faced with a choice between doing what is militarily most advantageous to England or doing what is financially most advantageous to himself.

Since his crew would share in the prize, they are eager for him to pursue financial opportunities -- but they also admire his austerity when he does what is good for his country and for the fleet rather than what is good for himself. Some of the admirals over him, recognizing the sacrifices he has made and knowing how other captains have benefitted from them, try to put him in the way of capturing prizes, and eventually he is able to achieve the fortune that he has earned a dozen times over. But he never stepped out of his way to achieve it.

That's honor. That's duty. And those are values that we would do well to encourage, in a time when our politicians spend our tax money in order to build their own careers.

We live now in a literary era when it is deeply unfashionable to have genuine heroes. It is the cliche of our time that "there are no heroes" and if we find anyone who seems to be such a hero, our job is to tear him down until we can deny his heroism entirely.

It is refreshing to return to Hornblower and realize that heroes don't have to be unbelievably virtuous in order to be admirable -- they can be real, and yet still be examples of greatness. Because there are real heroes in the world, and Hornblower shows us what they might look like when we meet them.

In recent years, Patrick O'Brian's nautical novels -- based on the exploits of the same real captain that provided the seeds of Hornblower -- were very popular, but when I compare them head to head, I have to say that despite O'Brian's literary pretensions, he can't hold a candle to what C.S. Forester achieved. O'Brian gave his hero a watson -- a ship's surgeon with whom he could have (boring) intellectual discussions, making the books more literary and pleasing to academics.

But alas, the intellectual discussions weren't particularly deep or surprising or insightful (again, an essential ingredient in pleasing most academics, because they tend to disdain what they don't expect or understand), and in the end it was often a struggle to labor through page after page of nothing much.

Forester, on the other hand, has far more subtlety and depth in his treatment of moral issues -- but the action never stops for discussions of them.

And Forester's world-creation is astonishingly good -- at the level of James Clavell's Shogun. By the time you've read the whole series, you think you actually understand sailing and shipboard life. Not only that, but Forester delights in getting us off the sailing ships and showing us the working of every kind of boat.

So in one novel we ride with Hornblower on a canal barge and watch him, in an emergency, work like a sailor to keep the voyage going. We see him deal with the unwieldy funeral barge taking Lord Nelson's body up the Thames to its state funeral. We even ride with him on a rowboat during a tumultuous nighttime escape on the flooded Loire River, shooting several rapids and finally nearly drowning when the boat breaks apart.

Forester did not write the novels in the order of Hornblower's life -- the first books have him already the captain of a ship. The first book in time order is Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, but it is not structured as a coherent novel. Rather it's a series of episodes. All are quite readable, but you don't really get a sense of how powerful this series is going to be.

I suggest that if you've never read a Hornblower book, you might well start with Lieutenant Hornblower. It's unique in the series in that it is not from the point of view of Hornblower at all -- rather, it is all seen through the eyes of a fellow Lieutenant who is senior to Hornblower, but comes to admire and love him -- and later becomes Hornblower's second in command almost throughout his career.

Once you're hooked, you'll finish the whole series -- as I did back in 1977, reading everything in five days (a weekend and three days of cheating my employer at work).

Last week, after listening to the three unabridged audiobooks that currently exist (Hornblower and the Atropos from Audible.com, and then Lieutenant Hornblower and Hornblower and the Hotspur from eMusic.com), I read through all the rest, even though I could ill afford the time.

When I read the books for the first time, I had never written a novel. Now I've written more books than Forester did, and I now understand far better the magnitude of his achievement. This summer, as you plan what books to take to the beach, carry along five or six -- or all eleven -- of the Hornblower books.

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