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J. M. Butler Posts

Fifty Shades of What Christians Won’t Do

In case you haven’t heard, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is coming out, and it’s got all kinds of people hot and bothered. The Christian response has been particularly interesting. Most of the time, it’s focused on why Christians should not participate in the viewing or the reading of this type of story. What’s troubling though is that the discussion often starts off or later incorporates a litany of the common things Christians don’t do as proof that Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the only thing they won’t partake in:

  • don’t swear
  • don’t drink
  • don’t do drugs
  • don’t dance
  • don’t smoke
  • don’t watch bad movies
  • don’t read bad books
  • don’t go clubbing
  • don’t do…other things

The list doesn’t always include all these things. Sometimes it includes others or has these more narrowly tailored. Setting aside the fact that not even all of these things are sins, the list creates a deep problem in my opinion. The emphasis focuses on what we as Christians are not doing or should not be doing. And boy, isn’t that a wonderful testimony?

Not What We’re to Be Known For

After all, that’s what Jesus said we would be known for. “They will know you are Christians by the big long lists of all the things you indignantly say you will not do.” Actually, He said “they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.”

Now does this mean that there’s no biblical basis for discussing the things we should not partake in? Not at all. It’s important to challenge one another to holier living, and accountability is good. But our focus should not only be on the things that we do not do, and our reputation most certainly should not be on the things that we don’t do.  Holiness likewise is not simply what we do not do even though it is a part.

Often times, the focus on the things that we do not do is because we know from Romans 12:2 that we are to “not be conformed any longer to the patterns of this world.” And 1 Thessalonians 4:7 tells us “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” We act as if holy living is what is achieved through cutting things out and denying ourselves. That’s reflected in the spiritual discipline of fasting, which does indeed have great value.

Knowing a Tree By Its Fruit

However, Jesus tells us in Matthew 7: 15 – 20 that we will “know a tree by its fruit.” But here’s an odd thing about fruit. We tell what a tree is by what it does produce. We pick apples from an apple tree, and it is an apple tree, not a not orange tree. James 2:14 – 26 tells us that faith without deeds is worthless. In fact, James says, “I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Again, this goes back to the things that we do as Christians, not the things that we don’t do.

When we think of Jesus, we think of the actions that He took. The fact that He did not sin is obviously a part of that, but more importantly, we talk about how He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave again. He healed the lame and the blind. He gave the dead life again. He taught people. He fed them. He cast out demons. He defeated satan.

When we think of Paul, we think of the actions he took. The miles he traveled to reach the cities. The demons he cast out. The people he healed. The letters he wrote. The suffering he endured.

Most of the notable men and women I can think of in history made a difference in the things that they did do or attempted to do rather than just the things they did not do. Some like Daniel do draw close to a narrower distinction. The fasting from meats and wines as well as the refusal to pray to Darius are both points when Daniel was known for what he did not do. But as in the case of Darius’s requirement that all pray to him, Daniel was known for his great wisdom, his consistent prayer, and faithful stewardship through three rulers’ spans. He took action. He didn’t just say, “oh, I don’t pray to mere men” and then go back about his tasks. He went on to take positive action that demonstrated his faith.

Not Really a Sign of a Christian

So all of this to say, if the only thing you are known for is the fact that you do not do things like smoke or drink or read erotica, then you have a very weak testimony. In fact, you don’t even have to be a Christian to have that list. There’s a lot of old ladies at the nursing home I visit who are atheists or agnostics, and they can top your list with all the things they won’t do. Some won’t even play cards. And it’s incredibly hard to talk to any of those ladies because no matter what you say, you know you’re probably doing something wrong and will get a browbeating and a lecture before you’re done.

Being a Christian and living a pure and holy life is about far more than not doing something, and, frankly, it may involve smoking or drinking. That’s another discussion entirely though. In Galatians, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as being “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” All of these traits can be demonstrated through positive actions. In fact, many of them can only be demonstrated in the positive, meaning that they are not demonstrated by someone not doing something. Someone who is kind and loving isn’t just someone who is not nasty or not cruel. Someone who is not nasty or not cruel is generally just nice. Kind goes beyond that. A nice person might express condolences if you fall on the ground and perhaps may even help you up. But a kind person might make sure you are all right, help you get cleaned up, call for help, and so forth. Nice is neutral. “Into the Woods” describes it best with the phrase “you’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.”

The Wrong Focus

So to those who do not want to partake in something because you believe that it’s sinful, that’s fine. You are responsible for your conscience, and you are certainly not obligated to participate in actions you consider sinful. But you need to be cautious if you are most vocal about the things you do not do and never show or reveal what you actually do. Christians are often criticized for having long, long lists of “thou shall nots” and serving the “cosmic kill joy.” But when Christ came, He gave us new life.  In John 10:10, Jesus says that He came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly.”

The risk in making the focus so much on what we don’t do is that it reaffirms the notion to most non Christians that Christians are out to spoil their fun. When we list out the things that we won’t do, we miss the amazing things that God has done and the incredible freedom that He has brought us. And saying “I won’t watch this media because it corrupts my mind” may seem like a good opportunity to witness about how holy you are, but it’s more likely to have the same effect as fake salt or fake sugar. Sure, it tastes sort of right, but it doesn’t have any of the benefits. In fact, it may actually have a host of other problems that it tracks right in with it.

Of course, let’s face it. Being known for anything positive takes so much work than being known for inaction and denial. It really isn’t that hard to keep saying no and no and no and no. I know because I’ve been there. It may be that refusing to participate in certain types of media really isn’t the best place to stake your claim and say “I don’t do this because I’m a Christian.” I’ve worked with non Christians who had no problem saying, “ahh, no, I just don’t like country western music” or “I’m not really that fond of death metal.” They don’t add a spiritual component to it, and they are known generally for other things that they do do. In fact, most of my non Christian friends never really gave those statements a second glance.  The ones whom they ridiculed were the Christians who would list of all the things that they would refuse to do and yet never once offer an alternative. In fact, those Christians tended to only talk about the things one should not do with the occasional gushing over an Amish romance or a new Christian film.

An Intriguing Friend

The most godly men and women in my life are men and women who are known for the actions that they take. They probably don’t do a lot of the things on the list, but the rich lives that they live are such that they would never be known just for what they didn’t do. One stunning example of this was a vivacious godly woman I knew in Virginia Beach. She was always such a joy to be around. The life just flowed from her. One time when I was at the library, a fellow patron asked her if she had read Fifty Shades of Grey. She shrugged and said, “No. But you know a fantastic book I just read?” It was so effortless and the conversation continued. It shifted into other topics soon.

Now something cool that happened with this dear friend of mine is that later that same patron asked her whether she chose not to read Fifty Shades for spiritual or religious reasons. And she gave a beautiful articulate answer. But the patron was the one who initiated that discussion and she was actually curious to hear that explanation and receptive to what my friend had to say. My friend didn’t sit there on a somber pedestal saying with all the life of a funeral procession, “I do not partake in such worldly pursuits.”

Whether intended or not, the focus of what we do not do creates the “holier than thou” persona that so many Christians are known and judged for. Even when it comes from the best of intentions and even if it is hard for you to articulate it, it does not mean that focusing on what you cannot and will not do is a godly witness. In many cases, it may actually be throwing up more barriers between you and the people you work with.

A  Shallow Example

Let’s shift this to a more shallow perspective. I want to lose weight. I know that I have too much fat on my bones even though I’m quite fit. But losing weight is quite difficult and takes a long, long time. Often it’s discouraging, and sometimes I want to give up. The people who make me want to be more like them and who inspire me to strive to live a healthier life are the ones who are joyful and eager to take on life and its challenges. In college, I had one friend who absolutely loved to dance. We danced in the room to Disney, Broadway, and pop songs before we then went out to get a light yogurt with granola. The fit people who take delight in their healthy lifestyles and don’t focus on what they can’t or won’t do are the most contagious.

The ones who sneer or roll their eyes and say, “I don’t eat fast food” do not inspire me to eat healthy. If anything, I have to fight eating a brownie just to spite them.  And even the ones who sigh and say, “I wish I could but I just can’t” don’t really make me want to learn more about their lifestyle. Frankly, they make it sound miserable. So why are we doing that with our faith, the supposedly greatest thing that ever happened to us in our lives?

What Are You Known For?

Again, this is not to say that you cannot say “I don’t care for that” or “This is wrong.” There are times and places for that. But ask yourself what do your coworkers and peers see when they look at you? Is your testimony confined to a list of things you can’t or won’t do? Are you living in the fullness that God has promised? Are you contributing more than you are taking away?  What do you do that positively reflects on your relationship with God? Why should anyone give up a guilty pleasure for a life like yours? What are you showing that makes it even marginally worth it?

As a Christian, you have the opportunity to live a rich and fulfilled life that goes far beyond anything imaginable. You should be one of the most incredible people around, not a stiff, boring, rigid caricature.

So don’t be known for what you don’t do. Be known for what you do. Do it to the glory of God and live.

January 2015 Reflections

As a child, I remember how often it seemed that days dragged on without end. The time between Christmas and birthdays often seemed the longest. But one of the sad things I’ve noticed about growing up is how fast time seems to race except in the worst of times. Emergencies. Car crashes. Funerals. Disappearances. Yet sometimes, even when things are falling apart, times seems to speed along.

January has been a month of surprise after surprise after surprise. Not all of them have been good sadly. The month started off with busted pipes over New Year’s. It was followed up by some family emergencies. The law firm struck some challenging cases and difficult clients. A host of other small things cropped up, most of them making life more difficult or challenging. February marks the beginning of cheesecake making for the Valentine’s Day dinner, a two nighter at the church this time.

A storm is about to strike the Midwest. A big snowstorm with thick flakes of snow and possibly some ice. The atmosphere has already changed significantly, and I can feel the pressure shifting. It makes my head hurt in an odd detached sort of way, my vision wobbles at the edges. Nothing to be concerned about. This happens before most storms.

I wish that time would slow down. Right now, it isn’t moving so fast. The sky is white and grey, and cars streaked with ice and salt stream along the road as people hurry into Wal-Mart and Aldis to pick up bread, milk, and whatever other supplies they need. And now that these moments have slowed and I am paying attention, I realize I am grateful.

There’s a lot to be grateful for. As challenging as the month has been, it is one that has revealed a great deal. I have failed a lot this month. Plans fell apart. Disappointment, depression, frustration. It was quite difficult. But I’m still here. And I am grateful to God and to my family for that.

I am grateful even though I am sometimes overwhelmed. My to do list sometimes feels unending. Not all of the items are bad. I dearly love some of them. Many of them in fact. It’s more of those few items on every to do list that drag everything else down. And sometimes I am just not as good at accepting my own failures as I should be. I intended to finish and publish Mermaid Bride as well as finish up another couple drafts this month. Obviously, I had not planned most of what happened. But I am learning to keep going, to love what I’m doing, and to keep going.

February will be better. I am grateful for the opportunities ahead and for what God has brought me through.

2014 Reflection

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s hard to believe that it is now 2015.

Every year, I always put together a list of resolutions and goals. Then, throughout the year, I check myself to see how well I am doing in reaching those goals. Some attempts result in failure, but, in my opinion, the most important thing is to try and see what comes. But here’s my evaluation of last year’s public goals.

Overall Reflection

The biggest lesson from this year has been to “not despise the small things.” So often I tend to be an all or nothing kind of woman. I want it to be perfect, and I do not want to accept the small steps that may be the only ones accomplished within a day.

Write Daily

Yes, I managed to hit this one again. I’ve been writing at least 500 words a day now for years, but I still make this a yearly goal to hold myself to it. It’s hard to imagine not writing. It’s more important than eating. Fortunately, it appears that writing is good for one’s health!

Lose 30 Pounds

Yes and no. Throughout the course of the year, I worked out, ate healthy, hit some setbacks, persevered, and by late August reached my year’s target. I did a great job maintaining it too until I got sick again. And then I gained most of it back. Alas, I wish it had been through cheesecake, pizza, and burgers. Weight gain happens very easily for me. If I actually let myself go and just ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with no regard to health, I’d probably balloon up like nobody’s business. I haven’t done so well about drinking enough water, and to combat the nausea, I have been drinking carbonated beverages again. I’ve cut those as much as I can. Tea, for whatever reason, does not really soothe the way soda does.

So my goal for this year is to knock off 60 pounds. If past experience is any indicator, the weight I gained back will go away fairly easily. (A fair amount of it may be swelling?) I see the best results following a slightly modified low carb diet. Lots of fresh vegetables. Plenty of water. Lean protein. Even if it doesn’t result in weight loss, I do feel better while avoiding processed foods and sugars. No matter how much I enjoy fast food. It’s best to keep that as a treat rather than a staple.

Complete Tue-Rah Identity Revealed

Yes. I realized this year that I had spent more than twenty years working on Tue-Rah Identity Revealed in particular. I have, of course, worked on the other books in the series, but Identity Revealed absorbed the majority of my time and focus. As such, I really, really wanted to finish the draft this year. It still needs some final proofing, but it is done. December 15.

Oddly it left me feeling depressed, but I suspect that has more to do with other emotions and conclusions as well.

Experiment with and Decide on Primary Social Media Accounts

Social media just keeps expanding. One of last year’s resolutions was to determine which ones I wanted to prioritize. I have settled on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. I may use Google+ and LinkedIn some.

Build a Website on WordPress

Obviously this one was a success as you can see. It’s pretty basic. I tried Elegant Themes, but I couldn’t get those themes to work as well. So I switched to a basic layout. Nothing fancy. It could use some tweaking, but it has my blog as well. Most everything imported all right.

Finish Five Stories

This year was quite good in terms of overall productivity. I finished Tue-Rah Identity Revealed as well as Cyberbullying: What You Need to Know; 10,000 Words a Day: How to Survive and Thrive; Mermaid Bride; Ragnarok Unravels, and a handful of short stories.  Most of these are ready for publication, but I need to finish cover art and prep for the formatting and so on. Plus there’s always a few more tweaks I will want to make.

Get Law Firm Going

All the books and seminars in the world are nothing compared to actually doing it. James and I have gone from handling one or two cases a week to four to five cases a day with some random free days. Getting clients to pay, of course, is the bigger challenge. For the first full year of our law firm, it really went quite well. Ups and downs but overall good. And no malpractice suits. The home office works quite well.

Month of Fear

I actually didn’t have a name of this before. All it was labeled as was “overcome fears” and “try new things.” So I compiled this into a single month known as the Month of Fear. It was challenging but fun. I intend to do the Month of Fear again this year. Perhaps more than once. In fact, I’m tackling some fears today. I will post some updates on these. Most of the time they tend to be more personal, and there’s no need to share everything.

Create a Place for Knife Throwing in My House

I may not be good at it, but I do love throwing knives. It soothes me. And I did succeed in making a knife throwing board for my office. It works so well. The only thing I have to watch out for is Thor who loves to play fetch. And I don’t like him trying to snatch blades out of the air.

So those are some of the top goals/resolutions and their results from 2014. I may share my goals and resolutions for 2015. Even though the year has been off to a rough start, I’ve done fairly well so far. It was a trying but exciting and good year. I am looking forward to this one. Have an absolutely wonderful day!


Into the Woods Review

For part of our Christmas celebration, James and I decided to watch Into the Woods. It was quite an experience, and we were glad we went.

Some movie posters misrepresent  the focal character but not here!

In terms of stated biases, I have only seen this story in amateur productions and high school musicals. Never anything professional. I admire the concept of weaving multiple storylines from familiar stories together, but Into the Woods is not my favorite story overall nor my favorite musical. I should also add that I am not an avid musical fan. So while I may not be overly biased, I may not be as well informed.

Please note that there will be spoilers in this review. I can’t comment on everything, so I will point out the things that drew me in particular.

Premises You Must Accept If You Will Enjoy This Movie

  • magic explains everything that is not readily understood
  • weaknesses in the original play remain present here
  • ham and cheese make this film more palatable (and I mean that as a compliment)
  • the story runs wide rather than deep

Acting in General

I’ll get into some of the characters more specifically later. But overall, well done and mostly well cast.

Yes, there were hammy performances, but they fit the tone and the mood. Meryl Streep was stunning from her first appearance to the last. I’ll get to “The Last Midnight” later, but let me say that I was looking forward to that song most of all, and it exceeded my hopes. Daniel Huttlestone was even better here than he was in Les Miserables, and he made an adorable and sympathetic Jack. He was everything a young Jack should be.  Chris Pine shocked me with his smarmy Prince Charming and had me cracking up at all the right moments. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife was sympathetic and sweet, and James Corden played the role of the nice guy moving on to make his own path well. Lilla Crawford did so well as the ever hungry and curious Red Riding Hood. I didn’t really have any characters or images in mind when I envisioned this theatrical release, but none of the casting or acting disappointed me really except Cinderella.

Yes, yes, let’s lie to a poor foolish child. What could possibly go wrong? It’s not like these are magic beans!

All in all, I felt that Into the Woods provided a stronger Jack and the Beanstalk story than Jack the Giant Slayer and will likely be a better Cinderella story than Disney’s upcoming Cinderella. Costuming and set design seemed top notch, though the CGI effects were cheaper looking in the distance shots more than the close-ups.

Wow, Jaw Dropping Meryl Streep

The previews convinced me that Meryl Streep could do this role justice, but the previews in no way did justice to what she did on the big screen. She plays the character well, sometimes slipping into more modern dialogue and sometimes sharing the audience’s perceptions. She scares at the right times, provokes laughs at the right points, and captures the voice of the original play with ease. (I have always felt that most of the story’s momentum dies with the Witch, and this was true especially here.)

My one criticism would be that in the beginning, she is supposed to be ugly. Now, don’t get me wrong. She’s no beauty, but nor is she ugly. She is just Hollywood ugly. Her nails are too long and yellow, her teeth look somewhat nasty, and her hair is wild. But really…she just looks like she needs a bit of a makeover. Given the budget as well as the CGI capabilities, I expected her to look hideous. I’ve looked worse some mornings, I’m afraid, and I have no curse to blame. That said, she does look stunning after her transformation. The blue palette compliments her skin, and I can only hope I look as good at her age.

Just In Need of a Makeover
Swap the gown to an oversized black tank top and a pair of yoga pants, make the hair a bit darker and wilder, and that’s about how I look when I realize I’ve misplaced one of my notebooks.

The part I looked forward to the most was “The Last Midnight.” That’s always been one of my favorite songs from the play, and this rendition was every bit what I hoped and more. She sang it with such energy and passion. The song built and built and built until it delivered its final fatal punch. The lighting, the score, the acting, and the costuming were dramatic, over the top, and every bit what I anticipated. At a few points, my fellow moviegoers were sitting there open mouthed. Between “The Last Midnight” and “Agony,” the movie was worth the price.

All in all, I found every bit of Meryl Streep’s performance enjoyable and riveting. She didn’t just play this role. She poured herself into it, and it showed.

The Big Bad Wolf As Bad As Can Be

I had no idea what to expect with Johnny Depp’s performance. He can turn in stunning performances, and he can sometimes just be strange, odd, and frightening. In this case, well, it was a bit of both, which is what I think he was going for.

The sexual overtones remain in place, though if I recall correctly they have been toned down somewhat. But the somewhat lascivious response the Wolf has toward Red Riding Hood is hard to miss. I suppose one could argue that

If only real pedophiles were this obvious....
If only real pedophiles were this obvious….

there is nothing in it, but all in all, it feels more like a nod to some of the original Red Riding Hood stories. More implication than blatant discussion. But exceptionally uncomfortable to watch.

That said, Johnny Depp gave it his all. From the stalking around the tree to the first “Hello, little girl” to the final howl at the end, he was an unforgettable Wolf. This particular rendition of the song was one I can’t get out of my head. It is disturbing but well blended, punchy and almost cartoonish. It’s quite difficult to describe, but, all in all, it felt like the right choice and it was about on the same level as the Princes’ “Agony” in terms of ham and energy. I would add though that his costume did appear more theatrical and garish compared to the other costumes. My husband, who has more experience with

Jeff Goldblum's Wolf was a little less obvious than Depp's, but should be quite cautious of folks like this.
Jeff Goldblum’s Wolf was a little less obvious than Depp’s, but still…one should be quite cautious of folks like this.

musicals and plays, said that in most of the other renditions he’s seen, the Wolf wore a fur outfit. Here the Wolf had the look of a more sophisticated Jeff Goldblum’s Wolf from the Three Little Pigs (Fairie Tale Theatre).

Cinderella, Nice But Not Good the Perfect Summary

I always found Cinderella’s story to be one of the more intriguing ones in the original play because it provided fascinating insight into this young woman who remained in such a horrid situation for so long. The fact that Cinderella would actually consider remaining in the abusive home she shared with her stepmother and stepsisters rather than make a choice that might be wrong was intriguing. And promising. The problem though is that Cinderella here fades to the background and seems significantly less important and interesting than the Baker and his wife or any of the other characters.

Oh my goodness, he laid a trap for me! Aha! That's not a warning sign at all. I'm glad that this prince doesn't show any other dangerous tendencies.
Oh my goodness, he laid a trap for me! Aha! That’s not a warning sign at all. I’m glad that this prince doesn’t show any other dangerous tendencies.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a beautiful standout moment in the story. The “On the Steps of the Palace” song was so well done. It captured Cinderella’s dilemma as well as her inner struggle and personality. Plus it had more choreography than I anticipated, and the setting itself added to the magical atmosphere. Anna Kendrick played it quite well, singing with emotion and even showing happiness as she made the decision to make no decision and force the Prince to choose.

In fairness, part of Cinderella’s character development is weakened because the story is slammed together in the overall pacing, particularly at the end where Cinderella should be revealed more fully. And her confrontation of the Prince as well as her bidding him farewell is shortened tremendously. There’s no real sense of regret or sadness that the two are split apart or that Cinderella has even lost anything she wants. The loss seemed as inconsequential as losing a shoe. Here I do not blame the actress. The writing in her overall development gave the actress little to work with. The prince’s infidelity seems irrelevant to her and receives less time than her indecisiveness and generally neutral feelings at first.

The stepmother and stepsisters were deliciously awful and hammy. I chuckled to see Lucy Punch in the role of Lucinda. She played almost the

Oh yes, do trust us, your Highness. If the black and gold wasn't enough to tip you off, perhaps these smirking smiles will reassure you.
Oh yes, do trust us, your Highness. If the black and gold wasn’t enough to tip you off, perhaps these smirking smiles will reassure you.

exact same character in Ella Enchanted, and she did it just as well. It was cartoonish and lacking in any sort of nuance, but it was never intended to be nuanced in the first place.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let’s Change Your End

In the original play, Rapunzel has nervous breakdowns, gives birth to twins, and ultimately dies as her prince goes on to pursue another fairy tale princess. In the movie, however, she and her prince ride off after the witch gives her warning. There’s no indication that anything bad happens to Rapunzel and her prince. We see nothing of her or her prince ever again. There is only the witch’s warning that she should have listened and that the world is dangerous.

Now…I suppose that it could be said we don’t know that Rapunzel didn’t die. Something terrible might have happened to her. But, in my opinion, Rapunzel’s apparent happy ending really cuts away at the deeper meaning of the original play, which was that there was no such thing as a happily ever after. Her story line was not developed enough to suggest that there is hope for a happy ending after all (though it seems that that must be what the aim was). But neither is it dark or bleak. It just feels unfinished. Or as if the producers were concerned that the real Rapunzel story told in Into the Woods would be too dark. Admittedly, it is dark, but it added a great deal to the tone and motivation.

Personally, I think this change was a misstep. Rapunzel’s demise demonstrated the validity of the Witch’s w

I add nothing to the story really except another beautiful white woman because...well...heaven knows this story needed more classic white beauties.
I add nothing to this story. But would you seriously believe I am the Baker’s Sister? Yeah, didn’t think so.

arning. Plus the prince’s philandering ways painted such a bleak and sorrowful end to her that it underscored Sondheim’s original point. Without that change, Rapunzel seems unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the song “Stay with Me.” Meryl Streep did a beautiful emotional job with it. But just about every other purpose that Rapunzel served could be met through altering the story further and without further loss of the story’s integrity.

Sometimes a happy ending is worse than a sad or tragic one when it is forced. It’s even sadder when the story just feels unfinished. It makes the point less clear, and even if life may be that way, the ambiguity hurts the story and overall flow and purpose.

Agony…From Laughing Hysterically

One of the downsides of watching primarily high school renditions of Into the Woods is that most high school students do not have the chutzpah and confidence to pull off the roles of the princes. They are a special pair, aren’t they? So full of themselves and so confused by the women they wish to claim. Well…Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen deliver on every aspect, right

Yes...can't you tell, we're related. We're brothers I tell you. brothers!
Yes…can’t you tell, we’re related. We’re brothers I tell you, brothers!

down to the demonstrated competitiveness and rivalry between the two.

The song “Agony” is one of the best in the film. It had the audience laughing at several points as the two brothers strive to outdo one another in a well choreographed dance scene beside and over a river. There’s tearing of the shirts, heaving of the chests, arching of the eyebrows, deepening of the voices, and flinging of the arms. It’s overdramatic, cheesy, hammy, and utterly splendid.

Similarly his song with the Baker’s Wife is quite over the top as well, though it does feel more like he is pushing her into something she is not all together comfortable with. The parallels between the Wolf and Red with the Prince and the Baker’s Wife would be interesting, but that’s another discussion.

Chris Pine’s Prince though also vanishes from the story too soon. His pursuit of yet another fairy tale princess after he leaves Cinderella and enjoys the Baker’s wife demonstrates his shallowness in the play. That’s cut though. While he does share some passionate kisses with the Baker’s Wife, he does not take on another princess later. Here, he and Cinderella share a brief conversation after she learns that he cheated on her. And while Pine delivers the line “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” with fantastic personality, the scene ends too quickly. He, like Rapunzel’s prince, disappears after this

In some ways, Chris Pine plays more a parody of Shatner's Captain Kirk than he did in Star Trek. If only Sleeping Beauty had had green skin!
In some ways, Chris Pine plays more a parody of Shatner’s Captain Kirk than he did in Star Trek. If only Sleeping Beauty had had green skin!

. We do not see him again with his newest conquest, and there is no reprise of the famed “Agony.”

Don’t get me wrong. What scenes he does have, Chris Pine wrings out every drop of humor and hamminess, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. He was just ushered out far too fast, and the smarminess and point could have been better developed through that final closing sequence.

An Intriguing Though Feeling Unfinished Tapestry

Into the Woods has never been one of my favorite musicals, and my initial opinion of Into the Woods was that it started out with an intriguing premise but didn’t really tie up the ends in the most satisfying of ways. Many things are left unexplained, whether through lack of time, carelessness, or just because. The pacing in the Second Act in particular has always felt off to me, and I wanted certain things explained more. Yet those weaknesses have not kept me from enjoying it or the music. I had hoped though that the movie would address some of those weaknesses. Perhaps add another layer to the characters or reveal more subtleties. There are so many opportunities afforded to a movie that are not in an onstage production.

The movie, however, does not take the opportunity to clean up the story and make it more coherent or establish stronger characters. Instead, it plays it quite safe and softens some of the original plot line to make it more palatable for a younger audience that probably won’t even be interested in it. As a result, it actually lost something of itself without providing something more enjoyable or even something that felt like a coherent whole. I’ve already discussed Rapunzel and the princes. But some of the changes made deviated from the play in other ways unrelated to making it more family friendly (an arguable endeavor).

What do you mean it was exciting and scary? I feel like this should probably be examined more.
What do you mean they rushed the second act? That’s where all the character arcs complete and the story really starts to come together!

The pacing is what draws my attention most. The First Act seems to take up the majority of the movie with the plot threads set up and the characters established, even if it is only briefly. But there does not appear to be much of a passage of time between the First Act and the Second Act. The characters’ positions after thinking that they have attained their happy endings are rushed. In fact, they are thrown back into the action after what seems like perhaps a day. The Baker’s Wife is made instantly pregnant and looks ready to deliver after the curse is lifted, and the baby himself has no age reference. It does not feel as if any time has passed at all. Cinderella’s unhappiness and boredom as well as the Baker’s struggle to connect with his son are all rushed, and I entirely missed Jack’s desire to return to the sky, if that was even part of the movie’s second act at all. As a result, it feels quite rushed. The last half hour in particularly are quite bad comparatively and left me feeling unsatisfied.

Overall Worth a Watch

Even with the changes and the weaknesses, the movie is worth a watch. Some of the performances are stunning, and there was a great deal of heart put into it. It feels very much like a Disneyfied movie version of a play. If you enjoy any of the primary actors or if you like revisionist fairy tales or if you appreciate musicals, I recommend you watch it.

I have seen it advertised for families with children though, and I would add one caveat. It isn’t really a kid friendly movie. Not because of the dark themes but because of the pacing. Young children will likely find it boring. And the latter half is particularly slow by comparison. Most of the violence occurs off screen or is implied. (The death of Jack’s mother, for instance, was handled in such a way that at first I wasn’t sure if she was actually dead or even how she died.)

It’s a shame because I think that a work more closely following the original or expanding upon the original’s themes would have worked better here. The actors possessed the necessary skills. The sets supported the endeavors, but sadly the woods were far tamer and less dangerous than they might have once appeared.



Farewell: Concerning a Grandfather, the Hobbit, and a Story

Grandpa’s eyes twinkled whenever he smiled; he often wore red, one of his favorite colors.

I have been trying for months now to write a small memoir to honor my grandfather, Bob Farlow who passed away in 2008. It’s difficult to summarize or honor the life of a man who has done so much. He was a true Renaissance man, an artist, a preacher, a teacher, a principal, an entrepreneur, a sculptor, a musician, a soldier, a father, a grandfather, and so much more. Knowing where to start has always been the difficulty. I could start with his accomplishments in the art community or with his adventures and achievements. But for me, so many of the stories and so much of what I remember of him all started with one book in particular. Fortunately, recounting this will allow me to honor and thank a few others as well.

The story that started it was the Hobbit. My grandfather supervised my reading as soon as I started, and he always pushed me to read complex books in addition to children’s tales. I often balked at the heavier classics, despite loving to read. I abhorred the Odyssey, and I was probably too young for it. For some reason, I found it harder to read than the various books with Norse mythology or maybe Grandpa just knew it better and was able to make harder quizzes. But he promised that if I finished it, he would let me read a book he was quite certain I would love. We often made bargains like that, and we always kept our word. So I finished the Odyssey on a cold autumn day, and he let me borrow an already well worn copy of the Hobbit.

Books were always an important part of my relationship with my grandfather. Even when I was too young to understand letters, he read with me.

The Hobbit was the first true fantasy novel I ever read, and it awoke a deep desire within me to write fantasy. A desire that has burned for years now, never fading and always strengthening. The Hobbit was the first time I ever engaged so deeply with a book that I wept over the characters. Even now I am not entirely certain what it was that pulled me in and made me so invested. All I know is that I felt and I loved. Bilbo and Thorin were the first lessons I understood relating to conflicted characters who were not entirely good in all respects. And Gandalf was the first wizard I really remembered. I had been writing my own stories for a couple years by that point, but the Hobbit somehow made it all come alive to me and made me want to be a writer all the more.

Given that connection alone, even after more than twenty years, I had a deep love for the story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movies. Watching The Battle of the Five Armies, despite all the ways it differed from the book, was such a rich experience. I have had a marvelous time, enjoying the film, hosting a party, cooking themed food, and even preparing costumes. It has been the best of experiences which bring both joy and grief at once. The happiness so much the richer for the tears that are shed and the ache of loss that comes with the realization that all that is left are the memories of what once was and the hope of what exists beyond Heaven’s gates.

The film made me realize that I have never wanted to say good bye to my grandfather. I miss him so much even now.  At times, I catch myself wondering what he would say, wanting to talk to him, missing his voice.  The workshop still has his last painting on the easel. Half carved statues packed away. Balsa wood shavings on the floor. The carving tools in neat rows and the paintbrushes in glass bottles. A dozen projects in various stages scattered around the studio. It always smelled of linseed oil, oil paints, Bavarian wax, and shaved Balsa wood. I can still see it all so clearly. It’s been years since I’ve walked into that studio, but the memory is as crisp in my mind as a new book fresh from Amazon.

Sinterklaas the Netherlands
The Sinterklaas from the Netherlands was one of many Gift Givers Grandpa hand carved. Replicas were then made from Bavarian wax and hand painted.

Of course, I always think of Grandpa around Christmas. He and my grandmother ran a small business known as Briercroft. He carved and sold various sculptures, the most popular being the Giftgivers. From St. Nicholas to Sinterklaas, he carved, molded, and painted the gift givers from around the world for many years until they closed the business a few years before his death. This Christmas is even heavier for me, and I apologize because this is rather convoluted.

You see, after I read the Hobbit for the first time as a little girl, I decided I wanted to write my own fantasy. My desire only grew when I read Lord of the Rings. But my grandfather and father always encouraged me to avoid mimicking Tolkien. As brilliant as he was, there will never be another J.R.R. Tolkien. What they told me to do was find my own story to tell, create my own races, develop my own world, and honor Tolkien through learning the craft as best I could. And I took that very, very seriously. For me, that story became the Tue-Rah series, but the first book is the one that absorbed the majority of my attention: Tue-Rah Identity Revealed.

I was very young when I first got the idea for Tue-Rah. In this picture, my father had just caught me making battle plans on the site of our new home. Grandpa thought it was funny.

I have been working on it for over twenty years now. My grandfather never worked on just one project. He always had at least half a dozen or more. One day I walked in on him, and he had started plans for a hand crafted sailboat (which he completed and sailed, I might add). He never stopped working, never stopped dreaming, never stopped thinking. But he always had at least one project he focused on. So I followed his example. While I had many stories and many projects, Tue-Rah was my primary focus and will remain so until the entire series is completed. Grandpa always teased me because I never thought the first book was really finished. I kept tweaking it, changing a plot point here, developing a character there, and then overhauling it. The whys and the hows had to be analyzed and satisfied. And I wanted so much for it to be perfect. He wanted me to finish it. He always told me that I would never think it was perfect or even good enough. I said I just wanted to be satisfied with it. In fairness, I was only a very little girl when I wrote the first draft. And so I learned about world building, character development, pacing, and everything else through those pages. As I neared my high school graduation though, Grandpa started encouraging me to consider it finished and leave the first book. “You’ll have plenty of time to tweak with the final edits, and you have the rest of the books to finish.”

I refused to listen. It still didn’t feel quite right. Yet somehow the conversation shifted back to the Hobbit, and Grandpa shocked me when he revealed that the only Tolkien works he had read were Gawain and the Green Knight and Tolkien’s pieces on Beowulf.

Grandpa and Me 05
The fact that Grandpa could listen to my stories and juggle my little sister and maintain his sanity is proof of the man’s strength and resolve.

Given how much the books had impacted me, I wanted to share that with him. It meant…so much. I really don’t know why. We had spoken of it many times, and I had told him all about it. It had never impeded our discussion. Still, I offered to read to him while he carved or painted or sculpted. I had done that for my younger brothers just a few years before. He smiled at that, and we struck another bargain. He told me I could read the Hobbit to him when I finished the final draft of Tue-Rah Identity Revealed before it went in to editors. If he liked the Hobbit, I could read the Lord of the Rings. I agreed. I even joked with him that if I didn’t get it done before they made a Hobbit movie, he’d have to go with me to see it. And while I did not procrastinate, I thought we had all the time in the world.

As it turned out, we only had three years. Grandpa went to the doctor for a routine checkup after he spent the previous day chopping wood with an old axe. And then the news came. He had to have emergency open heart surgery. He was going to be on bedrest for weeks, and he was already fussing about that. He didn’t want any of us grandkids coming to see him in the hospital. So I wrote him a letter to encourage him before or after the surgery, whenever Grandma gave it to him. I told him I was going to read him those books, starting with the Hobbit. I didn’t care that I hadn’t finished Tue-Rah Identity Revealed, and since he would be trapped on the old creaky couch, I knew he’d be glad for the company. I was just putting the books together in an oversized black bag that I used for a purse. And that’s when the phone rang. He was gone. In the space of a second, my grandfather ceased to exist in this world.

It was so hard to comprehend. That all that was left was the memory of those calloused hands and twinkling eyes. That there would never be another debate over what constituted literature or whether a particular color was burgundy or crimson or which translation of Philippians was the most accurate. That there would be many Thanksgivings and Christmases, birthdays and celebrations he would never see.

Grandpa's Grave
It doesn’t feel like it should be real. Grandpa traveled so much that I might be able to pretend he has merely been away on a very long trip. But I can’t…

I still remember his body in that casket. So lifeless. All that had once been there. Gone. The twinkle in his eyes. The fidgety energy that never faded. To see someone who was so vital and strong placed in a box and arranged like a doll with too much makeup and no smile…it was wrong. It was so wrong. That spark of the divine, the incredible spirit that had made him so much…it was gone, leaving only a silent shell behind. I could barely breathe when I looked at him; I wanted so much for it to be no more than a horrible mistake, some nightmare I could push away.  But it was not so.

At the funeral, the pastor asked me at the last minute whether I wanted to write a poem and read it at the funeral. He didn’t mean any harm; I think he just forgot to talk to me sooner. When I said I didn’t have anything prepared, he insisted I could speak off the cuff and share my heart. But I refused to trot out my grief and paste random words on it. The loss cut through my soul, eating it like turpentine eats through paint. And to just come up with something in less than fifteen minutes the way I might to honor a speaker who arrived unannounced at a club meeting felt blasphemous. It wasn’t just reading a Scripture verse Grandpa had loved or playing a song he adored. It was about reaching into my soul, digging through the morass, and finding some fitting way to honor and remember him. And that could not be done in such a short span. Any poem or snippet I wrote would be clumsy and forced.

So when it came time, I sat in silence, my hands in my lap. I did not know what to say.

We buried him in another church graveyard down in Shelbyville some hours away. I still had a copy of the Hobbit in my purse along with my notebooks with scene drafts for the Tue-Rah series and some other stories. I tried writing on that car ride, but my writing reflected the state of my mind. Distant and jumbled. So I read instead. I don’t remember which section. I think it was when the dwarves arrived or perhaps when they met Beorn.

It’s very well worn by this point. This isn’t the same rose that I was given at Grandpa’s burial, but it is similar. A student who didn’t realize the significance of the book to me grabbed it and pulled out the flower petals without realizing how delicate they were.

I still have that same copy of the Hobbit. Grandma gave it to me along with a number of other beloved books. It is so fragile now I can barely turn the pages without tearing them. The binding has all but fallen away, and masking tape secures it at key points. I pressed the rose petals from my grandfather’s burial in those pages. An accident destroyed the rose petals, but the book survived. It’s in the bookshelf next to my desk.

Finishing Tue-Rah Identity Revealed and sending it to an editor just before the Battle of the Five Armies came out was bittersweet. Grandpa would have teased me for taking so long, but he would have been pleased, I think. I hope. He would probably tease me all the more if I told him that I still think it needs tweaking and editing, but at least I now feel satisfied that it is the whole of the first book. I have shed so many tears. Watching the movie only intensified my feelings. While it was not perfect and quite different from the book, the movie was a fitting end for my favorite fantasy novel of all time, the story I wanted my grandfather to hear, and a tearful farewell to Middle Earth, one of the few fictional worlds where I gladly escape time and time again. But it was like coming to the end of a journey and realizing that one of the people I thought for certain would be there isn’t there at all.

There was so much good in this movie. I noticed even more when I watched it a second time. Peter Jackson did an incredible job making the world come to life yet again, and I will always be so grateful that he gave me the chance to return to Middle Earth and see that world in film yet again. The actors were phenomenal. The funny thing though was that when I first heard about the movie’s production, I couldn’t really imagine the chosen actors in the roles. I was familiar with some of them from other pieces, and they were talented. But they did not match the characters in my mind. Yet after I watched An Unexpected Journey, I realized they were the perfect choice. It was quite incredible to see beloved characters from a story I treasured come to life in a way so unlike what I expected and yet so perfect that I cannot imagine anyone else. Even though I knew the story well, I leaned on the edge of my seat. I have never wanted a story to deviate from its conclusion so much as I did there. The characters made me feel as strongly as I did the first time I read the book, and I wanted so much for them to live happily ever after. There was no more chance of that though than of my grandfather surviving the final stroke.

My grandfather always found it ironic that his hog paintings from rural Indiana life were always among his most popular and highly awarded. He said it was how God kept him humble.

To say that it was sad is an understatement, but the most perfect thing of all was the ending. Billy Boyd’s song, “The Last Goodbye” was heart wrenching and beautiful at once. Listening to that play while watching the penciled illustrations appear and fade on the big screen was hauntingly appropriate. The artistic style reminded me of my grandfather’s. Soft pencil strokes across parchment paper, filled with expression and movement with lead that could so easily be smudged by a wayward brush of the hand. I stayed until the end, wrapped in a soft red pashmina, listening to each word and note until they faded away.

The song is true in many respects. I know I cannot remain forever in one place. I know that I must away. There is so much more to be done. I will never stop missing my grandfather. I will never stop loving him. He was a good and godly man who seized life in every breath he drew. If he were here now,…

In many respects, it was the end a long time ago. But this is not my last goodbye. Not to Middle Earth. Not to my grandfather. But it is time to say farewell. For now.

So to all those who were involved with the making of the Hobbit films as well as the Lord of the Rings, from the grips to the lighting experts to the cooks to the directors to the actors and everyone else, thank you. You brought the story to life in a beautiful way that I will always remember. You put faces on characters I have loved for years and made the world seem as real as I always hoped it would be. I cannot read it now without seeing your interpretation, and I am grateful it is one I can love just as much as the books.

To Tolkien, thank you for creating the stories in the first place.  I will always treasure them, and they will always be part of my library and my heart. I cannot imagine fantasy without your stories. You brought me such joy and comfort so many times.

Grandpa and Me 07And to Grandpa…I finally know what I want to say…. Grandpa, I love you, and I will never ever forget you. I wish so much that it had been different and that you were still here. There are so many things I wanted to share with you. So many times when I wish with all my heart that you were here. That when I come home you would be there. That I could have shown you that I really did finish Tue-Rah Identity Revealed. And so I could just tell you one more time how much I love you, how much you mean to me, and how you inspire me even to this day. I will see you again, and I am so blessed to have known you. But I still miss you, and there will always be tears when I try to say goodbye.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies Movie Review

Hobbit Film Poster
The final chapter in the Hobbit. When all is said and done, it stands up well, completes the story, and does not make the Lord of the Rings trilogy obsolete.


Last night, James and I went to see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. I have both been looking forward to and dreading this event. Looking forward to it because The Hobbit is one of my favorite stories and I have thoroughly enjoyed the movies. Dreading it because it is the end of the saga and because it might not live up to my expectations. I can be a very harsh critic, though I try to curb my nitpicking tendencies when it is not warranted. And most of the time, I do not enjoy movies as much when I have been looking forward to them because they don’t live up to my expectations. But here the movie did live up to my hopes.

Now let’s get out some of the biases. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are among my all time favorites, and they are, in fact, the stories that convinced me that fantasy writing is my passion. The Hobbit made me want to write fantasy and was what birthed the original idea for Tue-Rah Identity Revealed. The Lord of the Rings was what inspired its becoming an epic and the complex world building. I have deep emotional memories tied to both series, and as such, I may be somewhat more blinded to the flaws of the Hobbit trilogy as I am certain I am with Lord of the Rings.

Also please note that there will be spoilers. But since this is based off a classic novel, I feel like that shouldn’t be a big deal.

 Premises You Must Accept for This Movie

  •  a lot of the character development has been done in the previous two films; you don’t have to have seen  them, but this movie is not as effective as a stand alone movie
  • Legolas is bound by neither physics nor gravity (most elves really aren’t, but he is the Chuck Norris of the fantasy world)
  • dwarves are not very bright, but they are obstinate and tenacious
  • Gandalf and all other magical beings have massive recharge times
  • Deus ex eagalia (and yes, the Doctor does save the day!)
  • You will never EVER win a game of Tetris against dwarves
  • The movie is very very different from the original book

One last point, though not related to the movie, I am quite long winded when it comes to writing these sort of things, particularly when I feel such affection or passion. So here are the topics I’m covering.

Overall Pacing of the Story

This movie was a little less than two and a half hours, but it flew by. It’s the shortest of the three movies, and, while it was good, I think it could have benefited from being a bit longer. A number of things were shortened and almost passed over, requiring you to pay close attention. The only thing that I think should have been trimmed down more was Alfrid. I’m not entirely sure why he got so much screen time as his purpose was not clear. Except maybe for some comedy? But even then he wasn’t that funny.

A little known fact about the Eagles of Middle Earth is that they are bigger divas than Tony Stark’s Iron Man and Loki combined. Not only do they want the flowers and the parades, they want the benefit of a grand entrance. Witness the deux ex eagalia!

But the movie was never boring. At points, I wanted it to slow down so I could see more, but I’m willing to wait until the extended edition. I should also note that I never found the first two movies to drag either, so bear that in mind. I love being in Middle Earth, so it’s unlikely it would ever truly be too long for me.

I also feel I should explain my point about the Doctor from BBC’s Doctor Who. Sylvester McCoy played one of the Doctor’s incarnations, and he also played Radagast the Brown here. He arrives at the end with Beorn and the Eagles. I would have LOVED to see more about him and what happened and how they gathered the Eagles and why the Eagles weren’t there in the beginning. But for those 20 seconds, it was quite fantastic to see the Doctor and Beorn literally arrive as the winged cavalry (remember what River said about good wizards in stories; they always turn out to be the Doctor!).

Bilbo: Yes, the Story Still Involves a Hobbit

I am not a huggy person, but throughout this movie, I felt the urge to hug many characters, not the least of which was Bilbo. Even if the only character he can play is Bilbo, I think he hit it out of the park. There was a fantastic fusion of compassion, loyalty, concern, and fear. I was holding it together reasonably well during Thorin’s death scene until Bilbo started crying. That was the nail in the coffin for me, no pun intended.

As an added side note, a lot of the actors do tremendous acting through just their body language, facial expressions, and their eyes. Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Ken Stott particularly stand out in this regard. Some scenes have few words. And it works. I enjoyed those quiet moments and the development and testing of the friendships.

Seriously…there’s hundreds of elves out there…not sure how this could be considered a fair fight in the slightest.

Now some people will point out that Bilbo just took the Arkenstone in the original novel. It was a rather jerkish move to pull, but here Jackson gives Bilbo a motivation. He’s trying to keep the Arkenstone from Thorin to prevent the madness from worsening. I always wondered about Bilbo’s motives initially in the book, and this was a reasonable explanation in my opinion and consistent with the character he presented in the beginning and throughout his journey.

Bilbo, in many respects, never loses his roots. He remains the practical character he was in the beginning. He does tend to point out the obvious, but sometimes it’s needed. For instance, when the elven army stands before Erebor, he has to point out to Thorin that they are significantly outnumbered. Thorin doesn’t listen, of course, but it’s good to know that someone is capable of noticing the practical details. He was brave in his own quiet way, and the story focuses more on him as it concludes. It stops concerning itself with the bigger picture as Bilbo bids Thorin farewell and mourns the loss of his friend. Most everything else is background, but it works in my opinion because for Bilbo it would be.

Everyone needs a solid practical friend like Bilbo in their lives.

I also love the fact that Bilbo has so much faith in his friendship with Thorin that he actually goes back to Erebor after giving Thranduil and Bard the Arkenstone, seeming to believe that Thorin will see reason. Thorin does not. But I also loved that the other dwarves did not help to cast him over the side. It was a pivotal moment in the movie as in the novel, and Gandalf delivered his lines quite authoritatively. Even a king descending into madness would be loathe to disobey that order. As far as I am concerned, there can never be another Gandalf aside from Ian McKellen. He was as fantastic as always, even if he does need massive recharge times and disappears at inconvenient moments.

Thorin’s Descent into Madness and Subsequent Redemption

Gold Fever
Why would I be familiar with Duck Tales?

Okay, on the one hand, I did feel that Thorin succumbing to dragon fever or gold fever was a tad corny. It isn’t without precedent. If it weren’t for Duck Tales Gold Fever, it might have felt more serious to me. But I didn’t feel like it was handled in a cartoonish way. I can think of several stories that have mentioned and discussed the curse that dragons often brought to their gold or that could develop when gold was accumulated in great masses (a combination of Druid beliefs and “the love of gold is the root of all evil” 1 Timothy 6:10). I think that it might have been easier if they had created a term entirely separate so that it didn’t have the baggage of the current phrasing.

Even with that caveat, it was heartbreaking to watch Thorin transform from the gruff and driven but noble leader he was in the beginning to a greedy and obsessive ruler who values gold above mortal lives. It’s actually a very difficult redemption arc to set up because greed is such a base flaw that people tend to despise more than others. Cowardice or rage or even lust are easier to redeem characters from. But greed? Hmm…it might be because greed strikes so close to the heart of our consumerist culture that it’s easy to see ourselves falling into the same trap and behaving just as reprehensibly. Thus we want to avoid or demonize representations as much as we can.

Richard Armitage’s acting as Thorin was stunning, in my opinion. In the scenes when Thorin was slipping into madness, he mimicked what we witnessed with Thror in the first movie, down to the placement of the hands, the lurching movements, and even the gleam in the eye. It was uncomfortable to watch, giving the sense that the character you had come to know and love was changing into someone else entirely. There’s a sense of loss that comes from that. Though the exchange that broke my heart the most was when Dwalin confronts Thorin and Thorin rejects the idea of being Thorin Oakenshield again, revealing the self loathing of what he thought his former self represented.

There was also an interesting parallel that may or may not have been intended between Thorin’s obsession over the gold and the obsession that Bilbo faces with the ring. Obsessions, in and of themselves, are rarely pretty things unless people deem them worthy. But the way that this film was structured, it almost made me wonder if perhaps part of the reason that Bilbo was able to put aside the ring came down to the fact that he had seen his friend battle a similar addiction and eventually overcome it.

Not Aragorn or a Reluctant King

Ultimately Thorin sheds his regal armor to return to a look more akin to what he was before as Thorin Oakenshield. It’s a nice symbolic gesture that also allows him to be a little more maneuverable on the battlefield.

I’ve seen some folks comparing Thorin to Aragorn and expressing their disappointment that Thorin was not more like Aragorn and how much better Aragorn was. But Aragorn is a distinct character from Thorin. The two have little in common once you get beyond the kings who have lost their birthrights and must reclaim them. I actually think that Thorin is a more complex character who regularly fails. Aragorn is a wanderer who returns to become a king, in some interpretations reluctant but generally successful, noble, calm, and wise. Thorin is not really reluctant. He is also vengeful and zealous and a bit short tempered.  Plus he tends to fail spectacularly before he gets back up on his feet again. In An Unexpected Journey, he attacks Azog and gets thrown around like a doggie chew toy. In Desolation of Smaug, he fails to negotiate with Thranduil (though it’s arguable if he even wanted to). He regularly missteps and has to recalculate his position based on the new information or because he’s about to be crushed. One or the other. But he always manages to find some epic way to come back and demonstrate that he is not to be taken lightly, which is shown in the final sequence of Thorin’s battle with Azog.

That leads me to one of my other realizations in this series. Neither Thorin nor the other dwarves are really that bright. They’re not stupid, but they seem to get caught up in the momentum and forget to be strategic. But I didn’t feel that that was a mistake. It seemed to be something that was played out over and over again. The dwarves tended to be more short sighted, focusing on the immediate rather than the long or even medium term.  It’s just part of their characters. They wall themselves up in Erebor overnight in a manner that would make a Tetris expert look foolish (they even include a staircase and a peephole!). Of course they have reinforcements coming in, and no mention is made how they will let them in.

The worst one though is when Thorin battles Azog. The final sequence takes place on a frozen lake. Thorin pulls one particular move that is quite epic and intelligent while giving Azog a look that says “yes, I did watch Looney Toons growing up.” But then…he makes a fatal error…I don’t want to give any more away, but it was all I could do to keep from screaming “get off the ice!” Even though I knew that they were going to kill him, and I knew Azog was going to be the one to do it. Argh! It was still painful, and I still desperately wanted someone to save him and all the others.

Really? Friends? After All That?

You took the time to build a staircase and a peephole, but you didn’t build a door? How are you going to bring your reinforcements in? Haul them up the wall with a rope?

The subject of Thorin and Bilbo’s friendship is an interesting one. A friend asked how it was possible that the two could be friends when Thorin was such a grouch from beginning to end. Aside from the fact that Thorin saved Bilbo’s life on multiple occasions (or at least attempted to), I still found the friendship believable. Perhaps it is because I have had Thorin and Bilbo friendships where I was the Bilbo. The other person may be gruff, demanding, and difficult to please, but I don’t know. I still loved that person for various reasons and would gladly stand up for him if needed. (If I have been the Thorin in such a friendship, I am not aware of it, but in fairness, it’s awfully hard to confront those people, and I am certain I would be no exception. My own mother has told me she’s afraid to confront me at times. Drat…I may need to take stock of my friendships now. ;))

The Love Triangle Comes to a Close

Now I will admit that I was somewhat on the fence about the inclusion of Tauriel initially. By including her in the story, they took time away from developing other characters. But I can see where Peter Jackson was coming from, and, in the end, it was not handled like the typical love triangle.

Tauriel is essentially caught in a love triangle between two men whom she can never be with. Thranduil has made it clear that he will never give his blessing to Tauriel and Legolas, and interestingly enough, neither Tauriel nor Legolas speak of their feelings to one another. We don’t even know for certain whether Legolas actually loves Tauriel or if he thinks of her as a friend or a sister. The only information we know for certain is from the second movie, Desolation of Smaug. Tauriel insists Legolas does not feel this way about her, and Thranduil suggests that Legolas does but confirms that he will not give his blessing. So whether Legolas sees her as a favored gal pal or the possible love of his life is never made clear by one of the most essential parties: Legolas. It isn’t said explicitly, but it also doesn’t seem likely that Thorin would approve of Kili’s relationship with Tauriel. Relations with the elves certainly aren’t at a high, and Tauriel, despite her banishment (which seems somewhat inconsequential in retrospect) would be a problematic alliance with the dwarf prince.

Love killed too soon can be just as crushing because it is the loss of all the potential and what all might have been.

The death scene of Kili is made all the more potent and tragic because for once Tauriel fails. She is so close to succeeding. Kili himself is so close to succeeding. After all of the exploits Tauriel has made throughout the series (including shooting a flying arrow out of the air), she fails when it comes to protecting someone she has started to love. The love triangle has something of a Romeo and Juliet feel to it, not in the obvious two groups that are supposed to be kept apart but in the love at first sight that has no chance to mature. I do not doubt that Tauriel and Kili loved each other in the way that many feel that burn of infatuation and compelling desire to be with one another. And yet the love was struck down and death claimed it before the love was ever allowed to develop.

Maybe you’ll see more of me in the extended edition. Maybe…

I think that there is some unnecessary hardness directed at Tauriel, describing her as a Mary Sue or a wish fulfillment character. But she’s prancing along next to Marty Stu himself (Legolas). In fact, most of the elves fall into this category in my opinion. They are practically flawless. Just watch them fight! They don’t just turn in battle; they spin. Thranduil having mud on his cheek in a lovely twist pattern is about as bad as any elf ever looks in this series. (Seriously, watch how Thranduil positions himself when he is flung from his elk. Russian ballerinas are more clumsy!) For that matter, Thranduil is one of the few flawed elves I can think of off the top of my head.  (I actually wound up preferring the dwarves to the elves in the books as well because I thought the elves were so darn perfect they were annoying.) And as pointed out here, Tauriel does fail. She fails at the most important moment of her life, and you know that it will surely haunt her and she will never get over it.

I was sad that Fili got passed over so much. He got pressed to the side, but I have heard that the extended edition will contain more about him. His death scene though is…heart wrenching and brutal. In one sense, I would say that his death is the nastiest and the saddest because there is no time to mourn over his body. He dies, and then it’s time to fight.

What a Woman! Dark Galadriel is a Sight to Behold

Galadriel and Gandalf
Tender or terrifying, Galadriel is a fantastic one to have on your side.

Gandalf apparently is helpless to do anything to escape after his imprisonment at the end of the second movie. And Galadriel arrives to rescue him, dressed as the demure elvish queen we have seen her as. Elegant in all white with a silver crown. Well…not only does she pick Gandalf up and carry him out like he’s nothing, but she also beats back Sauron with the aid of Elrond and Saruman. The film here offers a brief glimpse into why it would be so dangerous for Galadriel to take the One Ring herself. I wish that there had been more of her and her story, but, again, it was like her story just intersected with the rest of the plot and then she went on her own way.

Connection Back to the Beginning and Lord of the Rings

I did cry when Fili, Kili, and Thorin died. But I cried the most when Bilbo returned home and then the movie connected back to the story that started in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and seamlessly flowed into The Fellowship of the Ring. Following that up with Billy Boyd’s song , The Last Goodbye, was absolutely perfect when combined with pencil sketches of all the characters. (If you have not listened to the song, I recommend you give it a listen: It’s beautifully appropriate: melancholy, haunting, and lovely at once.

Here lies Balin…Someone pass me a tissue!

The other point that got me was at the end when the dwarves say farewell to Bilbo. Balin stands off a little bit from the rest, saying goodbye. And it struck me then that after a few years, Balin would go on to the Mines of Moria with some of the other dwarves and meet his own end. It gave the feeling that the story was continuing on. The Hobbit is only one small piece in a much larger story, and that is perhaps one of the things I love the most.

Could It Have Been Just as Good if It Had Strictly Followed the Book? Or Been Just One Movie

I actually have no problem with this series being three movies. If it had been a single movie, there would not have been sufficient time to connect to the characters. And even two movies would have pushed that. By the end of the third movie (even though I wished it could have been a little longer to finish fleshing certain things out), I was attached to the characters. Thorin’s death wasn’t just the death of a greedy dwarf king who didn’t know how to share. Fili and Kili weren’t just two faceless dwarves who died at his side. And the elf king actually has a name. There were reasons for a lot of the things that happened, and it reveals where Gandalf was during the times when he was so desperately needed. To me, it felt every bit as tragic as the story showed it should be.

Whether it could have been just as good as a strict interpretation of the book, I don’t know. Maybe. I saw the animated Hobbit a long time ago, and I did not like it. It left me unmoved and generally ticked off, even though it was quite faithful as I recall (it’s been a long time, so I may need to watch it again). I actually did feel as I watched this series. I was transported back to Middle Earth and fell in love with the story all over again.

Look! See! They’re alive. They just stopped back to surprise Bilbo and join him for tea.

So did I love it? Yes! Absolutely. Does it have its flaws? Yes. It does, but that doesn’t keep me from loving it. I will admit that as soon as I got home, I followed with a tradition that has been part of my life ever since I watched Davy Crockett and the Battle of the Alamo. I pulled up the first movie where everything was good, got to a point where I could see all of the dead characters, and then told myself everything was fine. Denial is bliss. 😉

But really this was a wonderful journey. I do recommend if you enjoy fantasy you should certainly check it out. I’m sorry to see the journey end, but I will gladly take it again and again.



Yup. Just back for a spot of tea and a good chat about how well they fooled old Azog into thinking they were dead so that they could….go on to do other dwarvish things….well, if they told us why they had to fake their deaths, they’d probably have to kill us.

Weight Loss, Loki, and Me

These past couple months have been some of the busiest of my life. I wouldn’t say that they exceed the months surrounding law school finals and the bar, but they have come close. My own weight loss battle has continued, and, while I have not gained weight, I have not been able to lose more than one pound. And after months and months (years actually) of hard work, that’s discouraging.

I won’t be giving up, of course. Even if I never succeed in losing the weight, if I can just hold off the weight gain, it will be worth it. Plus my health is gradually improving. The doctors have various theories as to why I cannot lose weight, but there’s really nothing conclusive. One has recommended that I return to the Atkins based diet.

So long as I stay in the house, I know that Loki is never far behind me.

I will now be joined by my own weight loss partner. My darling little Loki is no longer so little. After he was neutered in August, he started to become more lethargic. He didn’t gain weight right away. In fact, he was quite lean. Starting in late September, I noticed that he was beginning to gain weight. Since he was severely underweight when we first adopted him, I wasn’t concerned about his more aggressive behavior toward food. And within the span of about a month, he packed on eight pounds (though in fairness, he carries it well. You have to be looking at him at the right angle to really see it). But at this point, he is so large that he can no longer clean his hindquarters, which has led his dragging them across the carpet.

Here Loki is at a lean 10.8 pounds as of September 13, 2014.
Here Loki is a fair bit heavier at 18.8 pounds as of October 30. As you can see, he also made a mess of the office.

The vet agreed that the pounds must come off. He wants Loki to lose six pounds, averaging a pound a month. I’ll be taking him back in in May. So Loki needs to get down to twelve pounds, approximately 2/3 of his current body weight. I would like to get down to about 130 myself, which would mean I would be going down to approximately 2/3 of my current body weight. Obviously, healthy weight loss for me is not likely to occur as swiftly, but I’ll sure give it my best.

To make this work, I am feeding all of the cats at a set point rather than allowing grazing. Loki has to be put in a separate room because he tries to eat the other cats’ food. The problem is that Maelona and Sophie, my two older girl cats, are starting to lose weight as well. And given that they are already 6.5 and 6.8 pounds respectively, that’s not good. They don’t act like they’re hungry, and they don’t want treats. But they don’t eat as much when they aren’t allowed to graze. So I will need to look into some other options for them. Thor isn’t having a problem. He is so relaxed about all of this that it doesn’t seem to be an issue. He doesn’t come running when it’s time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner if there’s any possibility of his getting a few more minutes of snuggling.

Before, Loki used to chill on the treadmill and sometimes go for a walk with me. He’s at a healthy weight here. And soon we’ll be going on full walks.

Loki, however, is very angry with me. When he received his breakfast, he looked up at me and meowed. Not a nice little “may I have some more?” Nope. More like a “where’s the rest of it?” I stroked his head, gave him a kiss, picked up my cup of tea, and went to the desk where I started working on a new chapter for Tue-Rah Identity Revealed. Since Loki has to be kept separate from the others, I thought it would be nice if I kept him in the office with me while I worked. But after Loki finished his quarter cup of Blue Buffalo Indoor Cat Formula, he hopped  onto the desk, strolled over to me, and gave another disgruntled meow.

I, of course, said, “No, Loki. That’s all you get for breakfast.”

That’s when he slapped me. No claws fortunately. But those ears went back and he popped me on the jaw with his paw.

As you can see, Loki is not enormously fond of the harness. And it’s a tad snug. Looks like someone needs the XL kitty harness.

This is going to be a very long, long process. Tomorrow we start leash training.

Interview with Amber K. Bryant

Let’s put our hands together and welcome @Amberkbryant. As our first place winner of the Breathtaking Fantasy and Science Fiction Contest, Amber wowed the judges with a fantastic and yet sweet story of friendship, sacrifice, and love. She also agreed to participate in this interview, shedding some more light on her story, her skills, and her identity. If you’d like to check out her story, you can read it for free right here:  Every Day in May


What is your book called?

Every Day in May


Why did you choose that name?

I had the name picked out before I knew what the story was going to be about.  I wanted to post a story every day for a month, and so the name Every Day in May came to mind.  The story developed from the title, which is not how things normally proceed for me, but it worked in this case.


If you were to sum up your story in brief, how would you describe it?

EDIM is the Rapunzel tale turned on its head, wherein Rapunzel (Theo) is a male heir to a dictatorship, the tower is the imposing stone heart of that dictatorship, the evil witch is a ruthless leader, and the prince (Merryn) is a daughter of political prisoners.  The plot is driven by Merryn’s desire to save Theo from his prison by opening his mind to the wretched state of the land he is meant to rule over someday—if his father doesn’t decide to kill him first.


What do you see as the core themes in your story?

There’s definitely an underlying socio-political theme in EDIM. A famous quote from Aung San Suu Kyi states, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”  When you read EDIM, you’ll see that my main character, Merryn, believes these words fully.  She lives this in fact, because she sees the damage the Leader’s desire to stay in power has done to the psyche of the people.  At the same time, she also fears the motivations of those who are fighting to take him down.  Power is always suspect in my work.  But this is balanced with another theme: Self-determination.  Merryn wants to free herself from the power structure she’s been intricately connected to her whole life, and she wants to give Theo the knowledge to free himself too.  Each of them has quite a challenge ahead of them in order to achieve this freedom, and each must persevere or they will fail in their efforts.  As you can imagine the ramifications if they should fail are pretty extreme.


What inspired this story initially? A single event? Multiple events?

Wattpad itself initially inspired this story.  It was mid-April and I’d only been on the site for a few weeks when I got it in my head that I wanted to create a story that would be conducive to daily updates.  It was an experiment, really, to see if I could hold readers’ attention through an entire month.  I chose a letter format because each day’s update could be more or less self-contained and as long or short as I saw fit (I only had two weeks to write the entire thing and do an initial round of edits before I began posting on May 1st).


What is your favorite part of the story, if you can share without spoilers? (If you have to use spoilers, just write SPOILERS at the start of it.)

I have several favorite scenes, but I’ll share the one that I feel has the least potential for spoilers.  Still, if you haven’t read EDIM, proceed at your own risk.  This is a small scene.  It doesn’t contain a major reveal.  It isn’t a crucial part of the overall story arch.  It is a simple memory from Merryn’s childhood, the memory of the first and only time she’s tasted ice cream, and to me, it’s very poignant.  I can picture her, wide eyed, dressed in school attire, sitting at a table in a line with other pigtailed girls.  She’s so excited!  She knew this rare treat was coming.  And then she takes her first bite.  Can you remember your first bite of ice cream?  I was too young to remember. But not Merryn.  What if right now, you were getting your very first taste of something so incredibly rich?  What if you knew it would also be your last?


I’ll let Merryn explain the experience in her own words:

I scooped up the first spoonful of creamy deliciousness and let it settle on my tongue.  I had never tasted such flavors—sweet and salty together in one bite.  The pistachios, we were told, came from one of the Leader’s closest allies.  It was a rare thing for a citizen to get a taste of them—this was how special, how important we girls were to the Leader.

Our teacher always said we should savor the things we love best.  I tried to eat slowly, but even so, it wasn’t long before my bowl was scraped clean.  My eyes watered, realizing this was an experience that wouldn’t be repeated. 

I do as my teacher says—I savor the things I love best in this world; the taste of pistachio ice cream licked from a silver spoon; the sound of my mother’s voice calling me in to dinner; my father’s arms wrapped around me.  I remember best the moments that will never come again.


Which character is your favorite and why?

Definitely Jeffers.  When I first wrote him into the story, I thought he would serve a purpose (not necessarily a big one) and when that purpose was done, he’d fade into the background.  But he didn’t fade.  He became one of the story’s most important characters.  He totally earned his place.  The story would have ended much differently without him.  Plus, he’s a warrior archetype who has no clue there’s a comedic genius hidden under his gruff, tragic exterior—think Jayne Cobb from Firefly.  I just can’t help but love him.


What authors and works most inspired you in the creation of this story?

I love that we continue to re-imagine folktales and am especially drawn to those that take the fairytale in directions you would never imagine. One of my very favorites of these is the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer.  The third book in this sci-fi series, Cress, is also a retelling of Rapunzel, wherein the Rapunzel character is trapped in a satellite orbiting earth and the witch is a mind-controlling moon-dwelling mad woman.  It’s fabulous, and if you haven’t read this series, I can’t recommend it enough.  I hadn’t initially intended to retell Rapunzel, so I’m sure my subconscious was at work thinking about Cress when I began writing EDIM.


In my story, the witch appears as an evil dictator. The Leader, as he is called, is an amalgamation of many real life dictators, past and present, particularly the current leader of North Korea and his predecessors.  Last year I read a non-fiction account of life inside North Korean labor camps called Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden.  That’s what inspired EDIM’s Red Camps as well as the general tone of life in the Land.  This is a devastating but eye opening read.  If you think the actions of the Leader in EDIM are farfetched, think again.


Finally, there’s Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a dark, dystopian story where people are pressed into circumstances they would normally never find themselves in.  Theo’s mother, Francesca, is in some ways reminiscent of Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, as she is forced into a role someone else designed for her.


Do your characters ever surprised you? Or are you always in control? 

Am I always in control?  For several reasons, the answer is no. Firstly, to be in constant control over my characters, I’d have to have complete awareness of my own thoughts.  I’m just not there yet.  There’s a lot going on in that brain of mine that surprises me and therefore the characters I produce are pretty much just as flawed and unpredictable as I am.  Secondly, once a story is shared with anyone, those characters exist outside of myself and therefore outside of my sphere of influence.  They exist in the imaginations of readers.  And anything can happen to them there.


One of the greatest things about Wattpad is that it affords the opportunity to interact with readers and get a glimpse at how they imagine my characters to be.  I think as readers, we lay claim to the characters we identify with.  Several of my readers would like to date my male protagonists, for instance.  And, since as I’ve already stated I don’t have real control over them, I guess they are free to do so!


What are your plans for this book? Are you considering publication? Traditional or independent?

I’m not sure a traditional publisher would pick up this story since it’s already posted on Wattpad in its entirety.  Plus it’s not a full length novel, it’s a novella.  I wrote this story exclusively for Wattpad and I’m happy with it living on Wattpad.  That said, I might still pitch it to a few eBook publishers, and I have considered self-publishing it.  Maybe.  That might happen eventually.


What’s your favorite writing secret?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Octavia Butler’s words, “Forget inspiration…forget talent.  Persist.”


How I interpret this for myself: I am not a precious snowflake and neither is my writing…and that’s okay, as long as I keep writing!


I might think I’ve written the best line ever, but it’s not and I haven’t.  No line is too precious that it can’t be reworked or eliminated altogether. Even some good lines sometimes just don’t work in the context of a specific scene or story.  I am a lot less attached now to my initial sentiment about what I’ve written. I’ve also given up on the notion of being original.  We don’t write in a bubble, we build upon what’s already been created.  We make connections.  We can and should strive to be innovative, but originality is not important.  What is important is that we keep showing up—we keep writing, we learn to accept criticism, we write some more, we persevere.


What do you enjoy doing when you’re not on Wattpad?

My life revolves around books.  My husband is a bibliophile and I am a librarian as well as a writer, so our house is filled to the brim with them.  I have a young son, and I enjoy spending time with him.  While he is an active kid, if you ask him what he most likes to do with me, he’ll say reading, and I second that!  One of my favorite things about parenting has been to share so many awesome stories with him.  I also garden and I love experiencing life without Wi-Fi every now and then.  I live near several mountain ranges.  There’s nothing better than spending a summer day in the mountains hiking.


If there was one thing that you would like your readers to know about your story, what would it be?

I get asked a lot if there is going to be a sequel.  The answer is no.


It’s hard for me to say no to a sequel because I am probably more attached to this story than to any others I’ve written to date.  Last May was such an intense month—staying up late to edit before posting early in the morning, getting daily feedback on each update, the intensity building with each day as the story escalated and the stakes for its characters grew exponentially.  It was all so wonderful, and when June hit, I went through major EDIM withdrawal.


That said, I feel very strongly that a second story could not have the same emotional impact that this one had.  Plus, the truth of the matter is, the characters live outside of the narrative now.  They live wherever readers imagine them to be, and that’s where they belong.  I don’t want to take back the reigns.  I think Merryn and Theo and the others deserve better than that.  I’m happy with where I left them.


Any other exciting events you want to share with us?

I have a series on Wattpad called The Fold.  Book 1, Unseen, has been featuring since June.  When its six month stint ends in December, Book 2, Unheeded, will begin featuring, and I’m very excited for that.  I’ll begin posting Book 3 sometime around then, so that’s something to look forward to as well.  Until December, I’m working on contest entries, primarily, and, fingers crossed, will be finishing another manuscript to pitch to literary agents.


Thank you so much, Amber. It was our pleasure to have you here. To all of the readers, I can also tell you that The Fold is a splendid series that you should certainly check out as well. Really you can’t go wrong with any of these stories. Thank you again, Amber, and all the best to you.

Review: Every Day in May

The first place winner for Breathtaking was @Amberkbryant Every Day in May.  If you’d like to check out her story, you can read it for free right here:  Every Day in May.

This competition featured a number of strong writers with some fantastic stories. I know that I passed many a pleasant hour reading these adventures and tales of characters in settings of all stripes. The judges certainly had their work cut out for them, but I think it’s clear what sets this story apart from a stiff competition. For the review, I will try to avoid giving away any spoilers. On the analysis, which will be posted on my website, all bets are off.

Every Day in May is written as a series of letters from a young woman to a prince who is imprisoned in a tower. The country is in turmoil, and a revolution is in the works. Everyone has a role to play, but what is Merryn, our protagonist, doing? She is writing letters to the prince to give him vital information. You see, Prince Theo must make a choice. All his life, he has been sheltered, hidden beneath his tyrant father’s shadow. And, under normal circumstances, this poor young prince would probably be deemed a casualty of war. But Merryn risks her own life, slipping to his chambers each night to leave a letter.

The rules of this exchange are simple. She will answer one question, and, though Merryn sometimes cheats a little by helping to direct young Theo in the direction he needs to go, a relationship develops. The story is told entirely in the letters that Merryn writes back to Theo with only a couple exceptions.

Yet even so, a rich narrative develops with stories of Merryn’s past, Theo’s father, the reasons for the revolution, and a gradual revelation of the key players. It even has an element of fun to it as you the reader must guess what questions Theo is asking. Sometimes those questions are the ones that you yourself would ask. Other times, Theo’s personality and obstinacy is revealed as he asks questions that make you wonder what he’s thinking.

A clear personality emerges from Merryn. She is kind, mothering, and brave, despite her own fears. It’s unclear what all she is risking initially, but the twist at the end reveals just how much she has done and is doing to give the prince a chance. You can’t help but like her. Her articulation is quite clear, and sometimes she seems over mature for her age. Yet at the same time, given what she has endured and her education, it isn’t that surprising. I ultimately felt that it added to her character and gave us insight into what else she had endured.

Theo’s personality as well as his character is more shrouded. Merryn’s tone and the responses she gives offer the most clues about who he is. Yet that actually makes it feel more believable to me. I’ll get into this more in the analysis. But Theo himself works well as a more shrouded character. A clear perspective on him emerges from the narrative, but the fun is in playing with the person it’s coming from. Merryn is something of an optimist as well as an idealist. She wants to believe in him. She wants him to have this chance. So we are seeing this character through her eyes, though we are actually more in Theo’s perspective.

Not to give anything away, but not all goes according to plan. In fact, it gets quite tense. Amber makes the most of the medium, using it to build up suspense and play on the uncertainty. The epilogue ties everything up nicely, though you should note that there’s a timeline before the actual epilogue. So don’t skip over it just because you think it’s a bunch of dates.

The story is a fast read. You can probably finish it up in a couple of hours. And when you’re done, you’ll have a satisfied feeling that you read a good story with compelling characters and a sweet but sincere voice. Check it out, and enjoy. And if you’d like to know a little more about Amber, turn to the section and check out this interview!

Left Behind Review

Earlier this week, I caught part of a TV show called Cutthroat Kitchen, a cooking competition show. In one episode, the contestants had to prepare spaghetti and meatballs.  One contestant prepared this elaborate three tomato pasta sauce with aromatic spices and savory seasoning. She pureed it and then, when she went to pour it out, she knocked it off the counter. Everything spilled on the floor and into the trash can. Nothing could be salvaged. The clock was counting down. She didn’t have time to make another batch, but then she realized that she had the drippings left in the pan. So she grabbed some water and balsamic vinegar, poured it in the pan, and attempted to make a substitute. She passed it off to the judge as a sauce reduction, though there was hardly enough to even color the noodles. According to the judge, it barely had the hint of sauce, let alone actual sauce.

That is what Left Behind is. Any elements of Christianity, story telling, disaster, and so on are no more than hints. Promises that are never delivered and that actually leave you feeling nauseated.

Even here Nicholas Cage looks somewhat annoyed with this movie.
Even here Nicholas Cage looks somewhat annoyed with this movie.

I hardly even know where to begin on this movie. Left Behind is a reboot of the Left Behind series, and I guess the best way to analyze this is just to dig right in.

First, let’s start with biases. I am a Christian. I’m from the heartland. I am familiar with the Bible as well as various eschatological theories and perspectives. This movie was an enormous disappointment. I had not viewed any of the previews or trailers for this movie. But even so, I found the movie bland, disappointing, and mind numbing. I actually left the theater with a headache. This review may be a little scrambled as I am not entirely sure how to organize it, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

Premises You Must Accept if You’re Going to Enjoy This Movie

Um…I really don’t know where to start on this one. I struggled to find anything good and noteworthy in this movie. If you enjoyed this film and have a perspective to share, please do. As it stands, I think the people who will most enjoy this will be the ones who fill in the blanks with the knowledge that they have and are just excited to see a bigger budget of a story they enjoyed or those who love to watch bad movies.


So, characters are normally the best elements of a story for me. Mediocre stories can be saved by great characters or at least memorable characters. Critical flaws can be covered up with a character who is so real you are drawn in. Firefly, for instance, is one of my favorite series. Even if the stories hadn’t been well constructed, I would have still enjoyed the series because I loved Mal, River, Zoe, Shepherd, and all the rest. But in Left Behind, there is not one developed or memorable character.

“Oh, Mother, how I hate you! Even though millions of other people are Christians and it’s never established why someone who comes across so sweet and harmless could be despised so fully, I really hate your guts and never once wish that you were with me again when everyone else disappears. You are somehow worse than Hitler.”

The only things that we know about the characters are what we are told. No one is developed. Lea Thompson plays Irene Steele, one of the most clearly depicted Christian characters who has a name and something of a back story. (Though really, the back story is only in comparison to the other characters here.) She does the best with what she has, but we never hear her share her faith. Supposedly, she’s a new Christian who converted within the last year and is a bit of a wacko. Of course, in the one exchange where we hear her talking to her daughter, the only thing that she asks is that her daughter hear her out and that she wants her daughter to be ready. However, the discussion includes nothing about what the daughter should be ready for, why this matters so much to the mother, or even why she chose to convert. Most of the time, later in life conversions are related to some change within that individual’s life. Like a close brush with death or the loss of a close family member or something like that. So what happened? Also why was her daughter so hateful toward her about it? Neither the mother nor the daughter really seemed like unreasonable people, and so the animosity that the daughter had for her mother was quite strange.

Even though he’s not a main character, Martin Klebba is one of the more engaging characters who, though not the most likeable character in the world, still manages to act and engage.

The movie itself is divided primarily between Nicholas Cage as Rayford Steele, Chad Michael Murray as Buck Williams, and Cassi Thomson as Chloe Steele. All of the characters could easily be summed up as a stereotype. And none of them added anything. You could have substituted out just about any of them without losing anything. The most memorable individual in the film was Martin Klebba who played an agitated and manipulative character, Melvin Weir, who really didn’t get enough screen time.

Nicholas Cage when he read the script of this movie.

Please don’t expect any character development or growth to come out of this. There isn’t even a Nicholas Cage freak out in this movie, though there’s a couple points when it would have been perfect. The pacing of the movie is only appropriate for a deeper emotional drama that looks into the dynamics of a family that is struggling with these new changes, namely the mother’s conversion and the father’s decision to pursue an affair. But that’s not all that this film is supposed to be about. For being a suspenseful nail biter where the audience is kept wondering what’s happening, none of that suspense or tension build up really occurs. It’s like an annoying acquaintance trying to scare you. You see him creeping toward you with the mask on, you wave at him, but he still keeps acting as if he’s somehow going to take you by surprise. It’s really rather sad.

An Example of the Acting

It’s quite incredible how poor the acting is in this film. Most of the time, I prefer to give the actors the benefit of the doubt. In this case, I had only doubt about whether anyone cared about this film. One of the best examples I can think of is how the parents, particularly the mothers, reacted when their children were taken in the rapture. There’s some screaming and crying, but for the most part, they’re remarkably composed. You can clearly tell that they’re acting. In fact, there’s not a single wet eye. Not a single tear. No smeared make up. Relatively little screaming.

Brother Gone
“I’m devastated that my brother has vanished into thin air. Can’t you tell how much this tears me apart?”

Tell me…if you were holding your child in your arms and that child vanished, leaving behind nothing but her clothes, wouldn’t you be screaming and sobbing? I’ve seen mothers who have lost their children, and…you know what…they were hysterical. There was screaming, weeping, barely discernible words, shrieking, and more. The agony that those mothers endured, the terror, the fear of what had happened to their beloved children still tears at my heart when I remember them. Not one of the parents or caretakers of these children demonstrated anything close to that. And putting fake tears in someone’s eyes really isn’t that hard. The absence of tears and the relative blandness of the performances are painfully noticeable. The actors clearly don’t care, so why should the audience?

Can you believe they met less than an hour ago? Maybe the fact that he’s a celebrated investigative journalist makes this all flow more naturally…

Chloe should be in absolute agony over what all has happened. Yet throughout the entire film, she remains fairly composed, only showing the most marginal of emotional engagement. When her character is flirting with Chad Michael Murray, it’s probably some of the most engaging moments of the film. There’s a definite chemistry between the two. They’re both trying, and they have facial expressions, body language, and everything! Looking back on it, it’s one of the best points in the movie, even though the two connect way too fast with Chad Michael Murray kissing Cassi Thomson on the cheek before he leaves for his flight, even though they only just met. They act like they’ve been dating for awhile.

Plot Holes and Audience Engagement

images (2)
“Seriously…I could have been a developed or nuanced character, but all that really matters is that I’m the ‘other’ woman, complete with sexy stewardess attire and super sexy high heels. All that you should really take away from this is that I will definitely be left behind.”

Once again, it’s hard to know where to start on this. A number of things are entirely unexplained, and even with my knowledge of the Bible, the Left Behind series, and eschatology in general, I can’t figure out what they were going for. For instance, apparently everyone in charge of ground control with the exception of one operator as well as whoever is in charge of satellites and so forth were all Christians because suddenly there’s no one handling these operations. Characters who were never established as Christians apparently are Christians and are taken in the rapture, and even though supposedly some of these Christians are radically obnoxious individuals who are always trying to force it down people’s throats, no one except Nicholas Cage (and an hour and a half into the movie I might add) even starts to consider that this might be the rapture.

“Hm…well…I never…tsk, tsk, tsk.”

In fact, there really isn’t enough time to go over all the plot holes. Disaster movies with cars trying to outrun earthquakes and tornadoes time and time again are more believable than this. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the movie was actually the three old women sitting behind us. For those of you who are familiar with the Pepper Pots from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, these three old women were a real treat. They had come to watch the movie after church and were planning to go out to a tea shop or some other such place. But throughout the movie, they clicked their tongues, exclaimed in surprise, and provided fantastic commentary every so often. My favorite was the little old lady in the blue and lavender flower print dress and the little black hat. Halfway through the movie, she leaned over to her friend and whispered, “I fell asleep, dearie. Has the plot come yet?” I thoroughly enjoyed those three ladies, and since they didn’t do it through the whole movie, their antics helped make it more palatable.

“I have good reasons for being an atheist, and you’ll never hear a well developed perspective against me. In fact, my original point that God is not compassionate or caring seems to be proved simply by the fact that so many people have died today, families have been ripped apart, and the world seems to be in chaos.”

But back to the engagement with the movie, the story is entirely unbelievable. It struck me as odd that within seconds of the rapture occurring, the entire city shifts into chaos. I realize that looting thugs and chaos are necessary in any disaster movie, but once again let’s go back to all the Christians and children who disappeared. Even in a less than charitable look on religion, one could argue that the rapture, if it took Christians and all children (though who knows what age that cutoff is), would take about half of the world’s population. So that would mean that those thugs and villains would have family members who were all snatched up as well. But apparently the first thought on most of their minds is to grab televisions, gift bags, and clothing. In fact, in that sequence, you’ll see almost hilarious overacting as the extras play tug of war with plasma screen TVs and escape with prom dresses. Hey the end of the world might be coming, but at least they’ll watch it in style in front of the finest television screen.

I need to stop on the plot holes and inconsistencies because there really isn’t time. Suffice it to say, if you pay attention, you will see issues everywhere from the little details relating to consistency of time to the big details like “why was there a need for a slow motion explosion and running shot?”


This movie has been marketed as a Christian film. Now what Christian film means is entirely up for interpretation. In fact, I’d actually like to dig into that later in a separate piece. In general, a Christian film seems to be one that deals with Christian themes, though even that is debatable, and it may be as simple as a film which Christians developed. But in any substantive sense, this movie is not Christian. The fruit of this tree is bad, even for bad movie standards, and any association with Christianity and spirituality is little more than the faintest hint.

“What do you mean I’m the most emotionally engaged character in the entire film?”

At one point in the film, a random character who seems to be full of conspiracy theories suggests that perhaps the rapture (which incidentally is never named or if it is, I never caught it) was actually an alien abduction. For all the development of God we’re given, this might as well be the case. In fact, God is given about as much attention as any of the other conspiracy theories that in the know viewers will know is not the case at all.

Questions central to Christianity are asked by the atheists and agnostics. Good questions that should be asked. One of the best is how a compassionate God can allow suffering and tragedy. Early in the film, Chad Michael Murray, while chatting with Cassi Thomson, recounts the story of a woman who survived a tsunami with her infant though she lost her other three children. She immediately fell to the ground and praised God for saving her, but she refused to leave the village and was then killed that night in a mudslide. Chad Michael Murray uses this point to explain why he does not believe in a compassionate God. No one ever responds to him, unless you count the clearly crazy airport lady who simply says “it’s a fallen world that’s no longer perfect.” There’s no response to the obvious questions that even that statement raises. And don’t get me wrong the question of how a compassionate God who supposedly loves His creation can allow such things to happen is vital. What shocks me though is that there isn’t even an attempt to engage in this discussion. Not one!

At another point, a passenger on the plane suggests that they pray. Martin Klebba’s character at once jumps up and demands to know “whose God?” It’s a valid question that actually is more poignant now that I think back on it. What God is being represented in Left Behind? The easy assumption is that it’s the God of the Bible, since we do see the Bible and all. But God is never really portrayed, developed, or revealed in anyway. This God character could be practically any god.

“I bet you won’t guess that I’m actually emotionally distraught and terrified that my father and a man whom I apparently have great chemistry with as well as dozens of other people may be about to crash into a fiery inferno. I think I’ll just keep this expression and slight modification of it throughout the rest of the film. It’s worked so far!”

Even more shockingly, Jesus is not mentioned at all. At least not that I recall. John 3:16, (the reference alone, not the full verse) appears on a watch in what is supposed to be a dramatic moment. In fact, God is portrayed in such a way that is actually quite cold and distant. The aliens in Independence Day and War of the Worlds are more engaged than God is in this story. The taking of the children and infants in the rapture is not portrayed in such a way that suggests mercy. It feels like they’ve been stolen. Now, many Christians will defend this as the pastor mentions that they were taken to be saved from the coming hardships and persecution. But that is barely touched upon. And it’s not even clear why the children and infants are taken nor is it made clear that only the Christians are taken. If you don’t know anything about Christian eschatology, you’re going to be extremely confused by this film because nothing is explained.

And frankly, if you’re going to do a story about the end times using Christianity as your base, Jesus is one of the most vital components. The end times are all leading up to the end of the world when Jesus Christ returns! Other key components include the plagues, tribulations, the antichrist, and far more. But none of this shows up in the story.

Most of the time in disaster movies the first few minutes are spent building up what’s going on in the world. You know…establishing the setting. Take World War Z for example. In the opening sequences, a series of shots establishes that something strange is happening in nature. They use news reports and bulletins to establish a feel for the world and some context. Into the Storm uses the opening shots to show a strange tornado occurrence with later events depicting the increasing oddity of this particular storm cell. Left Behind starts off with a very strange woman who comes across as a creeper. She references a verse from the Bible saying that there are “wars and rumors of wars.” Here’s the problem…there hasn’t been a period in history where that hasn’t been the case, so what is it about this time that has her convinced that things have changed?

            This world is vague and empty, white and bland. Christian movies as a whole can be quite badly put together and badly acted, but at least I often feel that the people involved cared. Here, there was no investment in the process, no passion in the creation, and not even the faintest attempt at integrity. Much of the time, it feels like the movie wants to be deep and surprise the audience, but it never provides enough information for those who don’t know anything about the subject to even begin  to unravel what’s happening and it doesn’t provide a twist for those who are intimately familiar with the content. In fact, at the end, it fades to black and then reveals a Bible verse, Mark 13:32…of all verses…it’s not that the verse is the worst choice. I suppose they could have referenced Jeremiah 17:2 or Numbers 11:9. At least Mark 13:32 is connected to the end times. However, that verse only references what did happen, and provides no hook for continuing forward or wanting to see the next film. Revelations is filled with many more enticing and gripping verses that would have been more appropriate.

Anti Christian Bias from Reviewers and Critics

Before I went to see this film, I heard from a number of friends that critics were panning this movie because it was Christian. That they hated it simply because of the subject matter. In fact, I was even urged to go see it so that I could support it and tell the film makers to keep making movies like this because “the world needs more!” I actually didn’t go to see the reviews first because I wanted to see the movie with as much of an open mind as I could.

“Now I’m terrified! Can’t you tell? I look picture perfect, and it’s impossible to tell from my expression whether something good or bad has happened. There might be an alien invasion. It might be God. It might be a bad movie.”

Let me tell you this. Whether an anti Christian bias exists is irrelevant for this movie because the movie is so bad that even Christians will have a hard time defending it. From a quality standpoint, it is amateurish, clunky, and poorly developed. I have nothing against slower movies. I love a good atmospheric character study, but those types of movies let you know individuals. They don’t just present stereotypes. To say that the reaction is just an anti Christian bias is to be blind to the numerous issues with this film.

I know that a number of well meaning Christians have tried to support this movie and even give it positive reviews without having seen the movie. I beg you: do not review or support this movie until you go to see it. There’s an ethical issue there first of all that I can barely believe has to be addressed. But second, this is serious egg on the face for Christians. While the budget is bigger for this film and the overall quality in terms of resolution and camera steadiness is a step up, the movie as a whole is embarrassingly bad.

After seeing the review, I stopped by Rotten Tomato and a couple of other sites to see how people who liked it were reviewing it. Shockingly, most of the positive reviews were exceptionally general and sounded as if they had been bought from a PR firm. They said things like “greatest blockbuster of the year” or they went on and on about how clearly the rapture is presented and how this will serve as a warning. Listen, in all seriousness, the only warning that your non Christian friends are going to take away from this (absent a miracle from God) is that they should never agree to go see a Christian movie with you again, ever.

Make sure that you see this movie before you recommend it. Recommending any movie without seeing it and without being upfront about that is bad to begin with as well as irresponsible. But recommending this movie is particularly bad because of its quality and its message. Care for a real life example of how bad this is? One of my friends has been struggling with her faith. After she saw this movie, she said that she found the arguments presented by the atheists to be more persuasive, and she is questioning her faith. That’s the kind of movie this is.

Potential Discussion Questions and Possible Teaching Moments

            So if you decide that you still want to go and see this film and use it as a conversation starter here’s some possible ideas. The purpose of these questions is to get everyone thinking, regardless of where he or she stands in faith or outside of it.

1)      What is a Christian movie? What separates it from others? (And seriously, the lack of quality should not be one of the things that separates a Christian movie from all the others.)

2)      Why does a supposedly righteous and compassionate God allow pain and suffering to exist? Bonus points if you discuss why people today suffer even though they did not participate in the original sin (i.e. the eating of the fruit).

3)      Is suffering a good thing? How can it be discussed if it is without resorting to cheap platitudes or without becoming cynical and bitter if it isn’t?

4)      Should Christians support bad Christian movies just because they’re Christian?

5)      Does the presentation style affect the meaning of the message, and if so, how?

6)      What should be the foremost point in telling a good story in a Christian film? The story or the point? Why? And if the point, how do you avoid turning it into a legalistic sermon that annoys non Christians?

7)      How can you tell a Christian from a non Christian? Would it be apparent that you are or are not? Does it matter? Why or why not?

8)      Would the world really go insane and enter mass chaos if all the Christians vanished? Why? Other religious individuals and even atheists and agnostics are not all horrific people who have no moral compass. Most people do live their lives based around some central core of ideals.

9)      How would you respond to an atheist like Chloe? Chloe articulates some very strong positions among atheists and agnostics. Cheap trick answers wouldn’t satisfy a person like her. So how would you answer her questions and engage her in conversation?

10)  Could people who genuinely believed that they were saved be left behind?

11)  And if you’re really feeling brave, what does the Bible ACTUALLY have to say about the end times and the rapture? What comes from Scripture and what comes from church tradition? And is it problematic that the majority of the so called knowledge surrounding the rapture does not actually come from the Bible but from Jesuit priests a couple centuries ago?

12)  What are other perspectives on end times? A significant number of Christians do not actually accept that the rapture is biblical because of the history and the full context of the verses used to support it. What do you think? If you find yourself feeling particularly defensive and frightened by the concept that the rapture is not as biblically supported as you thought, why? Are you placing your trust in the rapture?

13)  Every generation of Christians has believed that they are the generation who will see Christ’s return. The Apostle Paul even had to tell Christians to go about living their lives! So are we really in the end times? Why do you think so? The most commonly cited verses used to justify this are general enough that they could be true of any point in history? So why now? What’s different?

Additionally there are two moments that might be considered teachable or effective moments. The first occurs when Chloe encounters her pastor in the church. He like all the non Christians was left behind, and he has to face the fact that he never really believed himself. Chloe confronts him on this and demands to know why she should believe when he himself never did. That little scene alone is a poignant question that many should ask themselves.

Jordin Sparks, at the very end, sings the song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The structure of that scene and the image of the survivors standing in front of the flaming plane could be considered a teaching moment. It certainly leaves something of an impression and is rather haunting. But it would need to be set up better than this movie set it up. Though in fairness, the thrill I felt might have been more related to the fact that the movie was over rather than that it was good.

Personally, I think even those moments are somewhat weak, but I’m trying to be charitable.

One Possible Explanation

“Surely you can feel the depth of my pain…”

This movie truly boggles my mind, both in how bad it is and how the people involved could actually think it would be any good. I discovered an article in the Blaze in which the film makers stated they saw this as being the first movie in a series of movies where this first one would set up the characters. This was just the introduction, folks. The really good stuff is yet to come….This entire movie was basically a preview…A one hour and fifty minute preview.

Here’s the problem: the characters weren’t interesting, and there’s no incentive to return to theaters to see what becomes of

"My agony and emotional turmoil is eating me up inside..."
“My agony and emotional turmoil is eating me up inside…”

them. No hints were given except for vague generalities about it being the beginning of the end. But what does that look like? What does that mean?  This movie should have first established the reason that the characters were in the end times, what that meant, and what was happening to support the belief that this was the end times. In fact, it should have also established the characters beyond the cardboard caricatures. We didn’t need all those scenes of Cassi Thomson walking, contemplating suicide, and staring vaguely into the distance.

Here’s the other problem: what kind of a Christian would put this story together and claim that it has anything redemptive? Why ask the hard questions and then never even attempt to answer them. This movie is more persuasive as a case for deism or an absent God. Left Behind misses the entire point of such a story. In fact, it misses the entire point of any story. Stoney Lake Entertainment is an offshoot of Cloud Ten Production, I believe, which was involved with the original Left Behind. And while the original Left Behind was nothing spectacular, it at least had some attempt at heart, explanation, and passion. In my opinion, this movie was made for one reason: making money.

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“We’ve always been honest about wanting to take your money.”

In fact, this is why I feel that the movie is so incredibly offensive. There’s a place for bad movies. Not every movie out there has to be Citizen Kane, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or the Ten Commandments. But the thing about most enjoyable bad movies and popcorn flicks is that they know that they’re bad movies. They don’t pretend that they want to say something profound. They don’t act as if they hold some deep secret. Oftentimes, their actors play over the top characters who are more fun to laugh at than relate to or they depict mass carnage in increasingly unbelievable circumstances. Transformers 4, in my opinion, was nothing short of a cash grab and was actually a fairly poor movie, but it didn’t pretend that it was going to be anything deep. It delivered what it promised. So bad they’re good movies are generally upfront about what they’re offering. Left Behind promised something spectacular. A bigger budget and more revolutionary version of the original Left Behind movie that would leave the audience in suspense as the tableau of the end times unfolded. But what it was was a lazy account of a possibly adulterous man who is also a bad father trying to land a plane in difficult circumstances.

So if you’re considering taking your youth group to this film or

"Did you people seriously make Into the Storm seem like an Oscar worthy drama?"
“Did you people seriously make Into the Storm seem like an Oscar worthy drama?”

a group of friends or hope to take your non Christian friends to it to start a good conversation, I recommend skipping it unless you know what you’re getting into. You can make good conversations come up from this, but you’re probably going to have to spend just as much time explaining why Christians make such crappy movies and why God doesn’t care.


Seriously, Into the Storm had more hell like images and developed characters than Left Behind!
Seriously, Into the Storm had more hell like images and developed characters than Left Behind!

Of course, if the people in reality were as dull and simple as the ones in this movie, it’s little wonder that God wouldn’t care. I know I didn’t.


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