Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How I Missed "The Hobbit": A Cautionary Tale for Children

It was the summer before starting fourth grade that I first read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. At 255 pages, it was the biggest book I'd read by that time. This was also the summer that a strange new game was starting to get attention in my circle of friends, having trickled down from older siblings and some of the bigger kids at school: Dungeons & Dragons. So even though the book was, by this time, over 40 years old, it still seemed very much new and relevant to what was going on in my fantasy-rich world.

While I loved the book, I was probably just as captivated by the cool maps on the inside covers as the story itself. I couldn't count how many times I copied those maps by hand, or made Xerox copies of them for use as props or gaming material.

I also memorized the Dwarvish rune lettering that is used on the maps and sleeve art, learning them well enough to write camouflaged cheat sheets for school spelling tests (a foolproof technique that I exploited for years.)

In addition to trying to invent my own games built around the maps and elements of the book, I also had this 1978 Milton Bradley board game, The Hobbit Game (which, if you look closely, is actually inspired by Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings film.) With its many 3-D scenery pieces, the gameboard practically doubles as a diorama.

But my first encounter with the The Hobbit was actually a good year or so earlier, via the 1977 Rankin Bass animated adaptation, when it aired on TV in prime-time, in two parts, spread across two nights.

Part One ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, right in the middle of Bilbo's scary encounter with the giant spiders. There was a lot of excited discussion about the film at school the next day, and a I couldn't wait to see the second part that evening.

But for reasons both tragic and comical, I didn't end up getting to see the conclusion that second night.

You see, my parents, while not generally strict, did cling to certain old-fashioned principles of proper behavior, among them that you did not watch TV during dinner, AND you ate everything on your plate before being excused. The night Part Two of The Hobbit aired, pork chops were served, a food that, as I child, I just couldn't bear (note: I have no problem with them today... just one of those quirky childhood things).

So after stalling as long as I could over my plate (all the while hearing the program's audio from the TV in the next room) I finally tried to force down the (by then cold) pork chop, only to reflexively throw it up all over the table. My Dad, not amused, sent me to bed as punishment, and so I never got to see Part Two of The Hobbit.

No videotaping or reruns back then, kiddies. I would have to wait several months before finally experiencing the conclusion of the Rankin Bass adaptation, after randomly receiving the storybook record album as a birthday gift from an aunt. Listening to the highly abridged audio while flipping through 12 pages of film stills was a weak substitute, but it was all I had.

I know. Tragedy.

The incident, with its elements of strict parental discipline and harsh punishment, has all the makings of one of those Struwwelpeter-esque cautionary tales for children.

Hmmm.... I'm beginning to like the sound of that!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Do You Know What I'm Going to Do Next Saturday? (1963, Helen Palmer)

From 1963, here's an I-Can-Read-It-All-By-Myself Beginner Book, Do You Know What I'm Going To Do Next Saturday?, by Helen Palmer (wife of Dr. Seuss himself, Theodor Giesel. She also authored the popular A Fish Out of Water.)

Unlike A Fish Out of Water (and most books that bore the famous Cat-In-The-Hat imprint), the text of ...Next Saturday is embellished not with illustrations but with black and white photographs.

On the surface, ...Next Saturday is an imaginative boy's fantasy of all the exciting things he wants to do and see when the weekend finally arrives, unencumbered by the dull limitations of reality.

But some people see in ...Next Saturday another message entirely, a window into the psyche of a lonely and disturbed little boy, whose boastful plans mask his true intention of taking his own life.

Yes, some see in ...Next Saturday a child broadcasting his plan to commit suicide.

...Next Saturday opens with the boy (unnamed in the book, but I'll refer to him by the model's name, Rawli Davis) warning a playmate (who is much too young to be in Rawli's peer group...a red flag for any child psychologist) that he plans to do something "big" this Saturday. Is this a last, awkward attempt to reach out for help?

He'll start by eating a lifetime's worth of breakfasts in one sitting.

This is followed by visions of grandeur. On Saturday, the world will finally know he's special and important.

Rawli will then indulge in the kinds of pleasures his limited experience of the world affords... unlimited rounds of bowling and water skiing.

At this point things start to take a turn for the weird. Rawli next fantasizes about forcing his "friend" Sam on some kind of endurance march into the wilderness from which only Rawli will return (Sam being, no doubt, a close friend who failed Rawli in some way at his most desperate hour, and must now pay).

I'll make him take a walk.
I'll make Sam walk
about a hundred miles.
After a walk like that,
I'll have to eat a little something.
Sam won't keep going,
but I want to keep going.
Feelings of persecution and low self-esteem surface, with Rawli claiming the adults will try to foil his plans, then toss him in a trash can... ...dirty garbage boy!

They will try to stop me.
They may catch me.
They may take me away
in a big tin can.
They may dump me over a wall.
But I'll pop up again.
No, those authoritarian figures who fail to recognize Rawli's humanity won't stop him from executing his final act.

It's not hard to see why the book stirred controversy when it was first published and was ultimately banned.

Or was it? The only reference to the alleged suicidal subtext of ...Next Saturday and its subsequent banning is this page on Snopes.com that thoroughly debunks it as an urban legend fueled by a single Web page.

So is there really something strange going on under the surface of ...Next Saturday? Other than cultural shifts in what activities are considered appropriate for young children, and modern sensitivities towards certain figures of speech, the answer is NO.

The gun-handling, you see, is occurring on the shooting range of a U.S. Marines training depot that Rawli is visiting, supervised by uniformed adult soldiers.

And the phrase "I'll blow my head off" refers to the child blowing a tuba to the point of exasperation.

But I must admit, once the idea has been planted in your head that this innocent book is some kind of children's suicide manifesto, it is a little creepy...

In Memorium
Rawli Davis
(not really)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sea Monsters (A Walking With Dinosaurs Trilogy, 2003)

Billed as "A Walking With Dinosaurs Trilogy", Sea Monsters (2003, BBC) is actually a 3-episode spin-off of the Chased By Dinosaurs series, itself a spin-off of the original six-part Walking With Dinosaurs program which first aired in 1999.

The most notable difference between the Chased By... series and its Walking With... predecessor is the addition of a live narrator and guide, zoologist Nigel Marven.

In Sea Monsters, Nigel, along with his equipment and crew, time-travels to various eras of prehistory to take the audience on a you-are-there tour of the world's most dangerous seas.

Some purists feel these Chased By... episodes caused the series to jump the megalodon by trying to inject cheap Crocodile-Hunter style action and theme-park thrills, rather than maintaining the scholarly objectivity of Walking With Dinosaurs' invisible narrator. But you know what? I like me some theme-park thrills. And Crocodile Hunter was... well, it was just fine. Did I mention I like theme-park thrills?

To me, Sea Monsters combines the instant gratification of fast-paced reality programming with the wonder and thrill of a dinosaur-themed amusement park ride (realized through practical models and CGI imagery...the reduced color palette of the underwater world helps conceal the trickery), all the while sprinkling in just enough actual science to pass as educational viewing. Let's dive in, shall we?


Upon arriving in the Ordovician period (450 million years ago), Nigel must take breaths from an oxygen tank to compensate for the high CO2 content of the atmosphere.


He displays a lobster-like sea scorpion that he goosed up from shallow waters.

Here he's rigging a giant trilobite carcass he recovered from shore with a hidden camera for some underwater photography.

The trilobite-cam captures what looks like a giant squid.

A subsequent dive reveals a giant Orthocone.

Nigel is threatened by a group of sea scorpions...

...one of which the orthocone devours.

Moving on to the Triassic Period (230 million years ago), we encounter a lizard-like Northosaurus. Here Nigel really gets hands on, gripping the beast from behind for a short ride.

Nigel examines some captured underwater footage with the crew. Here they're looking at a cymbospondylus. Moments like these help sell the whole experience as an actual nature documentary and not merely an exercise in special effects.

A chilling encounter with the massive cymbospondylus. Nigel has an electrified prod in hand in case it gets too close for comfort.

Moving on to the Devonian Period (360 million years ago), Nigel has caught a placoderm, an armor-plated fish that he'll later use as bait.

Nigel is protected by a spheric shark cage for a close-up look at a Dunkleosteus.


Nigel displays a modern photograph of a basilosaurus skull. We'll be traveling to the Eocene Period (36 million years ago) to find a living one.

Recordings of the basilosaurus mating call, broadcast from an underwater speaker, lure this specimen to the surface.

Nigel will now pursue megalodon in the Pliocene era (4 million years ago). Here he stands for scale inside an actual megalodon's jaws (a set from the modern great white can be glimpsed behind him for comparison).

First they visit the gentle odobenocetops leptodon, which they suspect is megalodon's favorite meal.

The crew assembles an artificial version of the walrus-like prey and troll for sharks.

Nigel on shark patrol spots a massive black fin.

A thrilling close-up encounter in the shark cage follows.

Nigel is trying to spear the behemoth with a remote camera.

He gives up on the shark cage and tries attaching the camera at the surface.


For the final episode, we first travel to the Jurassic period (155 million years ago) to swim with a school of leedsichthys, which, at 75-80 feet in length, are the largest fish to ever live.

From the safety of the ship, Nigel and crew watch a sickly leedischthys take a few nips from liopleurodon, a reptilian predator.

Nigel returns to the site for a night dive, wearing a specially equipped "smell suit" that can release a noxious burst of chemical repellent if things get too hairy.

This night dive is pretty intense, with several liopleurodons emerging from the inky depths to tear away at the rocking carcass.

Moving on to the Cretaceous period (75 million years ago), Nigel uses a periscope camera to view xiphactinus, a 20-foot long predator. According to Nigel, "If the devil kept fish, this would be one of them."

Later while below deck, the crew are awakened by a massive thud against the hull. Seems they've rammed into an archelon, or giant sea turtle. Or should I say... half a giant sea turtle. The poor thing has been bitten in two. Evidence, Nigel says, that the giant mosasaur must be near.

A pteranodon flies past the bow.

Meanwhile a remote-controlled submarine camera captures a school of elasmosaurus.

While considered dangerous, the ROV camera also detects a living archelon, and Nigel risks entering the water for a chance to ride its back.

But this magical moment is disrupted by the sudden arrival of a family of mosasaurs, who upturn their inflatable raft.

Chased By Dinosaurs (which includes all three episodes of Sea Monsters) is available on DVD here.