Here are some of the things you can say about movies to sound like you know what you’re talking about:
Refer to films in the context of their director’s oeuvre. It’s not my favorite Baumbach, but I like it well enough.
Say you love any foreign director with a name that is – to most American ears – very foreign-sounding. I love the works of Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Observe that a film reminds you of another, older film. You can see here where they’re taking this straight from Battle of Algiers.
Lament a particularly performance did not merit an Oscar nomination or win, even if you don’t know who was nominated or who won. It’s absolutely criminal that Emily Blunt didn’t get nominated for Sicario.
Recommend a double-billing. A very interesting double-billing would be Nomadland and Minari.
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari have long been on the radar, but have just in the last two weeks become widely available (Nomadland is available on Hulu and Minari is available VOD). They are two of the best films to be released in this fluid 2020-21 season, and they very well could combine to take four of the big six Oscars, so there is already reason enough to juxtapose them. But it turns out that thematically, narratively, and stylistically the two films are natural conversation partners.
They are stories of America that are inextricable from their physical settings. For Nomadland, that setting spans the southwest to the Dakotas as Fern follows the opportunities for work in her van/house. She exists on the borders of the wild and the sparsely populated municipalities, flitting back and forth between natural beauty and synthetic grime, at all times, no matter where she goes, a free spirit having to find a way to make herself valuable in a system even bigger than the land she traverses. Minari is situated in the middle of fly-over country, too, but is confined to the small home and the fifty acres the Yi family calls their own. They are isolated in a strange land that, for Jacob, represents the boundless opportunities associated with putting down roots. His American Dream is to find a patch of dirt where he can succeed; Fern’s is to keep moving without being tied down.
They are their own American portraits – one of an aging white woman in the 2010s, the other of a Korean-American family in the 80s – but both are about the opportunities and the perils of lower-class American life. An economic recession upended Fern’s life, and now she has to go from Amazon warehouses to construction sites to tourist traps just to be able to keep moving. She and her fellow nomads do not fit neatly in the constructs of American capitalism. If they are smart, committed, and a little lucky, they can make their own way. But if anything goes wrong, they find themselves up against it in a hurry. The Yi’s immigrate from Korea to California in the hopes of finding a better life, and then again from California to Arkansas to do more than just barely making it sexing chickens. If everything goes as planned, Jacob and Monica’s hard work could build something great. But there are no safety nets. If anything goes wrong, they are instantly in peril of losing what they hope to secure for their family.
Between the two films, their shared themes are examined through the story of a single woman, grieving the loss of her husband and estranged from the rest of her family, and of a family, trying to manage a fraying marriage, a sickly son, a growing daughter, and a newly-arrived grandmother. Fern finds family in the the people she meets along the way, while the Yi’s must learn to live with the few people they are around all the time.
They make a nice pair visually and sonically, and both move at a nice pace while not being driven by conventional plots. They are both sincere and heartfelt, hopeful if not entirely optimistic, realistic and grounded as they are aspirational and spiritual.
So watch these films, and – if you can – without too much time between. There are worse ways to spend an evening or a weekend.
The stock preamble here would be 2020 bad, movies in trouble, streaming changing game, the movies still good. It seems equally silly to write it as it is to ignore it. Really getting Hamlet’d here. What I will say is that 2020 in film was kind to people like me who can’t afford to see everything in the theater and have grown up accustomed to watching “everything” at home. I miss seeing things a couple months late at the charming budget theater, and when this is over I’m going to do that a lot more, but experiencing the year in film at home was something I was perfectly comfortable with. And there was plenty to enjoy. Selecting a top ten was not easy, and not for lack of options.
I’m calling this “top” because it’s not quite “best” and not quite “favorite.” I sometimes have a difficult time parsing those, especially without rewatching films. I’m also cheating a little, and counting films that may be 2019 films, depending on who you ask, but debuted in the U.S. in 2020. I think that’s fair, especially considering that films like Nomadland, Minari, and Soul will probably be considered among the top films from this year, but I (like most people) won’t be able to get to them until 2021.
If there’s a through theme – there isn’t really, and I didn’t select according to one – it’s something like human connection in a difficult world. Most of these films center around the human struggle to find shelter from the (sometimes literal) storms with the people they care about, and reckoning with life when that connection is broken. And if that’s not 2020, I mean…
Below are my top ten films of the year, followed by a list of my favorite performances of the year, and then a consideration of what is “the film of 2020.”
Top 10 Films of the Year
10. The Assistant – I promise I won’t do too much narrating of how I decided on this list, but I will on this selection because while the top 9 was easy there were a handful of films that were all close to being number 10. I’m going with The Assistant because it does the most with the least, and that’s something I greatly admire in films. The Assistant is the definitive #MeToo film, following one day in the life of Jane, an office assistant for a production company. After the style of Jaws, the shark – the Weinsteinesque executive – remains off screen, the threat building as Jane comes to suspect what insidious things might be happening in his office and in fancy hotels. But, unlike Jaws, we never see the shark, perhaps because, again like Jaws, it might look fake and unthreatening. After all, if he really was so scary, the HR office would take Jane seriously. The other producers wouldn’t make jokes about what happens on the couch. The complicity couldn’t continue. After all, this shark makes careers in a competitive industry. The Assistant is a devastating look into how wicked men can have their way, a compassionate glimpse into the exhausting life of an office cog, and a star-making turn for Julia Garner.
9. Time – This documentary takes the cruelty of the U.S. carceral system and focuses in on its effect on one family, using a mixture of family archival footage and vérité filmmaking to weave together 20 years of family history. Sibil Richardson’s husband, Rob, is serving a 60-year sentence for armed robbery, leaving her to raise their family and continue to fight for his release. The disordered chronology releases the audience from time’s oppressive forward march, but only just. It always comes back to time. Time given, time spent, time lost. Boys grow into young men without their father, a woman moves into middle age apart from her husband, a man waits for another chance. As the minutes on a call from prison and the days of a sentence both tick away, we are left with the constant hope for more time, and the fear that we might waste what time we have. Time is beautiful and heartrending and delivers humanity to the viewer in searing reality.
8. The Vast of Night – I wasn’t expecting to find (let alone enjoy) a 1950s period piece about UFOs, but I’m not complaining. The Vast of Night is a slick, pacey, rat-a-tat feature that instantly drops the viewer into small town New Mexico, drawing us along via nifty oners and Gilmore Girls style repartee. Even as it transitions into long sequences of phone calls on the switchboard and the radio, the film remains propulsive as it develops its central mystery. We remain just one step ahead of the two main characters, for, as they of course remain skeptical of mysterious sights and sounds in the sky, we suspect there might just be something to it – after all, this is the movies. This is a masterclass in low budget original filmmaking.
7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always – Breaking Bad was addictive television in part because it continued to put its characters into seemingly impossible situations and left us to white-knuckle it through their escape. Never Rarely Sometimes Always does something similar, only there are no hitmen, no cops, no suspicious wives – just a culture and system that can make a medical procedure a harrowing ordeal. Autumn’s situation becomes more complex and difficult with each development; sometimes we learn things at the same time as she does, such as her being 18 weeks pregnant rather than 10; sometimes we learn things late as she reveals them, such as the nature of her abusive sexual relationship. This is an affecting film and just about essential viewing for our time. I know that pro-life viewers will be on guard from the beginning, but I still urge them to watch it and challenge themselves to see the situation so many women find themselves in. This is not the time on this blog for this discussion, but to understand where I’m coming from when encountering a film like this, on an individual level I’m pro-life (meaning I think it is the wrong thing for a woman to do in almost every case and we should put more resources into supporting pregnant women and mothers to make abortion not seem like the best option) but on a system level I’m pro-choice (meaning I think it should be legal, accessible, and safe, and women should be free to make that choice for themselves without shame). Which is to say, I don’t think Autumn does the right thing, and the termination of that pregnancy is sad to me, but I also hurt for Autumn and what she goes through and I’m angered by a system that makes it so.
6.Weathering with You – Makoto Shinkai bash me in the feels with an adamantium cricket bat you sentimental genius. This animated feature operates in much the same way as Shinkai’s previous Your Name (the highest-grossing anime film of all time) – give us two star-crossed teens, steadily falling in love under strange circumstances, sprinkle in some magical/mystical/spiritual elements, let RADWIMPS put together a banging soundtrack, and, you know, bring it all to life in some of the most gorgeous animation you’ve ever seen. It’s a winning formula. But despite it’s exuberant, teen romance bent, Weathering with You also contains complex themes and characters (it should also contain a trigger warning for people who have just lost a friendly tuxedo cat). The questions of love in Weathering with You are not all bound up in the hormonal fury of teen sex drive, but rather they evoke deeper questions of connection and companionship in this scary, unpredictable world. If it rained every day, would it matter if you were with the right person? (FWIW I lived where it rained every day and I loved it but I digress).
5. Vitalina Varela – The most recent film from Portuguese visionary Pedro Costa is the story of a woman from Cape Verde who travels to an immigrant community in Lisbon only to arrive just days after her husband has died. The film watches as she processes the loss of a man she hadn’t seen in two decades. Was I thrilled watching Vitalina Varela? No. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, or laughing, or crying. About half the time I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. But Costa’s style – darkness, heavy shadows, sharp contrasts, whispered, often ambiguous dialogue and monologue – is so compelling. On the surface level, it means this is one of those films that you could take any given still from and frame it and put it on your wall. But thematically, the aesthetic drives at the underlying themes of the work. It’s a subtle meditation that makes us more aware of the crumbling ruins all around us. Costa has vaulted over Andre Gomes (Everton’s very frustrating but very handsome midfielder) into second on my Portuguese rankings, trailing only Doña Amelia, my high school Spanish teacher.
4. Mank – This is where film’s place in the popular imagination confuses and perplexes me. I understand why most people haven’t heard of – let alone seen – a film like Vitalina Varela. It’s a slow, arty, plotless foreign language film from Portugal that isn’t on any streaming service. Mank is not that. It’s a new film from one of the most acclaimed auteurs of his generation. It came straight to Netflix. It’s got snappy dialogue and brilliant performances. It’s a well-told tale of the creation of arguably the greatest film ever made. And yet, I’m quite certain that both my parents are totally unaware of its existence. It’s lit up the discourse in film world, but I just don’t get the sense it’s made it into the popular conversation. Why? Mank is the type of film that anyone and everyone who likes movies should see. That’s not to say everyone has to like it, but if movies really matter, a movie like this should demand a popular audience. It’s ironic that a film that is so much about controlling narratives is itself unable to control a conversation outside of film Twitter. I can guarantee it’s going to be one of those films that gets a ton of Oscar nominations, and then during the telecast there will be plenty of viewers who keep saying “WTF what was this black and white old-timey looking movie and is that Gary Oldman oh I like him but this is weird,” when in fact they might be surprised to find it to be an accessible, enjoyable film.
3.Mangrove – Everything about Mangrove is fresh. We’ve seen films about racism, unfair justice systems, immigrants, protests, and controversial restaurants before (heck, I could be talking about Do the Right Thing). But nothing in Mangrove feels like a retread. The impromptu steel drum dancing and the annual island life celebration are incandescent with communal joy. The police abuse is shocking in its cruelty. The protests boil with righteous rage and collective endeavor. And the trial feels like the only courtroom drama I’d ever need to see, just a few weeks after watching The Trial of the Chicago 7 and rewatching My Cousin Vinny like two and a half times on AMC. Mangrove is absorbing from start to finish, a stunning work of direction from Steve McQueen featuring astonishing performances.
2. First Cow – Though simple, First Cow is still one of those “on the other hand” films. It’s about friendship, but it’s also about unjust economics. It’s slow and unhurried, but has a few hold-your-breath tense scenes. The plot is uncomplicated, but what happens depends upon difficult choices the characters must make. There is a lot to recommend about First Cow, like the chemistry between John Magaro and Orion Lee, the soothing score, the relevant themes, and the fact that Kelly Reichardt is an absolute master of shooting outdoors. I mean, damn nature is beautiful. I’ve been trying to tell you guys about Oregon. First Cow also has a perfect ending that will either make you shout or go mute for about five minutes. I’m glad people are making movies like this.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – The order of this list is somewhat fluid, but this is the clear number one. It is a supreme exhibition in so many regards; romance; critique of patriarchal constraints; a picture of lesbian desire; absorbing period drama; delicate French cuisine. Its exploration of lust, love, and companionship, of art, beauty, and vision, of class, the female gaze, and gender, is as nuanced as it is poignant. It’s beautifully shot and impeccably-acted, featuring two of the best performances of the year. The last things I wrote about First Cow apply in much the same way here; the ending is stunning, an affecting and provocative finale expressive of the deepest human emotions. And I’m glad people are making movies like this.
Top Performances of the Year
I love all aspects of film, but I think the two I find myself most drawn to, most affected by, and thinking about most are writing and acting. Great performances move me, and I appreciate them for both their individual craft and their impact on the larger work.
In no particular order, grouped by film…
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant(Portrait of a Lady on Fire) – Two electric performances. This film is largely about the female gaze, and the way Haenel and Merlant quite literally gaze at each other is the sort of acting that stirs your heart, your head, and your loins. This is as watchable as two people can be on screen. The now-famous final shot of Haenel is the kind of thing that stays with you.
Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, and Malachi Kirby(Mangrove) – After Black Panther, it was obvious Wright had the makings of a star, and after Mangrove it’s clear that if she isn’t an A-List actress in the next ten years something will have gone terribly wrong. It’s potentially problematic to compare her to Lupita Nyong’o, but I don’t understand why Nyong’o – one of the best, most beautiful, most charismatic actresses – hasn’t become a bigger star. I don’t want to have to ask the same questions about Wright, who demonstrates Shuri’s same exuberance and kindness, but also levels of ferocity, tenacity, and zeal. Kirby introduced himself to a larger audience playing Kunta Kinte in the History Channel remake of Roots, and he reintroduces himself in a big way here, demanding attention in every scene with elegance and fervor. But the real star is Parkes, who expresses such a range of emotions in this film; joy in the carefree celebrations of West Indian culture; the depth of hurt and loss as his persecution continues; rage – blind rage – as that persecution becomes too much to bear.
Amanda Seyfried(Mank) – There are a number of great performances in Mank, but Seyfried’s stands out. It’s the type of expressive performance that would seem melodramatic or cartoonish in the wrong hands, but Seyfried remains believable through all of it, conveying the tension between the childlike innocence of a young woman who has it all and the shrewd guile of a woman who knows just where it is she stands.
Vitalina Varela(Vitalina Varela) – Not a typo; Varela is playing herself in what is essentially her own life story. There’s a great degree of difficulty in what she’s doing, given sparse, whispered lines, and having to carry long shots of her sitting, staring, and doing mundane tasks. In some roles, painful emotions make themselves known in roiling, volatile facial expression, but Varela conveys her loss, her hurt, and her anxieties through a stony exterior forged through long years of experience.
Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) – A debut performance, and what a convincing, winning performance it is. Flanigan exhibits Autumn’s fear, pain, exhaustion, and loneliness through the awkwardness and vulnerability of the teenage years. The “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” scene with the social worker (Kelly Chapman, who is spot-on) belongs right there with the best-acted scenes of the year, but the less-showy moments of anxiety make it a nuanced, complete performance.
Julia Garner(The Assistant) – Some of my favorite performances are the ones that tell a lot while the character is doing mostly mundane tasks. Jane’s day consists of ordinary office tasks, and most of her conversations are brief and unremarkable. But from her early morning prep of the office, still trying to wake up, to her stress-induced afternoon cigarette, to her exhausted after-work phone call, it’s clear the entire time what kind of person she is and how this situation is wearing her down. This performance also features some of the best almost-but-not-quite-crying I’ve ever seen.
Caleb Landry Jones (The Outpost) – Jones is really going for it here, and he delivers a riveting performance. It was tough to leave The Outpost off my Top 10, as I admire the film, and Jones’ character and performance are two of the highlights. Ty Carter is a slight variation on the military epic protagonist – we’re not sure if we can trust him in a foxhole, not because he’s cowardly or incompetent but because he’s a hothead. No one seems to like him, but it’s because he doesn’t seem to like anybody else. And we’re not quite sure we like him, either. But that isn’t the point – The Outpost doesn’t bother trying to make us particularly “like” the men fighting for their lives at COP Keating. Instead, it puts these regular frat bros into an impossible situation that they never should have been made to face, and it shows us what they did in response. What Carter does, and how the experience affects him, is harrowing – as is Jones’ portrayal.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong(The Trial of the Chicago 7) – I don’t totally understand my thoughts about this film – I certainly recommend it, but I can’t say whether it’s great or if it’s particularly useful as a reminder of the anti-progressive establishment in this country. It does certainly showcase a number of memorable performances, my favorites being Cohen and Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Cohen’s Hoffman is charismatic and defiant, sparring with enemies and allies alike with a disarming smile and a quick wit, while Strong plays the even-more-stoned sidekick, a loyal, kind man who’s in it for more than just good vibes. Honorable mention to Michael Keaton, who comes in for two scorching scenes like a middle reliever throwing 99.
Sônia Braga(Bacurau) – Braga plays a minor role in the genre-bending thriller from Brazil, but the little woman commands a presence as the doctor in a remote Brazilian village. She is equal parts scathing and caring. Her “I’m too old for this shit” energy as she explains to the village why they shouldn’t take the hallucinatory pills given to them by their local politician is perfect. So too is her tense encounter with a cold-blooded killer before the climactic sequence; to this point, Michael has been the most intimidating, threatening presence, but as he threatens Domingas, there’s no question who the real force is.
Juliette Binoche and Manon Clavel(The Truth) – The Truth is in the lower tier of Kore-eda’s filmography, but as usual his casting and directing of actors is superb. Some of the most fascinating parts of Binoche’s performance are her back-and-forths with her mother, played by Catherine Deneuve (who, it should be noted, is also quite good (duh)). Deneuve’s character has the upper hand most of the time, but not because she’s acting Binoche off the screen – Binoche settles right into the role of a daughter who can’t quite dismiss the fact that her mother is, indeed, her mother. As for relative newcomer Clavel, one of my main takeaways from this film was “Oh, okay, so she’s going to be a star.” What an absolutely charming, charismatic performer, right at home in scenes with two icons of French cinema. I’m buying all the Manon Clavel stock I can.
Kiera Allen (Run.) – I spent the entire second half of this film with my hands folded over the back of my neck in anxious fear of what was going to happen next, thanks in no small part to Allen’s work in what is her film debut. She expresses a nuanced range of types of fear and uncertainty as she discovers what her mother has been hiding from her. The physical performance as someone paralyzed from the waist down is also impressive. It stands to reason a wheelchair-using actress would be convincing as a wheelchair-using character, but then again there are perfectly mobile actors who haven’t figured out how to walk across the screen effectively. An excellent first performance in what I hope is a meaningful career.
So, what was the Film of the Year?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is both the best film of 2020 and my favorite film of 2020, but ever since I read this piece from Thrillist last year, I’ve enjoyed thinking about “the film of the year” as a film that is both excellent but also evinces the cultural moment.
I think the film of 2020 is Mank. Selecting a very white film about old Hollywood directed by a white male feels regressive, and spotlighting a movie about making a movie might sound insular, but Mank exemplifies American film and culture in 2020. We are in a time where control of narratives has had an outsized impact on our lives and consciousness. Political leaders have spawned and facilitated misinformation about a global pandemic and about a national election, and that has poisoned the minds of millions of people into believing things that run counter to science, democracy, and basic human kindness. Mank depicts the impact of media on politics using the 1934 California gubernatorial election and the fight for the storytelling credit of one of the most important films of all-time, all in the shadow of history’s most powerful newspaper mogul who took a turn towards demagoguery. Mank is, in part, the story of rapacious men ready to use their power to control rather than uplift others.
Mank is also, as a film about film, something that could only be made with hindsight. The still new medium of film has existed long enough to allow for a film made to look like an old film that is an homage to and examination of one of the most unassailable films of all time. It is also a straight-to-Netflix Oscar contender, something that could not have existed even five years ago, and something that is extra appropriate in a year where streaming continues to change the way we watch movies as we do the majority of our movie-watching at home.
And, while interspersed with flashbacks, the “present” timeline in Mank depicts Herman Mankiewicz writing the script for Citizen Kane while convalescing (read: quarantining) with two assistants.
If Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series is a little (or a lot) like Game of Thrones, we’re going to be okay.
A professional culture blogger would be writing about yesterdays’ Star Wars news. But I’m not a professional, so let’s talk about Lord of the Rings news from, uh, earlier.
In a since-deleted tweet, TheOneRing.net, one of the internet’s OG fan communities, interpreted the departure of Bryan Cogman (key creator on Game of Thrones) from Amazon Studios as an indication that “our worst fears” had been realized – that Cogman’s work was done, and the forthcoming Lord of the Rings project will, indeed, be Game of Thrones in Middle-Earth.
This comes not long after TheOneRing.net led the lament in reaction to the news that there would be “nudity” in the forthcoming series – again, a sure indication that we were going to get more G.R.R. than J.R.R. in Amazon’s adaptation of the legendarium.
This hand-wringing, and, if we’re being uncharitable, pearl-clutching (is that a sexist expression btw?), is misguided, and it reveals both an interesting wrinkle in the Tolkien fan community, a misunderstanding of the nature of adaptation, and a lack of appreciation for what it means to be “the next Game of Thrones.”
Almost all the details about the LOTR show have been met with positive reactions. It sounds like Amazon has hired the right people and approached Tolkien’s work with the right spirit. I’ve been pleased and intrigued, and I’m happy to see that the Tolkien fan community largely feels the same way. However, based on my highly-scientific anecdotal observations, the anxieties about the project being violent and sexy are coming not from Tolkien oldheads and book loyalists, but from fans of Peter Jackson’s films. There are millions of people who love the Jackson films more than the written works of Tolkien, and they are fiercely protective of the object of their fandom, which is why it is one of the most unassailable pieces of popular culture from this century. So, while book-readers are ready to pounce on little details about genealogies, etymologies, and cosmologies, fans of the films – the fans who make TheOneRing.net an internet icon – see the Amazon series as the legacy of Jackson – not Tolkien. Any offense given will be against the films – not the books.
This is another clear indication of how Lord of the Rings fandom is nuanced and complicated – as is the case for any massive fan community (Marvel, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Thrones, etc.). The relative lack of concern makes sense, because they (and I use “they” instead of “we” because, even though I’m primarily a book fan, because of my age I was a film fan first) have been here before. They’ve been through this with the Jackson films, and no matter how they felt about those films their love of Tolkien’s legendarium has lasted. Sure, it helps that those films were an excellent adaptation that did not sully the legendarium’s reputation, and actually helped to bring millions more people to the books, but they are also flawed, with some absolutely galling omissions and changes. The point stands – fans of the books have seen their beloved material adapted and come through on the other side.
But I don’t understand why the fans of the films are so fearful. For one, they have gone through this before with Jackson’s Hobbit films, which were…well, not even close to the quality of the first trilogy. But, again, through my highly-scientific anecdotal observation, it seems film fans have been happy to include the Hobbit films under their umbrella, even if they’re a clear second-best. So what are they worried about? The Amazon show couldn’t possibly be worse than the Hobbit films, could they? (For the record, I don’t mind the first one. The second is bad. The third is bad and I love it). If the Amazon series is offensive, it will probably be offensive in ways that are different from the Hobbit transgressions, but even so, it can’t on balance be enough to cause a cataclysmic event in the fandom à la the Star Wars sequel trilogy, right?
The film fan fears also ask questions of the nature of adaptation, because it suggests these fans see the Amazon as a successor to Jackson’s work. But…why? Peter Jackson isn’t directing. There are different writers, producers, and actors. John Howe and Tom Shippey (the gawd) are two of the only confirmed holdovers. There will be very, very few characters from the first two trilogies. This is an adaptation of Tolkien’s legendarium, not a sequel to the Jackson films. It’s even more separated from the Jackson films than the sequel Star Wars films are from George Lucas’ trilogies. But fans of the films appear to be treating it like a successor Jackson, and will likely judge it as such.
I’m not really mad about fans who care more about protecting the work of Jackson than the word of the Professor – in part because I appreciate the differences between the fandoms. But I am just a little annoyed by the insistence on making Game of Thrones the bogeyman, because it shows a startling lack of respect for the greatness of Thrones, as well as a misunderstanding of that particular adaptation as well as the Tolkien legendarium.
For starters, of all the people who worked on Game of Thrones, Bryan Cogman should be one of the last to be worried about. He wrote 11 of the 73 episodes, most notably A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which was, amidst the dumpster fire that was Season 8, the one beacon of light, a stunning, absorbing love letter to the series’ characters. He understood the story and its characters, and he pulled together the hot mess Dave and Dan gave him into a beautiful episode of television. I trust that Cogman will have brought something valuable to Amazon in helping the showrunners build out characters we are only just barely acquainted with.
Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire in a way he believed would be unadaptable, and yet, the first five seasons of the series are remarkably faithful to the books. There is a ton left out, and much is changed, but the changes and omissions largely make sense (and, in some cases, are an improvement!), while preserving the spirit of the source material. Cogman was part of a team that understood how to adapt immense works of fantasy. And while the seams started to show when the series moved beyond the completed books, some of that storytelling was masterful, including the aforementioned Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which is especially applicable to the LOTR show as this is going to be a largely heretofore untold story.
And as for the violence and sex, it must be said again: A Song of Ice and Fire is much more violent and sexual than the television series. Thrones could have been less violent and depicted less sex and nudity, but it wasn’t like the showrunners introduced something that wasn’t there. Being the next Game of Thrones does not necessitate excessive sex and violence. However…guys…Tolkien’s legendarium is really violent. While not lingering on the details in the way Martin and other authors do, Tolkien’s Arda is a violent world. Just go read about what happens to Celebrimbor (who definitely might be in the show!), Gelmir, and Finduilas. Oh, and sex? Yeah, there’s that too. Again, Tolkien doesn’t use graphic descriptions of sex acts, but it’s a part of the stories, as is nudity. So, like it or not, the inclusion of a lot of violence and at least a little sex is not some gross departure from the source content – especially when it’s a visual adaptation. Worth noting on nudity though – the nudity that is rumored to be included doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual. People are naked sometimes.
And, finally, the fears of Thrones‘ influence are bemusing because, well, the first six seasons of Game of Thrones are as good as anything that has ever been on television, and in many of the ways that one would hope the Amazon series will be excellent. Intricate storytelling, compelling themes, fascinating characters, enchanting magic and lore, thrilling action sequences, scary villains, palace intrigue, rousing speeches, immersive set design, beautiful musical scores…do I need to go on? These are all things that one would want – need – in an epic fantasy series like the one Amazon is producing. If the Second Age of Middle-Earth is depicted by Amazon as well as Westeros was by HBO, it will be a stunning work of television. If the LOTR series is a successor to Game of Thrones, then we’re going to get an all-time great work of fantasy entertainment, only there will be elves and all the other stuff we absolutely love about Tolkien.
So, relax, everybody. I want this series to be good, and I want it to be a faithful adaptation. I really, really do. Even in the worst case scenario, we still have three life-changing films and some world-changing literature. Best case scenario, we get to watch the downfall of Númenor in all of its cinematic glory and we can get #MakeArpharazônGreatAgain trending on Twitter.
Yah know I’m not sure we can write enough words about heroes. It’s an inexhaustible subject of conversation. If I was speed dating and I was like “hey who are your favorite heroes” and they were like “you mean like my mom?” and I was like “aw that’s actually really cool but no like a fictional hero” and they were like “oh then Batman” and I would be like “well not just superheroes like other fictional heroes” and they were like “….” then I would take off my sticker nametag (which I usually forget to take off) and leave. But that wouldn’t happen, because heroes are interesting and there is so much to say about so many of them. It’s a conversation that is as easy to start as it is to get immersed in complexities and nuance, and it’s one that is not only fun but also potentially instructive and revelatory. What we say about heroes matters, and heroic matters say something about us.
One way to approach discussing heroes is to look for a hero who, in some way, diverges from many of the common archetypes and tropes, and then to juxtapose that hero to another hero who does much the same thing. Our discussions often work off of seminal frameworks, such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which lays out the prototypical hero’s journey. It’s a useful framework, even if it allows some people to oversimplify the conversation. For instance, once during a break in a graduate lit class, someone said that Avatar: The Last Airbender was “just a hero’s journey” and I Halperted a nonexistent camera with the force of a thousand suns. Heroes are often created and critiqued in conversation with previous heroes. Whereas antiheroes were once new and subversive, they’ve now saturated creative spaces. Luke Skywalker was molded in the form of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and Rey (Skywalker?) was constructed in response to unimaginative Disney executives Luke. Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven is a commentary on the stoic gunslinger archetype he made famous decades earlier. We can also just notice that two heroes have some things in common and talk about how interesting it is that two characters from two very different works have some important things in common. All of these comparisons are fun and useful.
Something common to quite a few heroes is a near-death experience from which they recover or an actual death experience from which they’re resurrected. The low-hanging comparative fruit is Jesus of Nazareth, and these heroes are often dubbed Christ figures to varying degrees of usefulness (I wrote an entire Master’s Thesis about this, if you’re curious). Oftentimes, these heroes triumphantly return from the dead and kick ass, like T’Challa and Neo. And why not? It tracks that someone returning from the dead would be flying high and ready to take down the ones who tried to finish them off. The hero has embarked on a journey or quest, overcome great obstacles, leveled up, and is ready to dole out the rewards earned by their accomplishments.
(I’m writing some of this on the day of Chadwick Boseman’s death. So as I’m mentioning T’Challa, I just want to say that I’m feeling this one. He played heroes so well, and became a hero in his own right. We lost a great one).
But some heroes emerge from their experience broken. They may go on to further heroic acts, but something in them has changed. They do not return better than ever, or with a greater zeal than ever with their new lease on life, but rather with a devastating wound. Their experience was a traumatic one, and they exhibit something akin to PTSD. They go on trying to help others and do what is right, but while carrying the weight of their experience.
Two of the most notable recent examples of this type of hero are Korra and Jon Snow. So, yeah, I’m writing about The Legend of Korra and Game of Thrones again, which is on brand.
Korra and Jon approach their roles in the world with a similar enthusiasm, despite being of different temperaments. Korra is friendly, bold, and full of confidence, ready to take on the next challenge of going to Republic City and learning airbending. Even in her awkward teen moments, she has immense charisma. Jon is not unfriendly, but he is quiet, sullen, and reserved. He is unsure of his place in the world, but he is certain that if he joins the Night’s Watch it will be an opportunity for him to prove himself and bring honor to him and to House Starke. He is confident he has the abilities to be a great warrior. Korra and Jon both exhibit an amount of arrogance in their early days, as Korra swaggers into a gang shakedown and theatrically apprehends the gangsters, while Jon embarrasses all challengers in sword training. But both find that they were naive, as the situation in Republic City escalates and the Night’s Watch proves to be a shadow of its former self and the scrap heap of Westeros. In response to their frustrations, both prove to be hotheaded and impatient.
Without getting too far afield into audience response, both characters in their early seasons elicited a certain amount of skepticism because of their surly dispositions. Jon was the emo guy in the snow for the fist two seasons, and Korra comes out of the gates in season two mad at everyone all the time. However, both would work themselves into fan favorites as they grew into their roles as heroes.
As Korra becomes a fully-realized Avatar and Jon ascends to the rank of Lord Commander, they go about their heroic duties without the gratitude of the people. Early in season three, Korra mentions that she has an eight percent approval rating (this is just weeks after, you know, saving the entire world), and she is treated like a nuisance by President Raiko and the Earth Queen. As Jon wins the love and support of many in the Watch, some of his superiors scheme his demise, and, of course, no one in Westeros gives a fuck what anyone in the Watch is doing, even if they are the shield that guards the realms of men. But they go on anyway, as Korra helps Tenzin rebuild the Air Nomad civilization, and Jon wins heroic victories at Kraster’s Keep and at the Battle of Castle Black.
The famous words of Jesus come to bear on these stories as Korra and Jon show themselves willing to lay down their life for their friends. Zaheer gives an ultimatum: Korra must turn herself over to him, or he will annihilate all the Airbenders. Even before her allies devise a plan to possibly rescue her during the exchange, she is willing to go on her own and turn herself over, not knowing exactly what Zaheer plans, but sure that it will be some form of destruction. Jon, knowing that Castle Black cannot withstand more attacks from the Free Folk, goes beyond the wall unarmed, determined to assassinate Mance Rayder, certain that the attempt will cost him his life.
However, both evade death for the time being. The Avatar State allows Korra to fight off Zaheer’s poison and engage him in high-flying one-on-one combat. The arrival of Stannis Baratheon saves Jon at the critical moment, allowing him to return to Castle Black and be elected Lord Commander. But after Zaheer is defeated, the poison takes Korra to the brink, saved only when Su is able to bend the metallic poison out of her. Jon takes command of the Watch and leads the heroic effort at Hardome (this is where we’re very much in show-Jon vs. book-Jon territory so keep that in mind if you’re a book person too), but for doing so he is murdered by some of his own men. But some are not so ready to let Jon go, and Melisandre is able to resurrect him.
So what happens now? Korra has defeated yet another frightening enemy and has survived the poison – she should be all the stronger and more confident and ready to stabilize the Earth Kingdom. Jon is back from the dead – time for him to punish the conspirators and become a legendary commander, right? But that’s not what happens.
Korra is broken from her traumatic experience. She is confined to a wheelchair, and the light is gone from her eyes. The final scene of season three is jaw-dropping, as Tenzin anoints his daughter Jenora as an Airbending master and pays tribute to Korra, who he credits as having saved their culture by being willing to lay down her life. And in this moment of great celebration, the final shot is of Korra as a tear flows down her face.
This is not the Korra we’re used to. And we don’t get the spunky, smiling Korra back anytime soon. The first few episodes of season four see her struggling to heal, and even after she regains the ability to walk, she is haunted by her trauma and is unable to beat even petty thieves in a fight. She is caught between fear of returning to her role as Avatar and fear of letting the world down by being out of the game for years. She survived the encounter with Zahir in one of the greatest displays of her Avatar powers, but the experience left her as a broken Avatar.
Jon returns from the dead in a fashion somewhat short of glorious and triumphant. In one of the series’ best scenes, Jon is overwhelmed by his return.
He seems almost appalled by the unnaturalness of it. And then he remembers what happened. “I shouldn’t be here,” he says. “I did what I thought was right. And I got murdered for it.” In short, he isn’t happy to be back. He isn’t ready to go out and fail again, as Davos encourages him to do. When he does resume command of the Watch, he does so only long enough to bring justice the conspirators. Then he abruptly quits the Watch. Only the arrival of Sansa brings him into the political entanglements of House Starke.
So Jon’s back in the game, ready to lead an army to take Winterfell back from the treacherous Boltons, but he isn’t happy about it, and he isn’t growing any more comfortable with his new extended lease on life. Before the Battle of the Bastards, he tells Melisandre not to bring him back if he dies. At the battle itself, he charges the entire Bolton army, completely dispensing with any regard for his own safety. But Jon survives and he is named King in the North, so surely that must encourage him, right? He’s now a living legend, he should smile a little, shouldn’t he?
No; Jon has been forever changed by his experience. He has lost part of himself. He has not come back with a new gleam in his eye.
It’s a sad, sad moment when Daenerys says “We all enjoy what we’re good at,” and Jon replies, “I don’t.”
And, of course, Jon continues to try his best to put himself in danger (some have suggested that Jon is actually trying to die). Post-resurrection, Jon should become the knight-in-shining armor par excellence, the Chosen One who has overcome death itself and is ready to save the world. Instead, he’s a reluctant leader who just wants people to stop fighting long enough to defeat the true enemy. Even when he finds out that Melisandre considers him the Prince Who Was Promised, and even after he finds out that he is the legitimate son of Lyanna Starke and Rhaegar Targaryen and therefore heir to the Iron Throne, he says “I don’t want it” with meme-generating emphasis.
This isn’t what we expect from heroes. Seasons of television, let alone “children’s” television, don’t end with the hero broken and hopeless even after beating another Big Bad. Handsome, heroic warriors don’t come back from the dead more depressed than ever with no interest in growing their legend or hooking up with the beautiful Dragon Queen (well, okay, he gets interested in one of those eventually). But this is what we get: a broken Avatar and an emo King.
But therein lies the other part to this comparison which makes these broken heroes so admirable and memorable. Yes, they are the Avatar and the King, two Chosen Ones if ever there was one (two?), but that is not what enables them to continue to heroically face challenges even after their traumatic experiences. In season two of Korra, when Korra is at her lowest point having lost her connection to her Avatar Spirit, Tenzin tells her that Korra is not defined by Raava’s spirit. “Before [Avatar Wan] fused with Raava, he was just a regular person.” “But he was brave, and smart, and always wanted to defend the helpless,” replies Korra. “That’s right,” says Tenzin. “He became a legend because of who he was, not what he was.” Korra is able to find the light in the dark and defeat UnaVaatu because she connects with her own inner strength. She saves the Air Nomads because of her selflessness. She recovers from the poison because of her desire to defend others. She faces off with Kuvira not once but twice because of her indomitable will. And she gains the love and admiration of all around her because she is Korra, not because she is the Avatar. Jon may be the Prince Who Was Promised, but that isn’t why he takes the lead in bringing attention to the threat of the Night King. He finds out he is not Jon Snow but Aegon Targaryen, but that doesn’t change his priorities. He’s selfless, brave, and resilient, and never stops trying to do what is right.
Korra and Jon go on from their traumatic experiences because of who they are, not what they are. If they were defined by being the Avatar and the King, then maybe there’s a version of these stories where they return from the brink with newfound fire, stronger than ever and ready to ascend to their places of glory. But instead, each story grapples with the humanity of these individuals, and depicts the emotional toll those experiences would take. Their statuses don’t shield them from pain and suffering, and they don’t pull them from the depths of despair, either. Instead, the very humanity that is so fragile and becomes so broken is the thing which leads them out of the darkness and enables them to once again carry the hero’s burden. They don’t do it with the same enthusiasm they had when they left for Republic City or the Night’s Watch, but they do so with the knowledge of how great a burden it is that they bear. In two of the most notable heroes of the last decade, this is an aspect that should not be overlooked.
There are other heroes who fit somewhat into this mold – Harry Potter comes to mind – and I believe we will see more of them. As we reckon with the realities of mental health, and as our notions of heroes continue to evolve and become more complex and nuanced, heroes who can be broken and stay broken but go on being heroes anyway just make sense.