Although both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have worked tirelessly to establish themselves in the indie and arthouse scene post-Twilight, and both have garnered widespread critical recognition for their work there, mainstream audiences haven’t been so kind to either actor. Pattinson, ironically, had to take a major superhero franchise role before people were finally willing to accept that he’s matured as an actor. And while Stewart certainly isn’t struggling to find work, she deserves – and is consistently denied – the same generosity that people showed to Pattinson when he was cast as Batman.
But if any non-franchise role can be considered equivalent to Batman, it would be Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. Decades after her death, she is still just as widely-adored by the public as she was in her lifetime, and any piece of media that deals with her story inevitably becomes the subject of online chatter, heated debate, and intense scrutiny. So when Spencer was announced, and Kristen Stewart was cast in the titular role, that should have been Stewart’s Batman moment. And…it wasn’t. A lot of people dismissed her out of hand because they only know her from Twilight.
Today, a very brief teaser trailer for Spencer was released. It could arguably have done more to showcase Stewart herself, and the work she’s clearly putting into capturing all the facets of Princess Diana, but it got people talking. And for once, they actually had something nice to say about Kristen Stewart. That could just be the Princess Diana love talking, but it seems to me that general audiences – or at least social media – has caught wind of what many Hollywood insiders have recently started reporting: that with Spencer, Kristen Stewart is well on her way towards her very first Academy Award. And just like that, all her haters are suddenly real quiet.
I mean, Spencer looks like classic awards season fare. The dreamy cinematography and faded color palette give it the look of an old family photo-album; a perfect aesthetic to capture for a film that deals with the breakdown of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage in the early 1990’s, and their eventual separation. It comes from Pablo Lerraín, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated biopic Jackie about Jacqueline Kennedy. I think at the very least, Stewart will be nominated – just as Natalie Portman was for Jackie. But if the Academy feels that she’s waited long enough for the recognition she deserves, this could be the perfect moment for her.
Honestly, Stewart’s waited too long at this point. Although she garnered some buzz for Seberg in 2019, it’s been several years since her last serious awards season campaign with Clouds Of Sils Maria, which did earn her a number of awards nominations (the majority from regional critics associations) and several wins – including the first César Award ever presented to an American actress. Spencer is a strong comeback, especially following a few attempts at more mainstream action movies that, while unsuccessful at the box-office, did get Stewart back into the spotlight – right where she needs to be, heading into awards season. She played the long game, and it might pay off in Oscar gold.
Now obviously, we’ll need to see her performance in Spencer before we jump to conclusions – and it’s frustrating that this first teaser is more about setting the mood than it is about highlighting Stewart’s portrayal of Diana. For example, although attendees at CinemaCon who saw a longer trailer are adamant that Stewart’s Princess Diana accent is spot-on, it’s impossible for me to say the same when this teaser only has her speak two words. But I’m a big Kristen Stewart fan, so I’m willing to believe her accent is impeccable and her acting is incredible.
If The Lord Of The Rings was once considered unfilmable, then the same is doubly true of Frank Herbert’s Dune – a sprawling novel which is (arguably) to sci-fi literature what The Lord Of The Rings is to fantasy. Dune is a searing deconstruction of the hero’s journey, a complex, multi-layered, and not entirely successful non-comedic satire of the white savior narrative and its weaponization by imperialist forces and Christian missionaries, and besides all that it’s also an extremely dense and literary book, which is probably most popular outside of its actual readership because of the imagery of giant alien sand-worms, which the 1984 adaptation helped to make iconic to a larger audience.
But Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune for Warner Brothers (and HBO Max) seeks to make the classic story mainstream – and if that goal is at all attainable, then the newest full-length trailer for the film, released today, ought to do the trick. It’s clearly trying to divide its focus between satisfying fans of the original novel and luring in general audiences who just want a fun sci-fi movie. Unfortunately for Warner Brothers, the words “fun” and “Dune” are hardly synonymous, which is why I think this trailer very carefully highlights all the VFX-heavy shots of spaceship battles and cool fight sequences, without providing much context about what fills the gap between those scenes. The answer? Lots of weighty conversations about theology, geo-economic warfare, and intergalactic geopolitical strategy.
Oh yeah, and the aforementioned giant alien sand-worms, known in-universe as the Shai-Hulud; but those go hand-in-hand with the subject of geo-economic warfare (and environmental degradation hastened by human interference) for…reasons. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say the Shai-Hulud are important to the plot and themes of Dune, but they’re also not in the book anywhere near as frequently as the cover art would likely lead you to believe. And to be honest, I don’t know if they’re gonna be in the movie that much, either. We see the same one from the first trailer, rising above Paul Atreides in the desert at night, and one or two in a battle from near of the end of the movie, but that’s it.
(And not to sound too down on this movie, but the design of the Shai-Hulud isn’t really doing anything for me. Maybe I’ve just seen too much incredible and creative artwork of the sand-worms at this point for Villeneuve’s baleen whale/lamprey hybrid approach to seem fresh to me, but I don’t know…I expected something a little more majestic).
Honestly, if anything’s going to get general audiences into theaters to see Dune, it’s the film’s ensemble cast. Almost everyone here has their own legion of adoring fans, with stars Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya being exceptionally strong in that regard: it’s unsurprising that Zendaya’s character, the warrior Chani who falls in love with Chalamet’s Paul, appears to be the second-most important character in the movie – a deviation from the book, where that honor arguably goes to Paul’s mother, the Bene Gesserit sorceress Lady Jessica. But Rebecca Ferguson need not fear that her character will be entirely sidelined: a Dune spinoff series focusing on the Bene Gesserit is still in production at HBO Max, and just picked up a new showrunner in Diane Ademu-John. It will explore the efforts of the Bene Gesserit to plant the seeds of a messiah myth on the desert planet of Arrakis that will manifest itself in Paul Atreides.
Hopefully, that gives you some idea of why this book is so very controversial, and why the movie has to be responsible in the way it depicts both its “hero”, Paul, and his followers, the indigenous Fremen of Arrakis who are explicitly MENA (Middle Eastern and North African)-coded, and draw influences from vastly disparate cultures across the world, including those of Native American peoples. Is Dune a white savior narrative, or is that only a surface-level reading of the story? But even if it isn’t, does it ever do enough to dismantle the white savior narrative it props up in parody, or expose the root issue of white supremacy? In depicting the Fremen as victims of their own superstitious beliefs, who is Herbert calling out? These are just some of the complicated questions one could raise about Dune, and the answers are bound to vary depending on who you ask.
One thing is clear, though: that too much of this story is too deeply rooted in the (intentional and at least theoretically critical) appropriation of MENA culture and particularly religion for the film to not recognize or respect that either in front of the camera or behind the scenes. There are no MENA actors in major roles, and no MENA writers working on the script. That kind of oversight is concerning regardless of the source material, but it also suggests that Villeneuve isn’t really interested in exploring what Dune has to say about white saviors, or refining it any further by centering MENA perspectives in this adaptation. And that’s especially frustrating.
It’s unfortunate, too, because Dune looks incredible otherwise – the kind of visionary epic that could redefine the sci-fi genre of film for a generation, just as the original book did for literature. Villeneuve had at one point detailed his plans for a trilogy of Dune films matching the vast scope of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings, and I can only hope that if this franchise is allowed to expand (that will depend on its box-office performance and success on HBO Max, of course), that he takes great care to renovate parts of Herbert’s books which are not perfect and can be improved upon.
A24’s The Green Knight definitely looks like a strong awards season contender, but it already deserves to win something for the film’s clever method of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic by recentering its entire marketing campaign around the ominous line “One year hence…” – which now refers to both the Green Knight’s warning to Sir Gawain that sets the entire story into motion, and the rather meta aspect of the film being pushed back from its May 2020 release date to a new one at the end of July, 2021. A little more than one year hence, but close enough.
The Green Knight‘s new full-length trailer, released today, should hopefully give general audiences some idea of what they’re in for, while piquing the interest of fantasy nerds, Arthurian legend lovers, and Medieval history buffs (a.k.a. me, me, and also me). The Green Knight should be of special interest to Tolkienverse fans who are at all interested in J.R.R. Tolkien’s scholarly work outside of Middle-earth – which included translating the poem of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight into Modern English on his own, and collaborating with his good friend and Viking Club cofounder E.V. Gordon to compile and annotate a Middle English edition of the text in 1925. That arcane bit of information is absolutely nonessential to understanding or enjoying this particular adaptation of The Green Knight, but it’s fun regardless.
I can’t speak to the quality of the adaptation just yet, but one thing I love about this trailer is how weird and macabre it is. It’s clearly leaning into the Celtic mythological influences on Arthurian legend, which means everything from a herd of giants to a talking fox (oh yeah, and the Green Knight himself: a towering man-tree hybrid who carries around his own decapitated head). Andrew Droz Palermo’s rich and vibrant cinematography is perfectly suited to this tale, which is built on layers of symbolism and allegory hidden in every innocuous detail – all obviously meaningful, despite their original and definitive meaning being unclear and a subject of heated debate.
Some scholars argue that the poem is a deconstruction (either serious or semi-satirical) of Medieval chivalry, using the conflict between the Green Knight (quite literally representing nature at its most primal and chaotic) and Sir Gawain (a supposedly virtuous knight of King Arthur’s court) to comment on chivalry’s inability to restrain humankind’s darkest impulses. So…basically Amazon Prime’s gory superhero satire The Boys, but aimed at knights – who, if you think about it, made themselves out to be the superheroes of their era. Just based on the trailers, that particular reading of the poem appears to be the central theme of The Green Knight.
Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, but the film’s cast also includes Alicia Vikander and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s Erin Kellyman – who’d you think the trailer would spotlight at least a little given her recent boost of popularity off the hit Marvel Disney+ series. Unfortunately, I suspect her role will be very small. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight has a lot of things to say about the dynamic between masculinity and femininity in the age of chivalry (though again, things which no modern scholar can interpret with any degree of certainty), but it’s too early to say if the film will dive into any of that, or give the women in Gawain’s story more prominent roles.
Hopefully, The Green Knight does really well at the box-office as well as with critics, so that Hollywood will start to take more of an interest in Arthurian and Celtic myth, after essentially reducing the former to “knights in shining armor” and “the sword in the stone”, and simply ignoring the latter outright for years. Next stop; Cú Chulainn, Finn McCool, and the Morrígan!
2020 was nothing if not a hellish year that tested us in ways we hadn’t even thought possible back in 2019. But now, with the year finally ending and a new one about to begin, I thought it would be nice to look back and find some things that brought us in the Tolkien community just a little bit of joy and normality amidst all the chaos and confusion. Whether it was casting announcements for the upcoming Amazon series, or familiar faces reuniting for a good cause, Tolkien fans found a respite from the year’s awfulness in small, simple, pleasures that gave us each a smile and a laugh, and/or kept us at least partially sane throughout 2020.
I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but it’s been a long year, and I have forgotten much that I thought I knew. So if I’ve missed something important, be sure to tell me and I’ll happily correct my error! As I am just one Tolkien fan in a very big and very diverse fandom, these are merely my personal experiences. With that out of the way, let’s revisit some of the year’s few joyous Tolkienesque highlights.
As soon as lockdown orders went into place around the world, many of us immediately took the opportunity to crack open our old copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, with the intention of returning to Middle-earth for some much-needed comfort. But actor and director Andy Serkis went further than the rest of us would or even could, reading the entirety of The Hobbit aloud in a hyped-up livestream event with the full permission of HarperCollins (for whom he then recorded a new audiobook of The Hobbit). The 12-hour long livestream was hugely successful – raising more than £283,000 for charity – and hugely satisfying for Tolkien fans, as Serkis was able to trot out his iconic Gollum voice during the character’s single, memorable sequence in the book. I myself have read The Hobbit, The Lord Of The Rings, The Silmarillion, and assorted bits of Unfinished Tales aloud to family members even prior to this quarantine, and can confirm that, while taxing on the vocal cords, it’s a truly delightful experience to partake in (I personally like to do different voices and accents for all the characters, not just the ones I’m especially good at, but, well, I’m not claiming to be a better reader-alouder than Andy Serkis…or am I?)
The rest of us social distancing stay-at-homes, unable to monetize our reading experience in quite the same way, took to social media to share the joys of Middle-earth for free with people we don’t know and who probably don’t want to have their timelines continually clogged by abnormally long Twitter threads documenting our reactions to literally every single thing in each of the books and movies. Some of us did monetize our experiences, and were forced to distort Howard Shore’s beautiful score to avoid copyright infringement. There were too many of these to count, but a few I particularly enjoyed included a first-time viewer’s twelve-part reaction to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, artist and animator Noelle Stevenson live-tweeting the movies while enjoying a lembas bread snack, and a live-tweet of Ralph Bakshi’s cult classic The Lord Of The Rings adaptation that is perfect viewing once you hit that stage of quarantine where days are blurring together and nothing makes sense anymore, least of all reality, so you might as well just roll with the fact that, yes, Aragorn is rocking that mini-skirt.
Not wanting to let Andy Serkis have all the fun, almost the entire main cast of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings reunited for a livestreamed event hosted by actor and comedian Josh Gad, and attended by Jackson himself as well as the trilogy’s lead screenwriter, Philippa Boyens. It was, as they say in The Shire, a party of special magnificence: gathering on their individual computer screens, the Fellowship and more teamed up for trivia, re-enactments of famous scenes, and fond reminiscences. It was all too brief, but by that point we were growing used to brief and fleeting joys, and it felt refreshingly fun. Hearing Sean Astin recite his empowering speech from the end of The Two Towers also provided us with an excuse for a good old-fashioned ugly cry, which was sweet of him.
But even as the old cast was re-assembling, a new cast was coming together in New Zealand – the one corner of the world that was, for the most part, unaffected by COVID-19. Two huge casting announcements for the upcoming Amazon Prime adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work bookended this strange year; the first in January, prior to the pandemic, and the second earlier this very month. We welcomed a number of diverse and exciting actors to Middle-earth, such as Nazanin Boniadi, Sophia Nomvete, Morfydd Clark, Peter Mullan, and Lenny Henry, and we debated endlessly about who they could be playing, here on this very blog and on fan-forums everywhere (speaking of which, the homepage of TheOneRing.com is active again as of this month, after several years). Almost a year into production on the first season, and we still don’t actually know! We’re not even sure if this is the full cast yet, or if more are still to come.
But with production on the season’s two-part pilot apparently complete and director J.A. Bayona having just departed New Zealand, it does appear that production is now underway on the rest of the season after a number of delays due to COVID that forced the entire series to halt filming throughout the spring and summer. Amazon Prime has been keeping this whole project unusually secretive, so much so that we still don’t even have an official title (which, let me tell you, is getting on my nerves). We know it takes place in the Second Age, we know a little bit about the behind-the-scenes crew, and…that’s it, mostly. In the absence of concrete information, rumors have spread like wildfire and driven some pretty controversial fandom discourse (though it gave me a chance to share my knowledge of The Mariner’s Wife with the world, so I’m not entirely unhappy about that). Thankfully, a new YouTube channel named Fellowship Of Fans has been keeping us up to date with consistently reliable news from the set, and I highly recommend you subscribe now so you don’t miss a thing.
One can hope, however, that we’ll learn more official details sooner rather than later – especially with the Tolkien Estate having announced earlier this year that a new collection of previously unpublished writings by J.R.R. Tolkien is coming in 2021, which will provide new insight into a wide variety of subjects, including the Second Age of Middle-earth, something they wryly note will be “Of particular note, given the impending Amazon series”. How much of what’s in this book, titled The Nature Of Middle-earth, will actually be new is up for debate, but I’m extremely excited for it nonetheless.
But the greatest Tolkien-related joy of 2020 (and the one in which I participated the most eagerly) has to have been the Tolkientober event: a month-long art challenge organized by Noelle Stevenson’s wife, artist and animator Molly Knox Ostertag – who, incidentally, was also recently awarded a Forbes 30 Under 30 honor. Tolkientober brought us together through the inclusive power of art, and allowed us a sneak peek of some of the next generation’s great Tolkien artists. I don’t claim to be one of those, but I did have a lot of fun sharing my works with the Tolkien community on Twitter, and it helped me rediscover my passion for drawing and sketching: something I had put aside pre-pandemic to focus on writing. Tolkientober, a casual, judgement-free, noncompetitive event aimed at spreading good vibes around the internet, taught me how to balance my talents better and renewed my confidence in my art, and for that I will always be thankful.
But enough about me. What I want to know is what your favorite moments were: so if my list is any way incomplete, share your own thoughts in the comments below and tell me about your experience as a Tolkien fan in 2020 – see you all in the new year!