The books behind the movie

I always find it interesting to read the book a movie was based on, whether I thought the movie was good or not (when it’s not good that’s generally the fault of the movie, not the book). The Flight of Dragons (see my review of a couple weeks ago), though, is the only one I can think of based on two unrelated books (movies that conflate characters or events from two or more related books are common). And having just finished both books, I think I can safely say the movie does not do justice to either of them.

I doubt the movie-makers particularly cared about that. They wanted to make and market a fun movie for families, and bought rights to two books that they thought would give them the raw materials they needed. As much as their writers obviously added of their own creation, however, I don’t know why they didn’t just create the entire story from scratch.

Admittedly, Peter Dickinson’s book The Flight of Dragons would be difficult to make into a successful movie, because it has no storyline. Instead, it purports to be a scientific and historical explanation of the evolution of dragons, their habits and life cycle, and the development of their interactions with humans. Dickinson bases his hypotheses to some extent in science but primarily on literary references to dragons and a great deal of conjecture.

That is not a criticism of the book, however – merely a description. It is an interesting exercise in examining what kind of knowledge one can glean from legends. Having followed a great many conversations on worldmagblog over the past several years, regarding what we can or can’t know about past events based on the written accounts we have in the Bible, I can’t help but see some parallels. Those committed to Biblical inerrancy sometimes argue that the presence of a legend about a worldwide flood in cultures around the world is evidence that such a flood actually happened. I have no idea if Dickinson had such parallels in mind, but he provides a reasonable case for the onetime existence of dragons on the same basis.

Of course, Christians who believe that evolution is a myth could point to parallels also. Dickinson attempts to show how dragons evolved from a lizard-shaped dinosaur, and survived the geological/climate changes that drove the dinosaurs to extinction, by having developed a lightweight body capable of flight. Evolutionary biologists, of course, have a good deal of fossil evidence (the interpretation of which is debated by creationists), while Dickinson admits that there are no dragon fossils. But he explains why such fossils do not exist, based on the fragile nature of the dragon skeleton and its chemical makeup (which would cause the bones of a dragon corpse to disintegrate very quickly). Nevertheless, he insists, they clearly did exist – and I’m sure creationists would see arguments for transitional forms in evolution to have no more basis in fact than Dickinson’s dragons.

I didn’t read it primarily critique its reasoning, however, but rather for the enjoyment of a well-written book on a subject I enjoy. Dickinson does a fine job of linking together a variety of aspects of dragon lore in a coherent explanation (even if more recent developments in biochemistry are fatal to his basic theory). He first works out what kind of body structure they must have had in order to fly, then figures out what that would have meant in terms of life cycle, interactions with other animals (including the newly evolved “human apes”), and even their reputed lust for gold and jewels. I’ve always found it fun to read accounts of imagined people and events – even entire worlds – treated as material for scholarly treatment. Dickinson does it well.

Gordon R. Dickson’s novel The Dragon and the George, unlike Dickinson’s book, would make for a very good movie. With today’s CGI capabilities, it should be no problem to portray dragons, ogres, and a wolf the size of a pony. There are battle scenes (including armored knights on horseback), there is humor, there is a mystery (how did Jim find his mind inside the body of a dragon, how will he get out, and can he and his fiancée get back to where they came from), and there is a battle between the forces of good and evil.

One aspect that I find particularly interesting is Jim’s reflections on the differences between his own twentieth century life (this was written in the 80’s) and the medieval era he finds himself in. At one point early in the book (while he is still in the 20th century) he had

felt a sort of desperate hunger for the kind of life that had existed in the European Middle Ages of his medievalist studies. A time in which problems took the shapes of flesh-and-blood opponents, instead of impalpable situations arising out of academic cloak-and-dagger politics.

Once finding himself in such an environment, however, he becomes aware of its limitations. Even aside from the lack of modern (to his mind) standards of cleanliness and comfort, people’s thoughts and actions are ruled by tradition and they cannot think outside its strictures. Then when he becomes aware of how well suited they are to deal with the problems common to their times, he realizes how poorly he compares with them in strength (except for the accident of being in a dragon’s body) and courage. And finally he has to accept that, contrary to what he had been brought up to expect, the world simply is not fair.

In case you decide to read it, I won’t tell how it ends. Now on to the next book in the series, where … no, that would be giving away too much of the story.

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