When I talk about The Inheritance Cycle to people, I mostly receive a blank look in return. Or, if the conversation is particularly affable, an accommodating nod, like this might be something they heard of once, long ago in the ether. When I say Eragon, the usual response is: ‘oh, yeah, I’ve seen the film,’ which, depending on whether this person has ever read Christopher Paolini’s book of the same name, is generally the benchmark for whether they liked it or hated it. So, in this post, I would like to talk about what I feel to be an underrated series, and offer some love and appreciation to a film which has had more than its fair share of criticism.
Eragon – The Foundation Novel
Genre: Fantasy (Sword and Magic)
Publisher: Corgi Books, 2005 [Originally Paolini International]
No. of pages: 497
This book, and indeed the entire series, is heavily structured around the hero’s journey, with an element of material and intellectual rags to riches. Yet, familiar as these tropes are in the fantasy genre, Paolini manages to make them refreshingly new by dent of a rich imagination and a pure passion for storytelling, which reaches right off the page to draw you in. Full to the brim with resounding highs and lows, compelling characters, secrets, subterfuge and complex origins – not forgetting dragons, of course – this quadrilogy delivers in spades everything it promises.
When fifteen-year old Eragon finds a dragon egg in the Spine, he embarks upon a predestined journey which sees him grow from boy into man, and become the first in the next generation of Dragon Riders. In the past, these Riders and their mighty dragons ruled over the fair lands of Alagaesia, uniting all races in peace and prosperity. But while this order safeguarded the lands, there was no-one to protect the Riders from themselves. The betrayal of a young Rider named Galbatorix, and his thirteen Foresworn loyalists, saw the genocidal destruction of the Dragon Riders, and the almost total extinction of the dragons. This man now sits on the throne as king, claiming three-quarters of Alagaesia under his ‘Empire,’ and unopposed by all except the rebel group, The Varden, who hope for a miracle to help them win the war. Events move quickly, and the threats Eragon faces find him at home. With death in his past and a desperate need to protect his young dragon, Saphira, he flees with the village storyteller, Brom (once a Dragon Rider in his own right) and embarks on a journey where he encounters the true horrors of the Empire and resolves to help those who cannot help themselves, and where his mistakes have steep and poignant costs. But with each race vying to influence the new dragon and Rider, can Eragon and Saphira retain their independence to think and act in their own right? Or are they destined to become swallowed by loyalties?
With Witches, Werecats, Urgals and Feldunost this is a series deeply saturated in fantasy, but one which still manages to stay beautifully grounded. The rich histories and cultures, outlined in sensuous detail, are nothing short of a pleasure to read and give a real presence to Paolini’s Dwarves and Elves, who again are given a refreshing twist. This strong sense of identity is further reinforced through prevalent secondary characters such as Orik and Arya, who not only speak for their races, respectively, but also provide a continual point of reference between the mind we inhabit – originally Eragon’s – and the world the story is immersed in. They’re also both pretty kick-ass in their own way, and Arya is a beacon to anyone searching for a strong, self-possessed woman in what is, undeniably, a male-dominated genre.
In addition, the relationship between Eragon and Saphira is absolute gold: swinging from playful banter, to fiercely protective, to a maternal/paternal element, this partnership is at the heart of what makes this series what it is. It taps into that elusive, eternal part of us which, at five-years old, wanted our toys to be real and now, with more cynicism and less imagination, we channel into our pets. That special, once-in-a-lifetime bond.
This is a series which also really builds upon itself – literally, with the addition of a new point of view each book – and constitutes a shadowbox theatre of contrasts and parallels. From Eragon to Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance, Eragon’s journey to master his body and mind to become the next Rider, is contrasted poignantly with his cousin, Roran’s human and humane struggle to protect their home-village of Carvahall. Similarly, the suppression of Nasuada’s gender to earn a leader’s respect and loyalty among The Varden, is offset by the prominence of Saphira’s who, as they only female dragon in existence, carries the fate of her entire race. And, in the corner of parallels, is there any more devastating and delicious than that of Eragon and Murtagh? For any who have not read it and may want to, I say no more.
Combining a natural talent for narrative, and a rich cornucopia for the logophile [for exposition click here], this series is a worthy holder of the title: New York Times Bestseller. Yet Paolini’s foundation novel is not perfect. First published in 2001 when Paolini was just 20 years old, and helped extensively into being by a family-run publishing business, Eragon at times reads like the work of a young writer, though this doesn’t necessarily detract from its debut. Speaking as someone who has personally sat through a death vigil, the brevity and partial glossing over of Brom’s death, I feel, ring a little hollowly. And yes, you could argue that the text reflects Eragon’s shock and numbness to the event, and yes, you can even say that he doesn’t have the time or luxury to indulge in grief. But it’s also incredibly difficult to write truthfully about something you’ve never experienced – though, for the sake of a good story, often necessary.
The point I am trying to make then, is that a few flaws should never determine the entire worth of the work; despite various claims to the contrary, a perfect work of art does not exist, because perfection itself does not exist. Eragon, as it is, remains one of my all-time favourite novels. It still thrills and enthralls me even a decade on, and every time I read it I find something new to take away.
So, on that note, I turn my attention to the film version, which was released in 2006.
Eragon – The Film
Production Company: 20th Century Fox, 2006
Runtime: 1 Hour, 44 (104 minutes)
Starring: Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz
We all know that with book to film adaptations more is usually lost than gained, and this film is no exception in taking a few … creative liberties with its source material. The changes, however, do largely work within the parameters of the film, and reducing a 500 page novel to little over an hour and half is, of course, no mean feat. So, with that said, we’ll move away from an exhaustive breakdown of ‘what they left out’ and instead examine the film in its own right.
Rated 5.1 by IMDB, and given a disparaging 16% on the Tomatometer, this film seems doomed to tread the relative no-man’s land between the truly awful and amazing. Whether intentionally or not, it was also made in such a way which absolutely forbids a sequel, despite the second book of the series: Eldest being published a year before the film’s release. The omission of key characters such as Orik, Solobum and the Twins has a resounding impact, leaving the audience wondering whether director Stefen Fangmeier ever applied himself to more than just skimming his base text [a pain all Avatar fans can appreciate after M. Night Shyamalan’s abortion]. Meanwhile, the complete personality transplant – or lack, thereof, of any significant personality at all – in characters such as Arya and Murtagh leave fans angry and confused. Murtagh willing leading Eragon to the Varden? And I suppose Arya isn’t even an elf! (Funnily it is never actually specified in the movie whether she is or isn’t – her ears aren’t pointed)
Yet, for all of this, the film still remains a diamond in the rough. Without knowing much about CGI and graphics, the design of Saphira is absolutely gorgeous for a start, from cute wide-eyed hatchling to majestic beast of the sky, and all the time skilfully and compassionately voiced by Rachel Weisz. Therefore, despite scoring lowly overall, I maintain that this film, if it can claim nothing else, is one of the most successful dragon features to date. There is also a warmth and humour which permeates through the film, counteracting the pervading threat and danger in a near-perfect equilibrium. Eragon and Roran’s roughhousing, aside from being immensely fun and realistic, cements their bond as brothers in all but blood, meanwhile the kinder portrayal of the pragmatic Garrow lends a real sense of family unity and cohesion, making the destruction of the ultimate destruction of the farm and the denial of this way of life particularly poignant. One thing this film does well, which others fall short of, is making you feel; I can’t watch Brom’s death scene with a dry eye, even now. In this respect, and unlike the book, the film is unafraid to explore the power of grief, and really gives this character the dignified exit-bow he deserves. The final flight of the rider on a dragon, so aptly named after his own, is pure poetry: a liberty I think even Paolini himself would have commended.
Furthermore, while characters such as Arya and Murtagh – through limited screen-time and poor conception – make little impact on the movie, Brom, Eragon and Saphira achieve a complete antithesis. And, whether to its advantage or disadvantage, the film really focuses in on this core trio. Masterfully played by Jeremy Irons, Brom exudes just the right amount of bitterness, inscrutability and audacity, while still retaining the zeal of a warrior at heart. Though his history with Morzan is given some embellishment, the sense of shame evoked provides real depth and motivation in a movie which does not have time for long, wandering conversations and guessed/implied meanings. Therefore, though it’s factually incorrect, I still quite like this change – up until Brisingr we get very little of Brom’s history from himself, and very little of what he actually felt about it. Similarly, Eragon translates well from page to screen: determined, resilient and occasionally a little arrogant, he is everything a boy on the cusp of manhood should be, though he suits his book age of fifteen better. Played honestly and competently by the then relatively unheard of Ed Speleers, we see the growth from boy into man; an arch which somewhat replaces Eragon’s emergent morality from the book, whose triggering incidents – including slaughter, slavery and murder – would not be possible in a family, rated 12 film. And, as previously mentioned of course, Saphira demonstrates all the pride and power inherent to the dragon but also a soft compassion, capturing, I think, her essence from the book perfectly.
But, in this respect, the movie does commit one fatal flaw. There are numerous instances throughout the series when people ignorantly treat Saphira as no more than a dumb beast – much to Eragon’s indignation. Dragons, as Paolini created them, are to be thought of as a highly intelligent, independent race, ascended even above the elves. Yet the movie actually de-evolves them into nothing more than over-large horses with wings. This is seen in the use of phrases such as: ‘she serves you, and only you’ (the rider and the dragon is a symbiotic relationship for a start; one of equal partnership), in the tying of the dragon’s life to its rider’s (a rider can live if their dragon is killed but not the other way around, despite dragons being inherently magical?) and in Eragon’s own unopposable comment: ‘I’m the rider and I say we go.’ I’ll say it again: source material. Someone has literally took the trouble to work out all the details for you.
Continuing on the subject of frankly baffling changes – Urgals are men? Strange men admittedly, with no language skills, but men. Where be the horned beasts? The Ra’zac too seem to have gone through a design metamorphosis, though since this movie is essentially stand-alone they ARE sufficiently sinister enough to represent the nightmare on the edge of the human mind.
In addition, the choice to feature Galbatorix was also, I think, the wrong one. Throughout the series the megalomaniac king remains largely aloof, gaining a lot of his power from conspicuous absence and the fact that people just don’t know what he’s capable of. The moment he steps out from the shadows – even in the book – this is lost. I also think John Malkovich, veteran as he is, was the wrong choice for this role; somehow his silky tones just don’t convey the appropriate malevolence, and come off feeling altogether quite bathetic. Though, in a similar antithetic contrast, the representation of Durza is absolutely on-point for me. Considering that Shades are once-sorcerers possessed by an evil spirit, Durza exudes sadism, simmering madness and unadulterated menace in a way Galbatorix just doesn’t. His ‘decomposition’ towards the end of the film is also a stunning visual touch, showing the physical wear and cost of magic, while also echoing his impending demise. I do mourn for his maroon eyes though.
Finally, moving on to the end of the film. Despite dwarves apparently being as rare as elves in movie-verse Alagaesia, and despite Farthen Dûr distinctly lacking the appearance of a mountain, the ensuing show-down between Eragon and Saphira and Durza is something spectacular from any standpoint. As the series progresses, Paolini treats us to some frankly breath-taking battle scenes, both through Eragon’s eyes and Roran’s, but this is an instance where the film goes even above and beyond the call of the book. Durza’s dark-magic anti-dragon is a stroke of pure genius, enabling a thrilling aerial chase, while the first time Saphira breaths fire is a benchmark for how far the two of them have come, symbolizing their final ascension into the ‘adult’ world. Though, in the book, Eragon’s slaying of Durza is pure luck, brought about in no small way by Saphira and Arya, I like the films take on his independent autonomy. After watching him work so hard to become stronger, to become more, it feels almost vindicating to see him achieve this solid victory and truly take up the mantle of Dragon Rider. The mortal injury to Saphira also beautifully evokes Brom’s own young loss, while her subsequent salvation by Eragon, who now IS strong enough to protect those he loves from death, perfectly and poignantly bookends the story of the film.
Therefore, despite mistakes and flaws, I still think this feature is a worthy contribution – through its raw emotion and honesty, it wins me over every time. And, while certainly not perfect, I think it works well enough as an introduction to the franchise, and a hors d’oeuvre to wet the right appetite for more. The film was, after all, my own introduction to the series. Otherwise, only being seven at the time of initial publication, I fear The Inheritance Cycle might just have passed me by, as it seems to have done with most of my generation.