Monday, December 16, 2013

Fan-Girl Squealing About The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

So, we got to see The Hobbit today.  We didn't make it to opening night, but Monday matinees are the best -- uncrowded, relaxed and with a lovely deal to save a bit of cash on food and tickets.  After dropping the puppy off with his "grandparents," we scuttled on over and settled in for the cinematic event of the season. 

Long story short:  It was awesome.  Go watch it. 

What follows is less of a review and more of a long-winded rant interspersed with lots of fangirlish squealing and a few inevitable spoilers.  Read on at your own risk. 

So, first off:  My relationship with The Hobbit is very long and fond.  It's not an overstatement to say that it's one of, if not the, most influential books in my life.  As a very young child, I watched the Rankin Bass film roughly a thousand times.  It informed my imagination and spurred many of my make-believe games.  I had a read-along picture book/record of a (very abridged) version.  I rediscovered the book in 5th grade, when I first read the full version (beautifully illustrated).  I bought it and read it again in college, and read it together with David (the first time he'd ever read it). 

So while I was a latecomer to Lord of the Rings, I've had The Hobbit in my life pretty much since I can remember.  And coming from that background, I really love these films.  It would be hard not to. 

The Difficulty of Adaptation

Everybody likes to complain about The Hobbit.  I can't remember people complaining this much with the Lord of the Ring films.  But everywhere there's people complaining.  "It's an obvious money grab," they say.  "There shouldn't have ever been three movies."  They complain about the added material, about the tone (which is, depending on who you ask, either too lighthearted or too epic). 

Here's my thing.  The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was fairly popular in its time, having been written largely as a children's book.  The Lord of the Rings came out in 1954 and was not a particularly big critical success.  At the time Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he didn't know the whole story of LOTR.  This is made obvious by the fact that the original version provides a different backstory for the ring.  In the original, Gollum offers the ring to Bilbo as the prize in the riddle game.  This was later ret-conned to another version to make sense of the One Ring mythos that Tolkien later came up with. 

The same is true of the Necromancer that Gandalf disappears to go fight for a big portion of the book.  I'm pretty sure at the time, Tolkien thought up the Necromancer thing as an excuse to get Gandalf out of the story for a while (otherwise he would have just gotten them out of trouble and killed all the dramatic tension).  He probably had some ideas that he'd go back and flesh it out later.  And he did.  And when he made LOTR, he decided to build off that moment and say, "Hey, that necromancer Gandalf was gone fighting?  That was totally Sauron." 

I'm pretty sure that when Tolkien finished The Hobbit, he realized there was a whole world he wanted to flesh out and explore.  He realized that there were some themes he wanted to expand upon -- namely, the corrupting influence of power and the destructive power of greed -- so he returned to these ideas and built on what he'd already done.  I can't say for certain that's exactly what he was thinking, but it feels true to me; as a writer, that's exactly how I would have felt.  

What I'm saying is this: When The Hobbit was published, Lord of the Rings was still in its infancy, so it's not reasonable to expect it to mesh perfectly with the world and facts we know later.  A lot of the added significance to the story was mentioned later on -- as Tolkien went back in references in LOTR, the appendicies, The Silmarillion -- time and again as "Oh yeah, and this other thing?  That was totally going on at the same time." 

But you can't expect the same of the movie. 

Because the Lord of the Ring movies already came out, and the Middle Earth they portray is real.  We're seeing the story of The Hobbit, but we're seeing it through a wider lens than the book itself is actually written -- because we're seeing it from the objective viewpoint of a camera viewing the reality of Middle Earth rather than the subjective view of a hobbit who only barely knows what's going on. 

All of these things that people complain about being added to the story -- Azog the Defiler, the meeting of the White Council, Radagast the Brown, Thranduil and Legolas -- are here because they were there in the history of the story.  Of course, a few things happen in the films that don't happen quite that way in the book.  But they're not nearly as far off as many critics seem to suggest, and I don't think at any point they deviate enough to feel out of character with the Middle Earth we've seen in action. 

Now, of course, Peter Jackson didn't have to choose to make The Hobbit in this way.  He could have made it a more close POV film following the adventures of Bilbo and ignoring the huge wide world that the story was set in.  But I don't think that would have been the right choice.  I'd like to think that if Tolkien were alive today, he would be happy that the films were being handled in this way -- I think it's pretty obvious from the sheer amount of world-building he crammed into his books that he envisioned Middle Earth as a huge living, breathing entity, and ignoring that in favor of making a book that's slavishly literal to its source seems like a crime. 

Haters Be Hatin' 

 So with all of that said, I'd like to go on record with just how incredibly annoyed I am with so much of the criticism I've seen levied at the films.  The movies are not perfect, and there are some legitimate complaints to make.  But there are a lot of illegitimate complaints levied at them too.  Here's my counter to some of the criticisms I've seen bandied around:

  • "The dwarf/elf racism was played for laughs between Gimli and Legolas in the original trilogy, but making it a serious issue is a mistake" No, dude, you have it the other way around.  The animosity between elves and dwarves runs very deep (and will run deeper by the end of the last movie).  If anything, it was downplayed in the LOTR movies, so much so that when they're accosted by the elves in Lothlorien, the audience just thinks that Haldir is being a dick.  We have to know that the dwarves and elves really hate each other.  That's what makes Gimli and Legolas's friendship so unique and so important.  
  • Radagast isn't mentioned anywhere in The Hobbit.  Well, no, he's not.  But he's actually pretty fucking important in LOTR, and though I can see why he didn't fit the tone of those films, I can also see why he's important here.  In the book The Hobbit, the eagles were sentient.  The king of the eagles can talk and makes the conscious choice to help out our heroes.  Jackson made the choice not to follow up with that, in part I'm sure because it would have been weird and childlike and also to match the portrayal of the eagles in LOTR.  Radagast is a welcome addition, and also acts to answer the age-old question from Return of the King: "Where the fuck did these eagles come from?!" 
  • Azog the Defiler.  People complain about this so much.  OK.  Look.  In the appendices, we do learn that Azog the white orc was a long-time enemy of Thorin.  Yes, he's killed by Dain 150 years prior to the story of The Hobbit.  But I don't mind shifting the time a little to give a face to the orc mob following them.  Because in the book, orcs do hunt them at great length throughout the story (they're one of the five armies that show up at the end, after all), and if you're going to make a film, somebody has to be the leader of those orcs.  You have to make a character there.  It makes good sense for that character to be someone with a bit of history that's canonical and adds more depth to Thorin.  I don't see Azog's presence as any more egregious than the condensed timeline at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring
  • "They didn't need to make three movies!"  If you honestly believe that you could have made a satisfying Hollywood film of The Hobbit without leaving anything out, and could keep it under four hours, I'd like to see your suggested script.  The Hobbit is a slim book because it lacks connective tissue and it tells the story in a detached, exposition-heavy manner.  It reads like a children's fable.  So a ton of things happen, but it's episodic and those events can take up very little space on the page because of the style in which they're written.  (The Lord of the Rings books, meanwhile, are so long because they're crammed with unnecessary details, not because there's  necessarily that much more plot.  More than 100 pages are spent on the journey from The Shire to Bree, for example, and a lot of that time is spent discussing the weather and what each hobbit ate for dinner every night).  
I'll agree that there are a few valid complaints to be made against The Hobbit films:

  • Tauriel's character is unnecessary.  So, Jackson & Co. decided to add a female elven warrior to the film, for pretty much the same reason that Arwen got a bigger role in LOTR -- because the story was a sausage fest and it's not really PC these days to make a story without a single female character.  But she's not in the book, and her storyline is not strictly necessary.  It isn't bad, though.  It gives Legolas some character depth and gives us a chance to see more elvish culture.  And, yes, the inter-racial romance between her and Kili is definitely non-canonical and something I think Tolkien would chafe at.  But I have a feeling that the relationship will not, cannot, go anywhere.  If this turns out wrong, I'll be a little upset.  But it seems to me pretty clear that Kili knows she's out of his league.  And, honestly, he is an awfully pretty dwarf.  I don't mind him getting plenty of extra screen time.  
  • The fight scenes go on too long.  The action sequences do last an awfully long time, especially considering they rarely go on for more than a few paragraphs in the book.  And sometimes they're pretty ridiculous.  But they are an epic amount of fun, so I don't really mind too much.  
  • The pacing of the first film is "off."  This is certainly true.  It takes like 40 minutes for the story to get started.  There's a prologue-within-a-prologue.  The "Dwarves in my dining room" bit is funny and canon, but it goes on a beat too long.  But, again, I can't blame them too much.  You have 13 characters to introduce and try to distinguish from each other.  It's going to take some time.  By the second movie, now that we know all the key players, the pace picks right up.  

So, how bout it?  What did you think of the movies?  I won't judge you too harshly if you hate The Hobbit films.  I might be a little disappointed, but it's a valid life choice. 


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  2. Point by point:

    I totally agree about the bad racial relations between elves and dwarves, though I personally didn't find it too downplayed in the LOTR trilogy. I got the message loud and clear, before I'd even read the books. I think the pissy tone at the Council of Elrond sets the tone pretty well.

    I was pretty ok with the addition of Radagast, too, though I'm a little off-put by what i feel is an overly cartoonish portrayal of him. If they could have toned him down even a little I think I would have enjoyed his presence completely.

    I WOULD be ok with their inclusion of Azog--for all the very good points that you make about why it's handy to have him in there--if they just didn't spend SO much g.d. time on the guy. In a movie even a few extra seconds can feel like too much, and they could have really moved things along by leaving a few minutes of Mr. Hooky-hands on the cutting room floor. By the second movie I just got bored every time I saw him, because I knew that instead of being like, 'Ok, now there are orcs again," a bunch of time was going to get wasted trying to convince me that he is the scariest, most important orc and that I should care about him.

    Re: the making of three movies: I think it was a great idea that could have turned out spectacularly but that the time is not being handled very well. I am really curious to see what the third movie brings to the table. The first film was quite straight-forward, even in spite of the added elements and the excessively long opening sequence. But I thought this second one was just a total mess.

    As for the concessions you make, they are among the same nit-picks I had, only they clearly bothered me WAAAY more than they bothered you. They actually bothered me enough to essentially ruin the bulk of the viewing experience. I was so INSANELY bored by the endless fight sequences that I was seriously staring up at the ceiling and doing slow-blinks just to jolt my brain out of the stupor it was slipping into. And I thought Tauriel was a completely flat non-character.

    I think for me the single biggest disappointment was that two of the most amazing scenes in the entire book were pared down to practically nothing: the journey through Mirkwood and the stop at Beorn's house. I would have understood this if so insanely much time hadn't later been wasted on Tauriel the sexist non-person and repetitive (sometimes totally contrived) orc fights that I seriously felt were never EVER going to end.

    Long story short: I want to like Desolation of Smaug way more than I am actually able to, and it makes me sad.

  3. And now I feel horrible for dumping on a movie you loved, so here are some positive comments as a post-script:

    Martin Freeman. I don't think I even have to say anything else, do I? They couldn't have chosen a better Bilbo. And then scene when Smaug says the word "precious," and Bilbo has a One Ring freak-out, tears the ring off, and then just... sits there, and has a moment... If a camera can sit on your face for twenty solid seconds with nothing else happening and no dialogue, and that twenty seconds is one of the most gripping moments of the entire film... that is some first rate acting.

    Just about the only good thing I'll say about Tauriel is that I probably could have hated her way more if someone other than Evangeline Lilly has played her. I totally believed her as an elf.

    Though I nearly missed it when I blinked, I did really love the Beorn sequence.

    Smaug and his fire-filled breast were pretty damn amazing, all the way around. Getting to see the endless halls of gold was completely awe-inspiring. That is the kind of thing I have an impossible time visualizing when I read a book, so getting to see it done so spectacularly was very satisfying.

    As much as I hated the endless fight-sequences, even I have to admit that I cracked up over the sequence in which Bombur mowed down at least a dozen orcs in his barrel, and then burst out and killed some more with his weapons. Ridiculous but brilliant.