Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Word from Hobbiton

If you had asked me in the 90s who my favorite filmmaker was, I probably would have said Quentin Tarentino. Not only did I find his movies immensely enjoyable, I found they really spoke to my sensibilities (if that makes any sense)…maybe one Gen X’er communicating with another through their visual craft. And perhaps he still might be my favorite: I haven’t seen Django but I hear it’s pretty good.

However, having NOT seen Django, I was willing to pass the title of “favorite filmmaker” to Peter Jackson after seeing his latest film, The Hobbit. Simply put, Jackson creates beautiful films.

And I don’t just mean visually beautiful (which they are…stunningly so). His films are filled with beautiful SENTIMENT. And it IS beautiful…it is "heartfelt." Even District 9…you feel for the protagonist despite him being a rank bastard. But especially with movies like King Kong and The Hobbit, Jackson just finds ways to put beautiful little nuances of sentiment on the screen. And (to me) it’s wonderful to see. 

I liked The Hobbit, and I liked it a lot. Even though he took liberties with Tolkien’s words, for the most part (we’ll get to that in moment) he used those liberties to communicate the sentiment and themes Tolkien was trying to communicate. Sure it was perhaps a trifle heavy handed (Gandalf’s council with the elves), but it’s pretty tough to communicate the themes of a novel into a film, when you have to use exposition to explain what is communicated through the inner monologues of an author’s characters. Especially when you’re breaking up a single novel into multiple movies (and yet want to echo the same theme across each installment…): you can’t just have Thorin on his death bed saying “yeah, maybe we should value good cheer and simple pleasures over hoarded gold,” with nothing of the sentiment in the first film.

[sorry if that’s a spoiler: I just figure most of my blog readers have read the book in the past]

What I also greatly enjoyed was the elaboration Jackson brought to the film. I saw The Hobbit with my buddy Steve-O who said “that was cool how they connected the quest against the dragon with the threat of Smaug allying with Sauron.” But this wasn’t a Jackson invention: Gandalf’s motivations with regard to the dwarves’ quest is discussed at length in the appendix of Tolkien’s later book Return of the King. Including this information in the film not only shows P-Jack (or his screenwriters) have done their homework, it also helps tie the film to his earlier (LotR) films.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s portrayal of Thorin’s anti-elf sentiment (which IS present in the book) gives new meaning to the feud while shedding light on it. Of course the proud dwarf bears some resentment to the pointy-eared folk for their lack of aid to his people…it’s not a radical interpretation, it’s a LOGICAL interpretation. Reading Shakespeare’s plays, one finds a surprising lack of stage directions considering all the on-stage action that takes place…the actions and character motivations must be interpreted from the dialogue…and Jackson does the same thing with Tolkien’s words.  Same with other characters (like Radaghast the Brown).

Other “liberties” are just the necessity of film adaptation: why is Thorin the hero at the gates of Moria instead of Dain? Because Dain isn’t a central character to the main story being told (his role is combined in Thorin’s character, just as Glorfindel was combined into Arwen in the Fellowship film). Why does Jackson stage this elaborate chase/warg fight (following the troll scene) that is never found in the book? Because it enables the filmmaker to drive Thorin & Co. into Rivendell (when it’s been established that Thorin will have nothing to do with the elves). Why do the trolls end up eating the horses (instead of the goblins in the mountains)? Because of the complexity of filming ponies on a mountain pass. Why is Bilbo the troll trickster (as opposed to Gandalf as in the book?)? Because the film-maker has to show a bit of Bilbo’s ingenuity, courage, and cunning which (prior to later chapters of the book) are otherwise only present in the character’s inner thoughts at this point in the story…if Jackson doesn’t SHOW something of this, visually (film being a visual medium), you end up with a very passive and non-factor protagonist.

In a book, there’s nothing passive about Bilbo’s role…told from his point of view the story features his inner struggles throughout the book (with whether he wants to be a hero or not, or take the tough road or not). There is an inner conflict of the Everyman character which (while dramatic in a novel form) needs to be reinterpreted for a different art form. And Jackson does a good job of it, in my opinion.

NOW, having said all that and heaping praise on the film, I have to voice my main gripe:

What’s with all the goddamn fighting?

Much as I enjoyed the film, much as I liked Jackson’s interpretations and liberties and creativity, the martial take and action sequences nearly killed the whole deal for me. Not because I’m a bleeding-heart liberal commie-socialist…I ENJOY action and violence in films immensely (just picked up a Blue-Ray copy of John Woo’s Hard Boiled the other day). Films and fiction (and role-playing) are for me, the only deserving place FOR violence and fighting, not the real world.

No, my issue is how out-of-place the martial attitude was. Not only was this NOT “true to the books” (in this way the film went WAY off the rails from Tolkien’s sentiment), it also did little (if anything) to contribute to the story being told. For me, it DETRACTED from the story.

There was SO much focus on combat and fighting that comparing the Hobbit film to the Hobbit novel (or even the earlier animated film) is like comparing 4th edition D&D to the old TSR editions. It’s like it misses the f’ing point for the sake of catering to the lowest common denominator. Or (to put my rant a little differently) it’s like Peter Jackson suddenly decided his target audience was too stupid to enjoy the film without throwing in a bunch of LotR-style fight scenes (LotR is, after all, a war story, but it’s not the fight scenes that made it a great film).

No, I’m not upset that visually the dwarves look like characters from a Capital One commercial (“What’s in YOUR wallet?”); being based in part on Nordic myth has always made Tolkien characters seem a little Viking-esque. And Thorin IS a warrior-noble type (the main fighter of the group) and his nephews (Filli and Killi) are cut from the same cloth (at least, judging by their particular end…sorry again for the spoiler) as well as old Balin (his lieutenant) and by reasonable assumption Dwalin (Balin’s brother).

BUT (for example…and here there be FILM spoilers, FYI)…BUT when the hobbit gets caught by the trolls and the dwarves launch a frontal assault leading to an elaborate set-piece combat, it just about made me want to retch with disgust. Those who have read The Hobbit five or six times (like myself) will remember that the dwarves come looking for Bilbo and get popped into the troll sacks except for Thorin…who comes later, is sneakier, and manages to bash a troll upside the head with a log from the fire before being caught. This establishes a couple things:

-          Tone setting (danger and jeopardy)
-          Character development (dwarf loyalty, good-heartedness)
-          Character development (Thorin’s cunning and fight-worthiness)

Instead, the film gives us a ridiculous fight scene that establishes nothing except that dwarves seem to be spoiling for a fight at every opportunity (even the stupid slingshot guy…I mean, how stupid is that dwarf? What happened to “discretion being the better part of valor?”). The dwarves are still captured and look dumb in the process. Thorin is not shown to be “a cut above the rest.” And we learn nothing new about the dangers of Middle Earth…I mean wouldn’t you already get Big Scary Danger + Drama & Tension if the scene were filmed as written? Don’t you want to contrast these particular dwarves in comparison to the heroic companions of the Fellowship of the Ring (whom, one might recall, have a fight with a troll in the Mines of Moria. Thorin & Co. look  like they’re on par with Aragorn, etc. and that the only reason for their defeat was that they faced THREE trolls instead of one).

The same happens again with the wargs in the plains…and then again with the goblins in the Misty Mountains. They’re captured fighting and then they fight their way non-stop over miles of subterranean scaffolding (what’s with all the wood in the goblin caves? The orcs sure don’t look much like carpenters to me…a major, glaring plot point to my eyes).

It’s as if Jackson decided, ‘well the film’s not really exciting enough’ or ‘it’s not visually stunning enough.’ It IS exciting enough, it IS a visual delight for the eyes, it DOES carry nuanced character development besides “we like to fight” (and I mean, JACKSON’s film has character nuance, in many ways more so than Tolkien’s book). Frankly, I found it boring and tedious…I found myself waiting for each elaborate fight sequence to end so that we could get to the next cool thing about Middle Earth…Rivendell, or Gollum’s cave, or the flight of the Eagles, or the house of Beorn or whatever.

Instead, I got long, empty minutes of elaborate sword fights. Yes, I get the point Mr. Jackson: your dwarves are really tough and quick to draw down on someone. Enough already.

HOWEVER…having gotten that gripe out of the way, I want to reiterate that I otherwise greatly enjoyed everything else in the film. Everything else was a delight and very much in the spirit of Tolkien’s most whimsical novel of Middle Earth: Radaghast and his rabbits, the White Orc and his albino warg, Elrond and his brethren in their mail (though why O why are there statues of warriors guarding the bridge to Rivendell? I don’t remember the elves celebrating their martial pride at the Last Homely House!), the Necromancer’s stronghold, the prelude/montage showing the sack and burning of Dale and Erebor. The music was good (though I sorely missed the goblins’ wicked songs!), tasteful and well-done, and as said, the whole film was quite beautiful. I am excited to see the next installment, and hope that we’ll continue visual feast as we see Mirkwood and the halls of the wood elves and Lake Town and all the rest.

But I also hope that there’ll be a lot less fighting. At least when it comes to fighting that is superfluous to an already excellent and entertaining story.


  1. There is a lot of good stuff in it, but I wish someone else had done the film. I don't think Jackson pays attention to Tolkien's details. Did think Tolkien ever used "human" in any of the novels? In LOTR would Aragorn, possibly the most honorable man in Middle Earth, chop the head off an emissary under a flag of truce? Violence and action are easy and he falls into their uses pretty quickly.

    Radagast=Jar Jar Binks. The rabbits were more Narnia than Middle Earth. Don't get me wrong, I love CS Lewis, but Middle Earth is the real world. There are some amazing elements in it, but it is a real place not a fairy place. They should have been stags, hounds, horses...not something not silly. Poop on his head? Really? I would have liked to see a crotchety/angry pro environment hermit whose only joys are plants and animals. We got someone who is more doofuss-ey than Jar Jar. It's sad as I pictured Radagast as someone awesome and mysterious.

    I did like most of LOTR and thought it was done reasonably well. Other than changing some of the themes (man standing alone) his film style is okay. But there are a lot of directors that are talented. I was hoping anyone else would have gotten the chance to do The Hobbit, but we got Jackson. I did not enjoy his new vision of Middle Earth.

    The surprise thing about the film is Martin Freeman: Best Hobbit ever. Awesome. When I first heard of him as Bilbo, I thought it had possibilty, but he really really was amazing.

    I am glad you had a positive view of the movie. It's good when people can find cool stuff and enjoyment out of something. You have the advantage over naysayers like me. I wish it was more like LOTR, as the first series captured Middle Earth. I agree with all your negatives and can't get past them...and others. I am going to be stuck with "what ifs." The word squandered comes to mind. For me Jackson = Lucas.

    David S.
    Minnesota, USA

  2. Well, to be fare, Jackson did try to get someone else to direct the movies. Having done LoTR he new the mental and physical toll filming the movies takes and didn't want to do it again. Just produce and help write the scripts. That's why he originally asked Del Toro to direct. The problem, however, was due to all of the legal fights over who had rights to the Hobbit and New Line trying to not pay Jackson his royalties the movies were so delayed Del Toro had to pass in order to have a chance of directing something. He couldn't just sit around waiting when there were movies he wanted to make.

  3. @ Dale: As I said, The Hobbit is certainly the most whimsical of Tolkien's books and the one that has the most "fairy tale" feel (rather than "Epic Hero" tale of his later works), and I found the extra whimsy in the film both appropriate and true to the work. But perhaps that's just me.

    @ Monk: I was pretty excited when Del Toro was announced as the director, being a fan of his works (all the way back to Chronus)...it was a shame when everything fell apart.

  4. Those things (and a few others) completely ruined the movie for me. When changes are made for change's sake...no thanks.

  5. Another change that seemed detrimental to the plot was keeping Azog alive rather than using his son, Bolg to chase after Thorin.

    I understand why they did it. They needed the emotional attachment to be bi-directional. Azog killed Thorin's grandfather, so Thorin needed a personal vendetta to get revenge against Azog (something which never came out well in the film anyway). Azog hated Thorin because he was wounded by him.

    BUT, a better story would have been Bolg returning to get revenge against Thorin for his slaying his father, Azog. Revenge is a far better trope than what we got. Not only would the irrational father-son revenge story have been better, it would have been a great plot device to juxtapose to Thorin's OWN irrational revenge story against Smaug.

    So you could have had Bolg chasing down Thorin while Thorin is chasing down the Dragon. Great story right there. Instead we got this weird, albino orc guy who should have never been there in the first place.