Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

This is Your Hobbit on Steroids

or, An Over-long Expected Movie

[Yes, there will be some spoilers.]

All joking aside, I enjoyed the first part of Peter Jackson's three movie Hobbit adaptation. Yes, it's a deeply flawed movie, and I'll get to some of those flaws in a moment, but Martin Freeman is brilliant as Biblo and there are some truly brilliant visuals at times. The riddle game scene in particular was very, very good. I've probably read The Hobbit a dozen times over the years, and as a child I watched the terrible 1970's Hobbit movie numerous times, so I both love the story and am tremendously glad to see it done better than the old version. Further, my beefs with Jackson as in some sense enabled by his own work. While there are parts of the Lord of the Rings movies that make me cringe these days, the fact remains that they significantly raised the (previously shockingly low) bar for Fantasy on the big screen.

The biggest problem, I think, with the Hobbit movie is that it is too long. Having given himself three three hour movies in which to tell a story whose original is far shorter than even one volume of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson finds himself more able to insert his own content (loosely based on the appendices of The Lord of the Rings) and most of this is pretty inferior. The sheer quantity of story in The Lord of the Rings kept Jackson's instincts more in check. I think the movie would have been significantly stronger is much of the "extra" material had simply been cut: The execrable (literally) sections with Radagast, the White Orc (it's a bad sign when the story slows down whenever the extra antagonist who's been added to increase tension appears), the White Council.

Other over-long portions resulted from Jackson's need to expand anything resembling an action scene to the Nth degree. The scene of Smaug's arrival is okay as a prequel if one wants to start that way, but shoehorning in a battle at the gates of Moria did nothing for the story. The stone giant battle added nothing to the story and simply added an extra scene of action so unbelievable as to pull one out of the story. And the gimmicky escape-from-the-goblin-kingdom scene seemed like a scene from the video game that somehow made its way into the movie.

What's good in the movie is, in the main, quite good. But I felt that by simply cutting it down to about two hours it would have been a much stronger film.

The main thematic change which concerns me, especially as it gives me pause as to what will occur in the later movies, is a subtle shift in the character of Bilbo and his relationship with the dwarves. In the book, Biblo has an adventurous streak which is offended when he's describes as being "more like a grocer than a burglar", but he remains very much a hobbit, if an adventurous one. As such, he is never a warrior. He is courageous and loyal, yes, and the dwarves come to respect him deeply for these qualities, but he remains inherently peaceful.

The movie can't quite stand to leave this alone. Thus, in one of the last scenes of this movie we see Thorin wade into battle against a band of orcs while the rest of the dwarves seek shelter in a tree. Thorin looks like he's about to be killed when Bilbo, who till now has been scorned by Thorin as so much baggage, draws his little sword and rushes into battle. Bilbo's fierce defense of the wounded Thorin against a crowd of wargs and orcs inspires the other dwarves who then raise their battle cry and charge into battle after him.

Bilbo having saved Thorin's life in battle, and the whole company having been rescued by eagles, Thorin sheds man-tears and embraces Bilbo, declaring that he had never been more wrong than when he had questioned Bilbo.

In other words, rather than the dwarves coming to respect Bilbo for being a courageous yet non-warlike hobbit, in the movie Bilbo wins respect by becoming a warrior, by becoming more like the dwarves. (Actually, I think Jackson way overemphasizes the warrior element of the dwarves. But they are, at least, capable of being warriors in the book, even if that isn't their primary character.) In addition to not being like the book, it seems to me that this is a weaker and less interestingly character choice, and a concession to the unstated but frequent trope that worth in adventure stories is wholly synonymous with martial prowess.


Liz said...

I would agree for the most part with your assessment, I found the repeated battle scenes to actually become tedious (it got to the point where if you'd seen one you'd seen them all), enough already. I also thought that Jackson rushed the timing on some of the scenes taken straight from the book (Bilbo and Gandalf in the "good morning" scene for example) while hanging seemingly endlessly on the orc scenes. I didn't mind the addition of Radagast, but the scene with the sled with the rabbits added nothing, and went on far too long as well.

However, I have to say that Jackson seems to know his audience. The more youthful viewers of my acquaintance all loved the movie and particularly loved all those CGI fight/action scenes. While I thought that Jackson missed much of the subtle humor of the book, they revealed in the action. The fact is that Jackson was not making the movie for sixty something Tolkien geeks (I'm the sort of person who has attended Tolkien seminars for academics and owns a far amount of Tolkien criticism, including Shippey's tomes). He was making the movie in large part for people who may never have read a Tolkien volume at all, but who love fantasy/action movies, and who loved his LOTR.

It was interesting to see the working out of some of the material in the appendix. I absolutely loved the scenes showing the city of the dwarves. I thought that the sets were amazingly well done. There was a lot to like, but I suspect that the things I liked best were not the things that enchanted younger viewers, except perhaps for the geekiest of Tolkien geeks among them.

bearing said...

I took my oldest two boys to see it a couple of nights ago, and I can't argue with your assessment.

- Radagast was so silly that I thought for a moment he was being portrayed by Michael Palin. (He's not.) There were things I liked about the scenes with him, but not because they melded well with the rest of the movie.

- I spent half the movie trying to remember if the "pale orc" was from some bit of the _Silmarillion_ I had forgotten. "Surely they wouldn't have just invented an extra storyline out of whole cloth when the movie is already THREE HOURS LONG," I kept telling myself.

- Very, very disappointed in the elimination of Bilbo's indignant pride as a motivation. Without it, you're left wondering why he went along.

- Agree with Liz that the set design was amazing. I particularly loved the city of the dwarves, too. Gorgeous.

- Also agree with Liz that the children won't mind some of the battle scenes. My boys liked the stone giants A LOT.

- In general, another flaw of the movie -- I think -- is that it doesn't stand alone very well as a "whole piece." I realize it's part of a trilogy, made from a book that doesn't lend itself to easy chopping-up into thirds, plus bits and pieces from other books and book-parts. But if you're going to add things (cf. pale orc, bunny sled) you might have added things that sculpted the story-chunk into something that resembled a coherent whole, with character arcs and an identifiable climax and resolution of a sort. There seemed to be a lot of threads that went nowhere.

This being said, while it's flawed, it won't keep me from coming back for the second and third movies. I enjoyed the movie from start to finish, even though it left me scratching my head a bit.

Darwin said...

I spent half the movie trying to remember if the "pale orc" was from some bit of the _Silmarillion_ I had forgotten. "Surely they wouldn't have just invented an extra storyline out of whole cloth when the movie is already THREE HOURS LONG," I kept telling myself.

Azog is mentioned in the historical appendices to LotR, and looking it up I see that there is actually a one line reference in The Hobbit itself (I'd forgotten that one.) However, in the appendices, Azog is dead well before the action of The Hobbit, and there is no orc captain tracking the company as they travel to the Lonely Mountain. Azog's son Bolg leads an army of goblins to the Battle of Five Armies.

Azog does kill Thorin's grandfather Tror (though not in a battle, Tror had gone back with one companion to Moria, and was captured by Azog who cut off Tror's head and branded his name on it before sending it back to the dwarves, thus touching off a war between the dwarves and goblins which eventually led to Azog's death at the hands of Dain -- the same Dain who leads an army of Dwarves to the Battle of Five Armies.)

And if that doesn't earn me my Tolkien geek points for the day I don't know what will...

Banshee said...

I still love Rankin-Bass' version, of which I had an excerpt record album as a child. The voice acting is good, and the animators had a good grasp of Tolkien's storytelling rhythm (ie, that the quiet bits were also important). A lot of the flaws are either a result of the length or the times when it was made; the good parts are timeless.

Kids like exciting movies to a certain extent, but Miyazaki has proven again and again that the Tolkienish pattern of excitement interspersed with restful beauty is much more enthralling. (As I can testify, having been forced to show kids Miyazaki movies 500 zillion times in a row, beginning the DVDs again as soon as they end.)

Jackson is a good showman, but he denies himself depth every time. The really great producers don't do that. You didn't see David Belasco telling Puccini to lighten up Madame Butterfly to the point that it lost the tragedy, or that Cho-Cho really wouldn't be respected by the audience unless she kicked somebody's butt as a ninja. And yet somehow Belasco made piles of money, all the same.