Tuesday, December 18, 2012

There and Back Again in One Night

Well, last night's The Hobbit was a success.
The Boy enjoyed the film overall and was very brave; it's hard not to be a little scared when you're not really sure that Baltimore Woods might not be full of vicious wargs, but he brought his stuffed friend Leo the Lion to hug and covered his ears during the loudest and scariest parts and so did quite well.

Although the film is long it doesn't drag once you've got past the opening scenes, and the story moves right along from one bit of action to another. The party of dwarves led by Thorin is sturdy, the goblins/orcs are reliably nasty sword-fodder, and the principals acquit themselves well, notably Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield.
Going in I couldn't help by wonder how Peter Jackson was going to manage to get a three hour film out of nothing more than the first third of a 300-page "young adult" novel.

Well, you do it by dragging in bits and pieces from the author's other works, including the appendices of his magnum opus as well as posthumous publications such as the Silmarillion.

I was frankly baffled by the appearance of Azog the Defiler, having completely forgotten the "War of Dwarves and Orcs" from the appendix of Lord of the Rings. No matter - he was a good, frightening "bad guy".
I do want to stop and give a deep nod of respect to Cate Blanchett, who manages to continue to provide her character with true gravitas and magic.

I never "got" Galadriel from the Tolkien stories. She seemed to be a nice Elvish lady and not the wonderous creature that dazzled the other characters. Blanchett's Galadriel, though, convinces you that she really is the ancient and luminous being that Tolkien wanted to portray.

Bravo, Cate.

The one thing that did irk me a bit (as a writer, tho, rather than a parent) is that I don't think that Peter Jackson really has a handle on what "tone" he wants to set for this series.

Lord of the Rings is Middle Earth as drawn by Victor Hugo; stern, tragic, monumental - and Jackson got that perfectly; his flicks are ol' Prof. Tolkien's "yea, verily" language in film.

But The Hobbit is Middle Earth as drawn by A.A. Milne with a touch of Georges Feydeau; confiding, jolly, romping, and a trifle twee - a children's book written by an Oxford don in the arch style of the kid's books of his day.

They're very different.
And a good example of this are the differences in how each story draws its bad guys.

In LOTR the forces of Evil are genuinely Evil; they're dangerous and frightening and they'll kill you if they can. And they do - several of the important Good characters are killed or badly injured through the course of the story.

In fact, that's a huge theme of Tolkien's story; that sometimes in defeating Evil you suffer the loss of the very things you're fighting for. Frodo never recovers from the burden of the One Ring and his wounds at Weathertop. While he returns to the Shire he cannot remain. Through his suffering and pain he has lost the innocence and joy of the place he loves forever.

Pretty much all the goblins in the Hobbit are comedy bad guys, the the three trolls (Bert 'Uggins? Really?) are an outright joke. They don't really scare you. And while there are deaths - several of the dwarves including Thorin are killed in the Battle of Five Armies that ends the story - the overall tone is a jolly adventure. No deep sorrows are engrained, no hopeless losses endured.

This same pattern follows with all the other character types. Hobbit dwarves owe more to Snow White than to the Kalavala or the Norse sagas; they're a more than a bit roly-poly and cheerful compared to the grim axes of the LOTR dwarves. Hobbit elves are noble and graceful but can get drunk and foolish or cruel, a far reach from the austere, elegantly noble creatures of LOTR.

Jackson tried to reproduce the kid-lit tone of The Hobbit with stuff like the slapstick Radagast bits, the trolls, and the Goblin King's banter...but I think he had a hard time pulling his head out of the Grand Epic mode. It made the film uneven, veering from goofiness to gravity and back. Hopefully he finds a more steady approach to the next installment.
Mind you; he did do himself and everyone else a HUGE favor cutting the goblin's "Fourteen birds in five fir trees" song from the final fight at the end.

Now songs and poems are all through Tolkien's works, and The Hobbit is no exception. And generally the film did a fairly good job handling the singalongs as part of the story and not a sort of musical-comedy full stop. But had Azog and Company burst into song it'd have immediately turned the whole enterprise into Bored of the Rings and, while I'd have laughed my ass - getting slightly numb after 170 minutes of movie - off, I think that might not have been Jackson's intent at all.
So we emerged, satisfied and hungry for a late-night snack before bed. The Boy hugged his little stuffed friend, engulfed his french fries, brushed his teeth and tumbled into his bunk full to overflowing with even more stuffed buddies. I promised to "check on him" in a moment or three.

And when I returned to his darkened room he was unquietly asleep, his head moving and eyes darting under their closed lids, surely journeying with Bilbo and his party over the high peaks of the Misty Mountains.

I stroked his hair and spoke quiet nonsense until his movements stilled and his breathing steadied.

And kissed his head. And went to sleep.


Ael said...

What, no fourteen bird song? Aw man!

That was my favourite part. There is nothing nastier than a happy orc.

FDChief said...

And no "down, down to Goblintown" either!

I have to say, that I'm not sure how Jackson could have worked the goblin songs in without completely changing the entire tone of the film; he'd have had to have tried to imitate the jolly rural comedy that Tolkien wrote, a sort of Cold Comfort Farm with orcs, and I'm frankly not sure how you do that without veering completely over into parody.

Really, I can't think of how you could film the original story outside of making it completely Muppetified; there's just no modern equivalent in kid Lit. Look at the Eragon/Percy Jackson stories; they're high fantasy in the LOTR style. It'd be a hell of a challenge, harder than filming James Joyce, IMO...

I think that the original story has to be enjoyed for its own quality, while this series of films is going to end up being the Star Wars Prequel trilogy of LOTR (but hopefully without Lucas' baleful dialogue...)

Leon said...

The Hobbit a trilogy? The hell?

I'm passing. I gave up on Jackson doing Tolkien after Two Towers.

FDChief said...

If you love the stories, Leon, it's fun to watch just to see your imagination come to life. Not prefect, but what film version of a beloved book ever is?

The wargs alone are awesomesauce.

Leon said...

I think he's the only director who could have done something this ambitious and have it come out good. His attention to detail is fantastics, the props and designs in the movies are fantastics. His scripting and direction? I see red (and not in the Christmas way).

Gimli as comedy relief?
Elves with 6 o'clock shadows?
Galadriel's appliance commercial?
The stupid stairway segment in Moria that interrupted what should have been a tense pursuit by the unseen Balrog?
A flaming Denethor?

I don't doubt the vast majority love the film, I just can't enjoy them.

Ael said...

Tolkien couldn't help but add depth to everything he wrote. He even spent time widening orcs! Recall the conversation between the two orcs at the entrance to Mordor where they discussed what they would do after the war (and concluding that they were screwed no matter who won - sound familiar?)

Jackson could have pulled it off by giving the goblins some cultural depth in a manner similar to the skralings when confronted by Norse settlers. Inuit throat singing would have worked well.

Of course,this would have changed the goblins from being simple cardboard cutouts destined for slaughter because they are inherently evil into something much more ambiguous.

In other words, completely unsuitable for Hollywood.

FDChief said...

No argument that any film adaptation is going to be less nuanced than the original text; it's a matter of taking what you can from the film that seems to resonate with the stories. I'm not a purist in any sense (and I have friends who have many of the same objections you do, Leon and to them the noncanonical additions and detractions are heresy and thus ruin the films for them...) so I enjoy the films for what they are.

Still, you have to wonder what a great director who had actually been to war - as Tolkien had - would have done with these? What would a "The Two Towers" directed by Sam Fuller look like?

Now THERE's an interesting thought...

Ael said...

Or recall the film Zulu.

The Zulu warriors start to sing and the Welsh respond with "Men of Harlech". No hint of muppets there.

25,000 spears striking leather shields does make for a wonderful percussion section.

Ael said...


FDChief said...

Ael: Yeah - I actually blogged about that very scene, noting that in 1879 the 24th Foot was NOT particularly Welsh and that the whole thing was a piece of delightful nonsense.

Great film-making. Piss-poor history.

So I enjoy the Jackson Ring flicks for what they are; one guy's take on a story it seems we both love. Is his take exactly what I'd do, or want? No. But along with the parts I dislike there's a hell of a lot I love.

Anonymous said...

I saw the film yesterday. (1) I dont' really think 3D added anything to the story. (2) Jackson added a LOT to the story, and yes, archival Tolkein background could justify most of it, but it still had a taste of the usual film "jazz it up" to it. (BTW, I think that was the same thing that afflicted The Two Towers.)

Still, Jackson's version is the best thing I've seen as far as bringing Tolkien to the screen. And Radagast rocks and is my new hero. And hey, who knew, dwarves are sexy!

FDChief said...

Labrys: We intentionally passed on the 3D and I don't regret it.

And I agree; Thorin is pretty het, and the guy who was doing Kili is a bit of a roguish devil - who'd have thought it, dwarves as skirt-bait...

And, yeah, overall, I think Jackson does a fairly good job of work animating JRRT's stories. My issues are pretty minor, and I enjoy the overall "grand heroic fantasy" thing he's got working...

My only problem was that I thought he did Radagast a leeeetle too far over the top. I pictured ol' Raddy as a sort of woods-nut (Saruman disses him in the books out of hand as a goofy bunny-hugger, which just goes to show that Saruman always was a dick...) but I pictured him as a little less openly whack; just kind of off, like the old trappers who spent too much time alone in the wild.

But, again, Jackson's vision. And not a bad one overall.

basilbeast said...

I saw it at the midnight showing on the 13/14th, 3D.

I've seen about a half dozen films including TH in 3D, and the one that looked great in that format imho was Cameron's "Avatar".

Leon, if you really haven't seen ROTK, you should, I think it's the best of the 3, notwithstanding the army of the dead at Gondor, though I understand the cinematic reason why Jackson did that, to end the battle and clean it all up and move on without adding yet more characters as Tolkien does.

What bothered me most in TTT was the treatment of the Ents, from wise old trees that could get very nasty to befuddled fuddy duddies.

You're right on, Ael, about the development of Orc/Goblin angst and philosophy, Tolkien rarely stinted on character development.
I can hardly wait to get to Smaug's appearance, he's quite the clever beastie.

For me the beginning to the trolls was the best part, the worst Goblintown, with the exception of the Riddle scene. The rock giants and GT seemed a weird amusement park ride.

Radagast surprised me, his bits didn't bother me much at all. But Saruman was a waste of a good actor, and there has been a bit of chatter about the "teleporting elf", Galadriel.

Overall, I liked it despite Jackson's excesses, and I'll see it again in 2D, and there's a theater in Wichita that has the 48 fps.

Gotta try that out.

I agree with your take on the film's tension between light-heartedness and epic sonority. The book is the former even in the scenes of danger, spiders and goblins and trolls. It does get epic and heroic in the concluding battle around Dale.

The tree scene was just overblown, with that tension between comedy and derring do.


Leon said...

Sorry BB, can't bring myself to do it. I know I'll just end up screaming at my TV and then throwing it out the window.

I only recently found out about the mountain of bones bit during the paths of the dead. Did they get a few pages from the fourth "Mummy" movie mixed up in the script?

Again, with a more generic "fantasy" film I'd have accepted it. But not Tolkien, he's the upbrow fantasy epic, without the stupid action bits. Jackson should have done a fantasy movie with some action hero (Jason Statham for example) and his cheeseball comedy bits would fit in nicely with the over-the-top action bits.

When I'm proclaimed "Lord-Emperor-Poobah of the World" I'm going to remake this film. Jackson is the artistic director because he is fantastic on the sets/props/design side. Don't know who I'd get to direct it though. We will have to clone Ian McKellen to keep him as Gandalf. Or we get this guy:
And to use a crude expression (forgive me) a little less 'gay' Sam & Frodo.