Monday, December 30, 2013

There and Back Again, Again

Last year I - well, "reviewed", I suppose, is the right term - the first Peter Jackson installment of The Hobbit.

If you recall from that (and you probably don't; I think that post has been viewed something like eight times total...) I rather liked Jackson's version, noting that the one question I had was how he was handling the overall "tone" of the story. Here's what I said then:
"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."
With the second installment The Desolation of Smaug Jackson clearly thumps down on the "yea, verily" side of the question. There's no gray here; this is not The Hobbit. This is The Phantom Nazgul Menace, the prequel to the Lord of the Rings.

Now I'm not entirely opposed to that, OK?

I'm not some sort of Tolkien purist and I can enjoy these films as films, as one man's vision of Middle Earth, without feeling the need to bitch about every departure from the Canon. Because the Canon itself is far from perfect.

Lance Mannion - who wrote a fine review of this film - sums up some of the issues with The-Hobbit-as-written:
"The Hobbit was written for children but to be read by grownups who believe children need to be and want to be protected from life’s harsher realities.

The narrator’s jolly, confiding, chummy tone is meant to fool adults listening to themselves as they read out loud at bedtime that the story they’re telling won’t give the kids nightmares. They hear The Hobbit as a merry little fairy tale about a funny character with pointed ears, furry feet, and a pot-belly who goes on a treasure hunt and has some comical adventures along the way before coming home, safe and sound and rich, to live happily ever after in his snug little house in the ground in that cheerful and protected place with the comfortingly bucolic name the Shire and name that insists this is a place where nothing scary ever happens.

Children listening aren’t fooled. They know better.

The Hobbit is about what Terry Pratchett says all the old stories are about, sooner or later.

It’s about blood."
And y'know what?

That's fine. It's one artist's interpretation of another, and I can work with that. I can enjoy "Peter Jackson's The Hobbit" alongside J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. One is different from the other, but much as I enjoy Tolkien's work it's not without flaw (get me going on the whole pointlessness-of-the-entire-Tom-Bombadil-episode-in-The-Fellowship sometime...) or without the possibility of improvement by others' hands.

And while I was initially not particularly pleased with Jackson's treatment of the entire captive-of-the-Sylvan-elves segment and the inclusion of the character of Legolas in a story that seems well-off without him, Mannion makes some good points about that as not at all a bad emendation. I'll reserve judgement on that bit, then, until the final installment.


A couple of Jackson's choices seemed a trifle ripe to me; several minor and one that seems to me to be a very large misunderstanding of both the story and its main character that, in turn, does significant damage to the story and Jackson's telling of it.

First, the small stuff:

Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel character and her budding romance with Aiden Turner's Kíli. Call me a cynic on this one. Lilly and Turner both do adequate work with their characters in this film, but unless Jackson plans to simply rewrite the casualty list from the Battle of Five Armies we already know where this one is heading; both these two might as well be showing their pictures of each other around to their pals in their respective squads, "Tauriel" being the Sylvan Elvish and "Kíli" the Dwarvish for "deadmeat".

Call me a curmudgeon, too. It kinda irks me that after the Eowyn-Faramir romance, one of my favorite bits of byplay from the Lord of the Rings, got cut out of Jackson's version he manufactures this hot-hot-hot-elf-on-dwarf romance out of whole cloth knowing that it's gonna end about as badly as any romance can.

The entire sequence between Smaug and Bilbo (and then Thorin & Co.) in Erebor. In the original Bilbo's conversations with Smaug are one of the better pieces of writing that Tolkien ever did, from Bilbo's slippery verbal fencing with the great wyrm to his discovery of the weakness in Smaug's armor (and subsequent role in the dragon's fall...) to the not-laughing-at-live-dragons as Bilbo dashes back up the secret passage. I was anticipating a terrific, ominous, creepy scene complete with the verbal talents of Martin Freeman's Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug while the delightfully-scary CGI dragon looms over Bilbo and us.

Well, what I got was, frankly, a fucking mess.

Mannion had the same issue I had with the Smaug character. Instead of the dangerously cunning serpent - all the more dangerous for holding that immense power in check as he riddles with Bilbo - we got a standard-issue D&D dragon complete with standard-issue voice. The dangerously cunning serpent is reduced to a thug.


But worse yet was the completely unnecessary extended chase-scene between the dragon and Thorin & Co that followed. That was a complete fucking clusterfuck, a Warner-Brothers-cartoon level piece of idiotic slapstick and action-movie thud-and-blunder culminating in perhaps the most moron-grade "special effect" I've ever seen - the dissolving-molten-gold-giant-dwarf-statue thing.

From beginning to end that entire bit was a disaster.

First, because as a sequence it was loud, incoherent, and useless. And, second, because it overwhelmed and undercut the earlier Bilbo-vs-Smaug scenes, poorly conceived as they were.

Bad, bad piece of filming; one of the worst I've seen from Jackson yet.

As for the remainder of the changes, well, like I said; I'm fine with the notion that this isn't "The Hobbit" but Peter Jackson's take on the original work. I wasn't pleased with what he did with the Beorn sequence, or the fight against the spiders in Mirkwood, but his version wasn't entirely discreditable to my mind and I can live with what he filmed. I would have done things a little differently, but I could tolerate his vision.

Same-same the orc-fight during the barrel escape from the Elvenking's halls; not what I would have done with the scene but not entirely unworkable.


This episode of the film series introduces one theme that, I thought, was a complete misunderstanding of the entire Hobbit-LotR cycle and a big, big, mistake.

That's how Jackson treats Bilbo's relationship to The Ring.

Now this is not a universal opinion. For example, it seems from his review that Mannion actually likes Jackson's version a trifle better:
"We know Bilbo kept the ring. What we maybe didn't know or maybe only suspected or knew in our hearts but didn't want to believe is that Bilbo didn't make a mistake because he didn't know better. Jackson is showing us that Bilbo knew and kept the ring anyway.

Right away after he finds it in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo senses there's something odd and disturbing about the ring. In The Desolation of Smaug it's dawning on him he needs to get rid of it. Since we already know he's not going to, we know that what's ahead in There and Back Again is Bilbo's moral failure. The hero-hobbit is going to fail to resist the temptation the hero-king Isildur failed to resist, the temptation the hero Boromir will fail to resist, the temptation Aragorn can only resist by letting Frodo continue to suffer on his and everyone else's behalf. With what he's doing with Bilbo, Jackson's effectively gone back in time to set up the need for the Fellowship and the need for its being Frodo who carries the ring.

This is what really makes The Desolation of Smaug more than a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It's the chapter in which the plot of The Lord of the Rings really gets underway."
But that's where Mannion and I disagree and what I see as Jackson's biggest screwup. I don't see that Bilbo keeps the ring because he's a hero, because (as Mannion says) the adventuresome Tookish side of him is coming out, and he's drawn to the sense of Power and Danger he feels from it.

I think he keeps the ring because he doesn't feel it.

It's the shrewd, hardheaded Took in him, the guy who finds that he thoroughly enjoys getting the better of other hobbits (and dwarves, elves, and dragons, come to that) by trickery.

Frodo as Ringbearer is Christ-with-his-cross; I agree - he is as Mannion describes him, a saint and martyr. He feels the power and dread of the Ring intensely and is ground down by it as he's drawn into it.

But I see Bilbo as Ringbearer as completely different. He's a bit of a wideboy, indeed, to him the Ring is nothing more than a nifty gimmick he uses to turn invisible to steal stuff. It's a burglar's tool to him, and he uses it as nothing more than a tool.

He spends the years between The Hobbit and the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring using it to duck local busybodies and prank his neighbors.

That's how he manages to stay free of the corruption of the Ring; he treats it like a shiny gold lockpick.

He's not a hero, not hungry for power. He's a retired wideboy, a former-burglar in slippers with his pipe, and his comfort, and his gold gimmick to play tricks and outdeal people. A tragic hero? A Boromir? An Isildur?

Not our Bilbo.

I understand why Jackson gives Bilbo a Frodo-esque frisson of horror in his handling of the Ring, why he shows us the Lidless Eye (And, incidentally, why he makes Smaug a sort of super-orc, a minion of the Dark Lord in this film, instead of just a big ol' dragon greedy for loot and furious with competition); he's using the theme of the One Ring to make The Hobbit into a genuine prequel to his LotR films.

But to my mind that diminishes The Hobbit.

And that's too bad. The Hobbit is a genuinely great story in its own right; a dark and bloody tale of adventure and war, of heroism and cowardice, of high intentions and low cunning, of vaunting ambitions and blind groping around in the dark.

I want Jackson to make that book into a movie; I want him to respect the story for its own worth, to do it justice on its own terms.

But by making the Ring in The Hobbit into what it will become in The Lord of the Rings, into the Great Matter that is the center of the greater story, he makes what is on its own a damn good little story smaller and lesser; in my opinion in this Jackson shows a lack of understanding, and lack of respect, for his own source material.

And that's a damn shame.


Leon said...

They should never have been connected, they're two very different books that happen to share the same world. He should have done it like that - and probably in two films instead of three based on everything I've read.

After watching Fellowship and Two Towers I recognized that my vision of Tolkien is very different from Jackson's and skipped on everything else he's done. Doing so has kept my sanity and saved on dental bills.

FDChief said...

It's funny, Leon; you're not the first person I've run into who feels that strongly about Professor Tolkien's work.

I don't, really. I enjoy the books, I always have, but not to the point of taking them as canon to the point of getting upset if someone takes liberties with it. I do like to see my imagined pictures of Tolkien's world come to life and just accept that another person's vision isn't going to match mine exactly...

Julia Davis said...

Well stated. You know that I am in total agreement with you on many of the points you make. Epic fail in Erebor all the way around. There is no excusing the poor decisions by PJ there. None. It is akin to a crime for me.

It isn't that this falls so far short of the Hobbit of my minds eye or what I envision the Professor to have wanted, it is that the works of LotR's and The Hobbit are NOT THE SAME works. They can't be made to be the same. Forcing it to be that way is the major malfunction. I get it, okay. I understand why Mr. Jackson wanted to tie the films together. Using the ring to do so was simply gag worthy and makes me appear to be sucking on lemons as I write.

The reality is that Mr. Bilbo Baggins from the get go is portrayed incorrectly. Not that Martin Freeman isn't brilliant, because he is! But he would still have been a brilliant Bilbo played as written. Read the damned book, please. Bilbo was a "frightened rabbit" "shaking and quaking" ... not a hero at all. He only does one really heroic thing and that is how he handles the Arkenstone. Every other heroic thing he does he uses the ring as a foil for. He is clever, no doubt. But would he have made the same choices without the ring? How could he have saved all the dwarves from the spiders without it? Or verbally dueled with Smaug without it? Or got them released from the Wood Elves without it?

As you wrote, it was because he uses the ring to get some street cred. He is a burglar. Without the ring he is a squeaking, frightened little creature who is ALMOST pitiable just standing there looking useless. BUT..he is a FUN write...he is a fun read. The Hobbit (whilst bloody to be sure) is an easy bloody to take. It is easy on the heart and on the mind. AS it is SUPPOSED to be. I really resent that we didn't get to see THAT Bilbo...

And that is where it all began to go wrong for me. I could write all day about the shortcomings of the movie, where I really wanted to see my vision (book vision) on the screen....most of it I could deal with and accept. With a few exceptions. But..the fundamental cancer is still there.

A roller coaster ride is fun and exciting, at the end of the day you are still just going around in a big circle. No?

FDChief said...

But in a sense you could say that about any sort of adventure fiction, Julia; if you're unhappy about not getting somewhere you won't enjoy the ride. I get your unhappiness about Jackson's vision not matching your own.

That's where I think the lack of deep affection for JRRT's original gets me through these films. Don't get me wrong; I truly enjoy the old professor's words and respect his work as the fundamental basis for pretty much ALL the "heroic fantasy" genre as we've read it in the post-WW2 period.

But I also keep running across the parts that remind me that the Middle Earth books were hugely influenced by his love of philology and languages. I don't think that the LotR was created as backstory for Sindarin and Quenya...but it wasn't peripheral to them, either. As an author JRRT has his quirks; a direct translation of his work to the screen would be, IMO, damn near unwatchable.

So I've enjoyed Jackson's work for what it is; HIS vision of JRRT's stories. I felt that his version of the LotR wasn't discreditable and enjoyable in itself and for itself - with the usual sorts of dissatisfaction everyone has at seeing something they've enjoyed and envisioned brought to the screen by someone with a different vision.

I had the same general feeling about the first Hobbit installment, too. It was only with this one that I thought the Jackson had made to really unfortunate choices and showed a lack of respect for his material. I'm hesitant at this point to consider his translation of the story utterly wrongheaded, but I now have much lower expectations of his final chapter than I had hoped for...

Sam Creecy said...

I enjoyed all the comments and noted that we all seem to suffer from the same malady. That is; We read the books first and saw the films later. In that sequence, we come to expect certain events to happen in the film. If I had seen the films before reading the books, I can only wonder what my thoughts might have been. I've read Hobbit, LoTR and The Silmarillion many times. I dread the Silmarillion film when it comes out.

Sam Creecy