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Thursday, January 9, 2014

In Defense Of The Hobbit Movies

**Note: if you want no inkling of what will happen in the third movie and have not read the book, just to be safe, go no farther.  Unless, y’know, you don’t care.  In which case, carry on**

            If you’ve been following this blog since last December (of 2012), you are probably aware that I really, really liked both the first and second Hobbit movies.  I ended up seeing the first one four times in theaters (tied with The Dark Knight for my own personal record), and last week I saw Desolation Of Smaug for the second time as well.  I also rewatched the first again after my girlfriend got me the DVD for Christmas, and yeah, for me, it held up just fine.  I think both movies are very good (but not great) and very fun adventures, each with a few scenes of genuine excellence that really make me feel like I’m seeing the world of Tolkein come to life.   

            And apparently, I seem to be increasingly alone among my circle of friends who thinks that. 

            Alright, that’s not entirely true, I am not wholly alone in my opinion.  Both films have a plus 60% percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a great many critics actually lauding the second one as even better than the first.  However, amongst my own circle of acquaintances, I’ve noted a range of opinions on the movies as divided as any I’ve ever encountered concerning a movie.  Some hated the first one and loved the second one, and some in reverse.  Some strongly dislike both, and feel that Jackson’s efforts to make the series a trilogy betray the original intent of the author by stretching 300 pages into 500+ minutes of movie.  One writer directly labeled the movie’s fight scenes as a "violent betrayal" of the anti-war message that pervades both The Hobbit and LOTR

            Let me first say that, for the most part, yes, I completely get where most of these criticisms are coming from.  Both Hobbit movies are far more noticeably flawed than LOTR was, even in its silliest moments.  And, as I’ve said twice now in my reviews, the films undercut themselves even more by drawing too much of the focus away from Bilbo (although a bit of that, which I’ll get to shortly, is perfectly justified).  However, I also think that a lot of said critiques overlook the series’ stronger points, along with a number of changes made to the source material that, honestly, I would have made myself had I been helming this project.   

            First off, let’s look at one of the most common complaints I’ve heard, which usually goes along the lines of, “You can’t make 300 pages of a children’s story into 500 minutes of movie!  You just can’t!”  Excuse my beginner’s-level French, but why the hell not?  There is no solid and accurate standard you can apply to find out the “right” translation of pages in a book to minutes in a film, because in both cases, the length doesn’t matter.  It’s the content and quality that does. 

            Obviously, there are instances where this argument does hold more water.  I’d be scratching my head as much as anyone if, for example, Jackson followed up the last Hobbit installment with plans to launch a new trilogy based on The Little Prince.  In regards to this particular franchise, I’m less-inclined to give ground to claims of the movies being over-long.  This is not to say that the Hobbit movies aren’t unnecessarily padded in spots, because they are; both could easily be 30-40 minutes shorter, and there was no reason to hold off on Smaug’s attack on Laketown. 

            However, having reread the book twice now since the first movie came out, to be quite honest guys, no, I do not think you could make a good, faithful adaptation of The Hobbit with a single, 2.5 hour movie- there are just too many plot elements and world details that would have to be set up in some way to make sure the movie makes even one iota of sense to people who didn't read the book.  Don’t believe me?  Well, let’s list the plot elements that are most essential to telling the story and establishing characters that Jackson has taken from the book so far- the party at Bag End, the encounter with the trolls (it’s Bilbo’s first taste of life in the wilder parts- plus it’s just plain funny), translating the runes at Rivendell, being captured by goblins and saved by Gandalf, Bilbo getting lost and finding the Ring (and Gollum), being cornered outside the mountain by wolves and saved by eagles, meeting Beorn and informing him of their quest, getting lost and twice-captured in Murkwood, escaping via the barrels and thus encountering the people of Laketown (all of which are more moments for Bilbo to shine as the story’s hero), becoming familiar with the people of Lake-Town, setting off to the mountain, finding the door, sending Bilbo down to meet Smaug, and pissing him off enough that he sails out to seek revenge on the humans. 

            That’s not even everything in the book- those are the most essential plot elements Jackson stuffed into the first two movies alone.  When you throw in all the stuff that comes later in the book, I’m convinced that any truly faithful adaptation would need at LEAST two movies of about 2.5 hours apiece, and given that Jackson is making a thus-far interesting effort to include materials from the Appendices, I honestly have no problem with this book also being made into a trilogy.  So, in short, I get some complaints with the time, but for the most part, I never care about length unless the film is REEEEAAAAALLY dragging its feet, which these movies definitely don’t do.  At least, not too much. 

            Now, for specifics, here’s a few other aspects of the film that I really, really like, things that more than up for their flaws (in my book).   

First, and most importantly, Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo

            This is the hinge upon which this entire series turns.  Yes, fellow purists, I did notice that he’s noticeably younger than Ian Holm in Fellowship, and yes, that is a not-insignificant break with the books, where it’s clearly established that he doesn’t visibly age in the 60 years between each story.  Quite frankly, I don’t care, because Martin Freeman captures the essence of this character just as well as Sean Astin nailed it as Sam.  His scenes, be they straight from the book or improvised, are easily the best of both movies.  He stammers, he feels overwhelmed, he gets frightened, but he also brings across Bilbo’s cleverness, courage, and ultimately big heart that give The Hobbit its much-needed emotional center.    

In the book, the dwarves are royal douchebags

            The first time I reread The Hobbit this past year, the first time since Middle School I’d picked it up, I was legitimately shocked at how, well, douchy the dwarves are to Bilbo.  I don’t mean that they’re hapless- that’s part of the joke in the book, although the movie does alter than as well- I mean that they go out of their way, at every turn, to blame each and every misfortune that occurs on the hobbit, and they all then proceed to sit on their hands until Bilbo, grumbling with exasperation, comes up with a solution.  I’m fine with that in the book, since the focus is nearly entirely on Bilbo anyway, but in a movie, I’d much rather have 12 goofy dwarf sidekicks (and Thorin) that I actually have SOME feelings of affection for.  Thorin is properly dignified as a dwarf king, Balin and Bofur get some nice moments with Bilbo, and while the others are varying shades of goofy and hapless like in the book, at least they aren’t perpetual whiners.  Imagine spending a trilogy of movies listening to THAT. 

            While we’re on the topic of dwarves…..

If you think the dwarves have little to no distinct characteristics in the movies, they have even less in the book

            No, the movies haven’t given us 12 distinct and memorable characters, but at least we can pick out Balin, Bofur, Dwalin, Bombur, Fili, and Kili from the crowd.  In the book, Thorin is the ONLY one of the dwarves with any identifiable characteristics, not to mention his own plot arc.  Bombur is the fat one.  Kili and Fili are “the young ones.”  And that’s all Tolkein gives us.  Nothing else is offered to help us form 12 different images in our heads.  Give Jackson credit for not only making the dwarves funny and likable, but also managing to make at least half of them memorable to some degree. 

Jackson takes the time to show us Bard and The Master and set up their conflict BEFORE Smaug burns Laketown to a crisp

            Yes, The Master and Bard are indeed in the book, but The Master gets the briefest of introductions when the party first arrives, and Bard is practically an after-thought, only mentioned AFTER Smaug starts burning everything.  And it’s not until even later that we are told about their personal political conflict, when the people suddenly proclaim that they want Bard as King, and Tolkein says, in a very simplified nutshell, “Oh yeah, and the guy who killed Smaug just happens to be from an old line of kings, also The Master’s a greedy porkface.  Hijinks will ensue!” 

            Why do I like Jackson’s version more?  Because it gives us a reason to care about what happens to the town- we’ve now seen bits of the people and the poverty in which they live, and we’ve seen enough to know that Bard is this film’s version of Aragorn and that The Master is basically Grima with extra pillows in his nightie.  Contrary to what you might think, this is of no small importance, because the struggle between Bard and The Master, along with the fate of Laketown, is a huge factor that drives the plot after the dragon dies, not only for Bilbo and the dwarves, but also for the involvement of the elves and the huge battle that ends everything.  ANY decent adaptation would have to spend time on this anyway, so, in my opinion, good on Jackson for getting this part out of the way before all the insanity hits the fan in the next movie. 

The inclusion of Radagast

            I know, I know this one’s controversial, and even I find the bird-poop hair and rabbit sled too much, but honestly, if there was one thing that disappointed me about LOTR the first time I read it, it was how short a stick Radagast gets in the two pages or so that he gets.  I’ve ached for the chance to get more of the other Istari, and while I won’t hold out hope that the blue wizards will appear in the finale (although that would easily be its own special flavor of AWESOME), I’m perfectly happy to see Radagast get a couple of chances to shine in this series.  Hopefully he gets some cool things to do in the last movie. 

            Speaking of wizards….

We are reminded that Saruman wasn’t always an evil tool

            We get absolutely nothing in any of the LOTR movies to indicate that Saruman was anything other than a diabolical mastermind waiting to crack, so even though it didn’t drive the story very much, I liked seeing him and Gandalf get to interact in a normal friendly manner (and they will most likely do so again in the last movie).  It’s a nice reminder that the man did start out as the Middle Earth equivalent of an angel. 

All the stuff with the Necromancer is both relevant to the plot and….well…

            I love the scenes involving the Necromancer.  Yeah, in the book he’s not the direct cause of the goblin armies massing for an assault of the mountain, but his presence is the reason why Gandalf abandons the dwarves seemingly at random several times.  And it IS established in the book that he, Saruman, and the other Istari drove the Necromancer out right before the big battle, so…..yeah, why not throw it in to the movies?  It’s a chance to give non-readers more of Sauron’s history, plus it’s just always cool to see Gandalf do magic stuff.  

The party at Bilbo’s, the encounter with trolls, Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum, the spider attack, the barrel-ride, and all of Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug

            These are the parts of the movie that stick closest to the book (barrel-riding aside), in many cases nearly word-for-word, and they all rank among Bilbo’s smartest/funniest/most awesome moments in the overall story, so it’s small wonder that they are also my favorites parts of both movies.  Even the barrel-riding segment, stretched to an absurd extreme with pursuing goblins and elves, is the right kind of exuberant excess; rollicking, try-and-not-laugh-at-this fun.  The motion capture technology used for both Gollum and Smaug is as incredible to see as ever, and Benedict Cumberbatch proved himself to be just as perfect for Smaug as Andy Serkis was for Smeagol.  They are the parts that, for me, best capture the world of Middle Earth, along with the overall tone of the book.  More than anything else, the chance to see these (and a few other) moments brought to life on the big screen are more than enough reason for me to never regret purchasing the tickets to my (thus far) half-dozen showings of these movies. 

            In summation, those are my primary reasons for liking and being very happy with this film series.  Do I get bothered by the other flaws with them?  Of course.  Do I wish that both movies didn’t drag as much towards the end?  Yes I do.  But, in a way, the fact that I enjoy both movies so much, even though their problems are very, very visible, is another testament to the strength, staying power, and imaginative force of the world Tolkein created.  Even when done in a flawed, egotistical, and overly excessive manner, there’s something irresistible about the man’s stories, something that always manages to shine through, no matter how flawed or great the adaptation is.  Hell, I’ve seen a staged KIDS version of The Hobbit (no I am not joking), and even that managed to hold my attention 'til the end.   

            So even though these movies can easily be argued over and debated for hours on end, at least they give something interesting to talk about.  This journey may not be quite as epic as the last one, but I am very, very glad to be a part of it, and I will be a  genuinely sad man indeed when I no longer have any Middle Earth movies to look forward to seeing in theaters. 

-Noah Franc

1 comment:

  1. My friend, you make some very good points about why the Hobbit series has been working for you, and why Jackson and Co. have to take liberties with the material. You’re absolutely right about there being no straight formula for adapting a book to the screen—my issue is more with the additional material material (e.g., the Pale Orc and the love triangle subplot) that isn’t really developed beyond the fact of its existence. But more on that later…

    Martin Freeman is a stud. ‘Nuff said.

    I agree with you about the dwarves in terms of their portrayal in the book. However, I’m not sure how well that translates to the screen. I’m thinking particularly of the kitchen sequence with the song—in the book, we’re given some time to acclimate to the insanity, whereas in the film Jackson paces it much faster, so that the song seems to come out of a different movie.

    With Bard and Lake-Town, I like the concept of what Jackson and Co. were going for…but the execution doesn’t necessarily justify the intention. The truth is, we really don’t know a lot about Bard’s family. It’s as if the filmmakers had a checklist of things to include. I was never very convinced by the plight of Lake-Town in the film, because none of its amounts to anything beyond the plot of a Saturday morning cartoon. The problem isn’t that Jackson is trying to flesh out Middle-Earth, but that in trying to flesh it out he adds fluff without substance.

    One of my big problems with this film (and with the first) is that Jackson can’t seem to make up his mind on the tone. The book is a comic fable, and Jackson tries to capture that mood—until he wants to suddenly connect us back to The Lord of the Rings, which was decidedly more serious. Hence we have moments like Bard’s backstory with his ancestor (recalling Aragorn’s legacy with Isildur) or Kili being healed by Tauriel (recalling Frodo being healed by Arwen). These moments seem to jar with the inherent of silliness of the dwarves, for example. Again, I’m talking strictly about the film here.

    Not to mention that studio interference—the love triangle was not in the original script until the studio stepped in. So now we have plot points which are completely non-artistic in conception.

    I don’t hate these films, but I find the more I think about them, maybe the less I like them. I do, however, acknowledge its few moments of greatness (Smaug for example, or that fantastic scene in the first film where Bilbo stays his hand from felling Gollum).
    Anyway, hope my ramblings aren’t too incoherent. Love reading you stuff!