Saturday, December 28, 2013

Please Stop Ruining the Hobbit

I just saw the second movie in the Hobbit "trilogy".

The movie itself is a series of pointless sword fighting and action scenes with a cast of a dozen or so flat characters whose stories go nowhere.  I guess if you like Michael Bay movies, go see the Hobbit; you'll love it.

There is precisely one interesting character in the movie, and that is Tauriel.  This is a Peter Jackson original character.  And I'm saying a lot here when I say that Bilbo, Gandalf, and Smaug, the three characters who near single-handedly enchanted my childhood, do not come across as as interesting as some random elf lady practically from legolas by laura, thrown in to appease focus groups.

I've determined that the only way to make sense of the movies is to perceive them as fan fiction.  Extremely expensive, high budget fan fiction.  Peter Jackson is telling his own made-up story using the characters and elements of Middle Earth, and it just happens to vaguely correspond somewhat to the series of events in the Hobbit.  And it's great if Peter Jackson wants to write fan fiction and spend billions turning it in to a movie, but I'm sorry to say that Peter Jackson isn't as good of an author or story teller as J.R.R. Tolkien.

So why is the cinema making the movie about Peter Jackson's fan fiction, and not about Tolkien's story, the one that sold all the millions of copies and inspired all the millions of authors?

And I was really good, too, and I kept from complaining about the first movie.  All I said was, how the heck did Radagast travel 400 miles, over river and mountain and through orc-infested fields, riding a sled pulled by rabbits?  I still don't know the answer to that, by the way.

I don't mind, for instance, that they've made the Necromancer a newcomer to Mirkwood.  In the book, the Necromancer has been there for nearly two thousand years.  Actually, that's where Gandalf first found Thorin's father Thrain to get the map and key; he met him in the dungeons of Dol Guldor a long time ago -- decades, if I recall.  It doesn't really make sense, because Gandalf shows up in the first movie just having the key with no mention of how; and in the second movie he then goes to the Dol Guldor dungeon which is precisely where he gets the key in the first place; and he never mentions exactly when he met Thrain or why Thrain hands Gandalf the birthright of the dwarves at the conclusion of some chance random encounter before running off crazy in to the woods.  It's an obvious plot hole caused by trying to add more drama and evil-overlord stuff to the first movie, and they patched it kind of sloppily, but I didn't mind because it doesn't really change much.

And I don't really mind that Legolas and Galadriel make appearances.  They absolutely do not appear in the book, but you might as well have them there.  Why not, right?

And I don't mind the romance they've shoe-horned in between Tauriel and Kili the dwarf.

I don't even mind that they cast Benedict Cumberbatch to play the voice of Smaug.

I'm not just being nitpicky that he didn't follow the book exactly.  But really, these movies disappoint me.

Let's start at the beginning.

Dwarves have beards.  Dwarves are short, stocky, have wide chests, and long, long beards. Dwarves are not ever a single day's stubble away from being clean shaven.  How is it that Kili finds the time to keep his scruff under control while out on the road?  Did he bring a battery-powered beard clipper with him?  Or does he shave every day?  Thorin is supposed to be two hundred years old and the king of the proudest dwarf clan, and all he's had time to grow out is a goatee.  Then there's Bofur (I think?), who is inexplicably from Newfoundland.  Where did he get a Newfie accent?  Is he just from some different dwarf clan or something?  Do all Blue Mountain dwarfs talk like Canadians?  I mean, a Canadian accent makes as much sense as an English one, but all his other clansfolk sound vaguely Scottish.  Really, there's nothing about the presentation of dwarves that accords with the standard of dwarvishness.  Yes, there is a standard way of treating dwarves in fiction: and it's the standard exactly because it's the way Tolkien described his dwarves.

This is what dwarves look like in more faithful adaptations.  Thorin is first dwarf to left.
Having spoken of the dwarves generally, let's look at Thorin particularly, and how terribly the movie portrayed his character.  Thorin is an arrogant jerk.  He's rude, self-centered, and greedy from the get go.  He's also fairly cowardly, preferring to hide from danger, and preferring to send others (such as Bilbo) in to scout things out whenever there's a risk.  The other dwarves love him because he's their king and he's promising to restore their former kingdom; they don't love him because he's a particularly brave and heroic leader in battle.  Thorin is not a hero.  He is not the hero of the Hobbit, for sure, because Bilbo is the hero of his own book.  So why on earth is the studio trying so hard to make Thorin an honorable, valiant, courageous and loyal leader and warrior?  Why all the shots of him dashing in, sword drawn, ready to stand down the danger that threatens his friends? Why all the triumphant music as the screen zooms to his profile, standing proudly before the sunrise with his hair slightly blowing in the breeze?

Where did they get this from?  Why are they portraying him in that manner?  That isn't the character of Thorin.  It's some completely different character with the same name and ancestry.  Why is he in this film?  Why isn't the real Thorin in this film?

Did the studio think this film needed some kind of handsome, manly hero?  Because it totally doesn't.  The hero of the Hobbit -- and this is arguably one of the reasons why it's become such a success -- is not a strapping warrior, but rather a small and weak little hobbit (hence the name of the story) who manages to get through on luck, clever thinking, and sheer determination to face up to his fears.  That's what makes the Hobbit the story that it is, and that's what enchants readers about it.

One of the best characters of the book is Gandalf.

You probably don't know this if you haven't read a lot of Tolkien stuff, but Gandalf is not just some really old dude with magic powers.  Gandalf is actually what is called a Maiar, which, in simplest terms, is a class of angels.  The Maiar are a lower class of angels compared to the Valar, to be sure, but Gandalf is still an angel.  In particular, Gandalf is one of the Istari, a group of Maiar who were specifically chosen and tasked with the purpose of destroying Sauron.  So is Saruman, and so is Radagast if you can believe it.  That's what they do, it's why they exist: to destroy Sauron and protect Middle Earth.

Meanwhile, the Lady Galadriel is an elf.  She's a very powerful elf, sure, but she's an elf.  It doesn't matter how mysterious and brooding she is, when she shows up at the White Council in Rivendell, the pecking order is very clear: Saruman, Gandalf, then her and Elrond.  And so when you have the scene of her stroking Gandalf's cheek and consoling him and offering to assist him and all that other weirdness, please remember, this is like a human consoling the angel Gabriel and offering to assist him if he needs help.  Or like a three-year-old offering to help put up the Christmas decorations.  Lady Galadriel's power lets her keep her woods pretty.  Gandalf's power lets him control when the rising of the sun.

Also meanwhile, Sauron is also a Maiar.  Yes, he's the same class of angel as Gandalf.  Yet during the showdown scene between them, it seems pretty one-sided: it's Gandalf the old man versus Sauron the evil overlord.  In the wizard fight with Saruman, Gandalf also loses, but there he at least puts up a fight.  Is Sauron really that much more powerful than both Gandalf and Saruman?

An old gripe, but because Sauron is the same class of being as Gandalf, it means that the Nazgul definitely are a lower kind of being.  This goes back to the Return of the King movie, but in the scene in Gondor where the Witchking corners Gandalf and breaks his staff, there is literally nothing about that scene that makes any sense.  You can't kill Gandalf, because he's an angel, Gandalf isn't a man so Gandalf actually can kill the Lord of the Nazgul, and there's no way the Lord of the Nazgul would have the power to actually break the staff at all.  That's like... I don't know, zombie Hitler sword fighting with the archangel Michael and somehow actually disarming him.

It actually happened much more like this.

 It's like the movies don't understand Gandalf at all.

And speaking of Sauron and his servants, what the heck is up with Smaug?  In the book, Bilbo goes in to Smaug's lair, tricks him with flattering talk and riddled speech, wearing the ring the entire time.  Smaug humors Bilbo by talking to him, all while searching the room, fully intending, the instant Bilbo shows himself, to kill the trespasser.  This is an important part of Smaug's character.  Smaug isn't some kind of evil servitor of Sauron.  Smaug doesn't know or care about Sauron and doesn't know or care about evil, either.  Smaug is, in reality, just a dragon.  He's greedy, violent, temperamental, vengeful, egoistical, and vain.  He destroys entire villages in his wrath and steals whatever he wants, kills whatever he wants, does whatever he wants; but he doesn't do those things because he works for Sauron, he does them because that's what dragons do.  Smaug is also definitely not cold and calculating.  He doesn't see an intruder in his halls and then plan out some scheme to make the intruder suffer emotional torment, and he definitely doesn't monologue at the intruder for thirty minutes about how none of his friends care about him: Smaug sees an intruder and eats an intruder.  That's why, in the book, Bilbo keeps the ring on the entire time.

But there's something else missing from this scene, and that is Bilbo's attitude.  This isn't Bilbo trying to butter up the dragon so that it will spare him and let him escape.  The way it plays out in the book reflects Bilbo's character as crafty, witty, and clever.  When Smaug awakens, Bilbo puts on the ring and what begins is a game of cat and mouse.  Smaug is trying to lull Bilbo in to complacency long enough to find him and kill him, while Bilbo is trying to do just the same long enough to observe the treasure, bring some back, and discover if Smaug has any weak points.  He discovers the hole in Smaug's armor by asking the dragon of he is truly invincible; this prompts the dragon to show off his scales, proudly proclaiming they are impenetrable, and this is when Bilbo notices the hole.  The two go back and forth, until, at the very end, almost as a taunt, announces himself as a burglar before dashing out of the cave just a step ahead of the fiery wrath of the dragon.  At this point, Smaug flips out, bursts out of the mountain, and goes to kill the Lakemen, mistakenly believing Bilbo to be one because of his "barrel rider" bit.

The books version gives a lot more character to both Smaug and Bilbo, and makes a lot more sense, too.

Instead, in the movies, Bilbo takes off the ring and Smaug sort of marches around his gold room at Bilbo in a semi-threatening way, telling Bilbo that none of his friends love him and they all abandoned him.  Bilbo argues this while trying to get the Arkenstone, all in plain sight and fifty feet from the mouth of Smaug.  During the semi-threatening marching, Smaug goes on about how much he likes killing things, and how he's all on board with Sauron's plans to get the ring back and plunge all of Middle Earth in to darkness.  This goes on for, like, thirty minutes, until Thorin and Company bravely rush in to rescue Bilbo, just like they never ever do in the book, not even once.  What follows is another 45 minutes or so of running around the dwarf halls being chased by a dragon, jumping in to bottomless pits for no reason, flying around on ropes for no reason, riding wheel barrows down rivers of molten metal for no reason, all to pour molten gold on to a dragon for no reason.  And, thankfully, the dragon is polite enough to sit there in front of the giant gold statue for like a solid two minutes while all the bolts come undone and wait to see if whatever you're going to do is interesting or not.

The most that I can say about the ending is that after they dump several Olympic swimming pools of boiling gold on to the dragon, it just laughs, shakes it off, and basically says "Really guys?  You thought that was going to work?"

Which was my reaction, too. Or it was, when I first figured out what all the senseless running around was for, twenty minutes in to it.  "Really?  You're going to try to scald a dragon?  His internal organs are literally what you just used to light the fire, and you're going to try to scald him with it?"

And howabout Lake Town?  I think they did a pretty good job overall of portraying the city.  It looked like Lake Town should look.  I don't know why they bothered with another Grimma Wormtongue, or the stuff with the Master of the town and revolutions and such, but whatever. It's weird, because the Master of Lake Town is explicitly stated as an elected position, and the problem with revolution that occurs is people demanding and end to democracy and Bard, descended from an ancient line of nobility, be made their king.  Those things didn't bother me so much, though.  The architecture and design of the city was good, and I'm happy with that, and the changes really didn't add or subtract much.  The Master of the town is a kind of oily guy anyway, and true to Tolkien or not, his portrayal in the movie was well done; the kind of villain that you love to hate.

It did bother me that the town is established as constantly crawling with guards and spies and people, so much so that it's impossible to walk without knocking someone over (as happens invariably in every Lake Town scene), and then, right as the orcs and elves are fighting... no one.  There is no one in the streets.  There are no guards anywhere.  There are no spies looking out, not even looking at Bard's house.  There aren't even lights in the windows.  The entire town was somehow persuaded to duck inside their houses for ten minutes and close their blinds while two elves fight off a pack of orcs that inexplicably managed to just traipse across the totally unlit and unguarded bridge.
A suddenly desolate town, while Legolas fights an orc.
Then, right after Legolas leaves... everyone's back out, the guards are chasing Bard through crowded streets, merchants are crying their wares.  What made them all wake up so fast?  What brought them all back out of bed and in to the streets at his hour of night?

For some reason, Laketown is perpetually enclosed in ice.  When they're riding down the river in barrels, the trees are green and grass is growing.  When they get on Bard's ship at the mouth of the river, the trees are green and grass is growing.  The time of the story is established through repeated, explicit pronouncement of characters as being late autumn.  Then, after rowing twenty feet away from shore, now the lake is covered in ice and there's snow everywhere.  That isn't a big deal story wise, it just totally jarred me out of suspension of disbelief.

Pretty much in the exact same scene, we see Bard stop at some random dock and load a bunch of fish in to the barrels.  How did he get all of that fish?  I know of three possible explanations: he bought it, he got it for free, or he agreed to carry it for the fisherman who caught it.  I was trying to figure out which one, when Bard stops Wormtongue Jr. from dumping them by explaining how hard a time people in the town are having and how there will be riots when they find out the Master is dumping fish in to the lake.  Are fish really that scarce?  Then who's this guy downriver with 13 barrels full of fresh fish he can lend out?  Maybe the townsfolk need to be talking to this guy, because he doesn't seem to be having any economic problems.  So, at that scene, I was confused about the supposed scarcity of an item abundantly obtained just a mile away by boat, but I concluded Bard was merely transporting these fish for the fisherman and was going to deliver them or sell them to some fishwife in town. There's no way he got something that valuable for free.

But then he just dumps out all the fish and leaves them there.  "You can keep the fish," he says to the dock worker nearby.

All those fish?  The guy can keep them?  Those precious fish that would cause a riot and spark a revolution?  Those fish that are so scarce not even the Masters second-in-command could bring himself to dump them out?  The ones you picked up, apparently for free, a mile away (and in a place where it was still summer) by the barrel load?  You're gonna just dump them out and forget about them?

Did Bard buy the fish?  How much did he pay for them?  Did he pay a lot?  Or can the hungry and struggling people of Lake Town get on their own boats (they all have them) and ride a mile away to buy all the cheap, abundant fish they want?  Why hasn't Bard told them about this fish source?

Anyone, please, explain the fish situation to me.  Where on a supply and demand curve is Lake Town when it comes to fish?  This really bothered me for such a long time that I missed most of the rest of what happens in Lake Town.

Just for the record, what happens in the book is that the dwarves (who are sensibly sealed in the barrels so that water and orc arrows can't get in) wash up in the barrels on the shore of Lake Town, the Lakemen crack them open, and Thorin immediately reveals himself as King Under the Mountain.  And immediately the people welcome them with weeks of partying.  They are given the finest rooms in town and lots of gifts and treated like kings from the get go.  Bilbo has to actually cajole the dwarves to leave.   There's no sneaky revolutions or spies or evil aldermen.  The Lakemen load the dwarves up with supplies for the rest of their journey.  No one gets sick with Morgul arrows because there weren't even any orcs chasing them in the first place, but even if Kili had fallen gravely ill, any of the multiple townspeople that the movie just showed welcoming them with accolades and adulation would have been happy to take the dwarf in.  Remember, Thorin promised them gold and all the riches of the mountain; of course they'll harbor the ill cousin of the dwarf king.

These people.  Kili could have gone to any of these people.
As a kid, the spider scene was my absolute favorite.  That scene is when Bilbo really transforms from a simple hobbit in to the hero of the story, and is also when the dwarves first start to look up to him.  He puts on the ring and chases the spiders with Sting, all the while taunting them and calling them names.  This gives the dwarves time to escape.  I think they spent way too little time on this in the movie.  It all felt rushed.  They could have saved all the Lake Town and Smaug stuff for movie 3 and given us more spiders.

The scene with Beorn was also downplayed too much.  There's a lot of neat stuff that happens there.  At the very least, they should have shown his animal friends serving them at the table.  That's the sort of CGI thing audiences like to see; dogs walking on two legs wearing aprons and handing out honey cakes.  Where were the dogs servants?  And where were the pony benches?

I think the only thing this movie did really well was the elves.  The elves were good.  I liked Tauriel.  Despite being an insertion, she was the most interesting part of the movie.  The elvish halls were good, the Elf King's cold attitude was good.  This movie did not need Legolas prancing around any more, but whatever, I guess fans of the LotR movies liked Legolas.  He didn't really subtract anything from the movie, so I won't complain.

Fun fact, by the way: in the actual meeting between the Elves and Thorin, all the dwarf king does is beg for food because his people are starving.  He doesn't tell them anything about who he is or what he's doing.  He doesn't proudly refuse their offers for help.  He just begs for food and answers every question by saying that he is "starving".  He did the same  thing with the goblins, too.  That's how badly they've changed Thorin's character.

In summary, the movie either changed elements beyond recognition, or squeezed elements into obscurity.  A lot of time was given to the orc chase (which never happens), the political intrigue in Lake Town (which never happens), and the chase with Smaug (which never happens).  Almost no time was given to the meeting with Beorn (which does happen), or to the fight with the spiders (which does happen), or even to the meeting with the eagles (which does happen).

I guess my question is, why is Peter Jackson making these movies?  Near as I can gather, he's making these movies because he's a huge Tolkien fan and loves the books.  And also near as I can gather, he's making these movies, based on the book the Hobbit and not based on, say, the fan fiction I wrote when I was eight, because the Hobbit is a classic story that millions of people grew up reading and loving, and most other stories aren't.  If you're making a movie based on a famous book with a huge cult following, and if you're doing it as a tribute to your love of the book, then maybe you should actually make a movie about the book.

Is all I'm saying.


Jim Ross, Cinematographer said...

Couldn't agree more. When I saw the movies I was scratching my head saying "Wasn't Thorin and old man? Now he's a dashing hero." And I too seem to recall him as pretty darned cowardly. None of them went charging anywhere with swords raised, they tended to run with tails between their legs! LOL!

The Hobbit I remember reading in my youth portrayed Bilbo as being the bravest, not the meek one of the group. He was constantly egging them to go on. Perhaps you can't have Gimley acting like Conan the Barbarian in one movie and then his Kin acting like Smurfs in the next.
Kudos on your review!

Anonymous said...

Yup, I'm a 22 year old woman. This is, in fact, relevant because I hate Cuntriel. She's not in the book, for one. I don't relate to her at all, but apparently, women like "strong women" in literally every fucking thing. Which is funny because she is so fucking weak, like seriously, I wished Bolg killed her or Thranduil beheaded her. I can't stand her. I totally related to Bilbo, who is a man, funnily enough. But Jackson seems to think women need cunty women to be able to relate. Let's not forget that there is only like three red haired elves in Middle Earth, Mahtan, his daughter Nerdanel, and one of Nerdanel's sons. Who, might I add, doesn't live in Mirkwood. I walked out of the theater in tears when Tauriel appeared. May be an overreaction but I was so upset with it. I didn't even watch the third movie, and I don't plan to. I don't go in expecting a movie to be EXACTLY like the book, but I at least expect it to have the same feel. LOTRs did that, The Hobbit did not. I personally liked the way Thorin looked, but I'm a woman attracted to hot men so that's probably why. I only really liked the first movie because of the company companionship. I only read LOTRs and The Hobbit once in my life. I don't remember all of what happened but what I do remember, the movies butched it all up. Cuntriel is was got me, but reading all of the shit they fucked over from the actual books, I'm disgusted. I'm actually going to get rid of all my Jackson related merchandise. I'm only keeping the books from Tolkien. I really hope he doesn't decide to try, and fail, to do the Silmarillion.