Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Desolation

So, now I've seen the new HOBBIT movie (Friday morning, with JC and friends). And again (Friday evening, w. JC). And hope to again sometime in the next week or so. It's taking me some time to process my thoughts, so this will just be some first impressions. Warning: Spoiler Alert.

First off, I enjoyed the movie, though I wish there'd been more Tolkien in it. Up till now, there'd been two schools of thought about the Peter Jackson HOBBIT movies. Some people (mainly film critics and non-Tolkien fans) thought the first film, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, was too slow. They complained about the flashbacks that explained what was going on, about the extended scenes of character development and interaction (the dwarves at Bag End, the meeting of the White Council). These folks wanted an action movie, pure and simple, and objected to the parts of the film that were faithful to the book.

At the same time, a separate group (mainly diehard grognard Tolkien fans) thought Jackson had turned the book they loved into an action movie. They complained, at length, and bitterly, about the tendency of orcs to show up every time acting started to break out and things were getting good, in some Middle-earth equivalent of the old crime novelist (Chandler?) who said that whenever things slowed down, he just had a guy come through the door holding a gun. They wanted the action sequences trimmed (or, in some cases, cut altogether) and the mood pieces with character interaction brought to the fore.

Jackson, of course, did both: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY included both the character interaction and the battle scenes. For the new film, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, he seems to have decided to listen to the movie critics and go the action movie route --understandable, as he has no doubt concluded (rightly, I think) that nothing will appease the purists and he might as well ignore them; there's no point of taking the irredeemably hostile into account when deciding how to present his version of Tolkien's story.

The best example of this is the barrel-rider scene. In both movie and the book, Bilbo lurks about the wood-elves caves, comes up with a clever scheme, frees the dwarves, gets them in barrel and the barrels (and himself) in the river. In the book, this is followed by a few scenes of Bilbo alone coping with the difficult journey atop a barrel down the Forest River; a nice character-building moment. I assumed it'd be cut down to one of Jackson's signature montages he does so well, of characters moving through spectacular New Zealand/Middle-earth landscapes. Instead, in the movie he decides that Dwarves hidden inside barrels where we can't see them isn't visually interesting; that having the dwarves riding in open barrels makes the scene more visually dramatic. Fair enough.

Except that being swept down the river and through rapids etc. isn't enough for Jackson: he adds a war-band of Orcs attacking the dwarves as they sail past. And then he has to trump this by having elves attack the orcs attacking the dwarves riding in barrels through rapids. The house that Jack(son) built, so to speak, turns out to have a frantic pace. One of the early reviews I saw of the movie praised it by comparison to the Indiana Jones films, and I think that's justified. It's just that this descriptor covers a lot of ground, from the freshness and excitement of the original RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to the self-parody of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, the hapless follow-up. Luckily I think Jackson delivers a superior grade action movie. It's just that THE HOBBIT is so much more than an action novel.

If the barrel-riding scene is good Indiana Jones, then bad Indiana shows up in the long sequence of The Dragon That Cdn't Shoot Straight. The decision by the dwarves that, rather than die of starvation cowering in some hole, they're going to make a good-faith effort to kill the dragon and give it their all is a good one in that it makes perfect sense in terms of the story as they're telling it. But the fact that the most powerful non-god creature on Middle-earth can't even wound a single dwarf no matter how many times he tries broke secondary belief for me: I quickly realized that for purposes of this scene all the dwarves and Bilbo were immortal and invulnerable, which drained it of all drama. From then until Smaug's departure from the mountain it was just a matter of watching pretty special effects. And they were mighty impressive: no one does this kind of thing better than Weta Workshop. But that's not what I go to movies to see.

Which is not to say there's not much to admire here. Once again Martin Freeman delivers a phenomenal performance as Bilbo. McKellan has said that, as a fellow actor, one of the things he most admires about Freeman is the way he portrays what a character is thinking by the changing expressions on his face (or sometimes just by body language), and that is on display to good effect in several scenes here. Then too, to have a movie in which one of the greatest actors of our times, Sir Ian McKellan, plays one of the great characters of all time, Gandalf the Grey, is something to be cherished. And I have to say that Armitage's Thorin is growing on me, and that I prefer the dwarves in their more disheveled mode (beards and hair braidings coming undone) as they are here in the post-barrel scenes. But I'm sorry that the individual dwarves have less to do, even in background scenes. Of my three favorites, only one (Balin) gets a good amount of screen time; Bofur is less prominent than in the first film, and Bifur vanishes into the background, his quirky little bits being almost entirely omitted.

Hence, although I enjoyed the film, I wanted more Tolkien: more wonder and less action. 

More later on the new characters introduced in this middle film of the series.



David Bratman said...

On the contrary regarding action v. reflection: I felt far less bludgeoned by this movie than by the previous one, though that may be because I was expecting it this time.

I agree that the fact that the dragon was contractually obligated not to kill the dwarves, and the dwarves not to kill the dragon (because Jackson is still imprisoned by the general structure of Tolkien's book, if not by any of its actual plot), was a tremendous flaw in what could have been a good final battle.

In general, it was an adequate routine fantasy war adventure movie. The only question is, what was Tolkien's name doing on it?

Anonymous said...

Despite being less faithful than any the previous Jackson films, there also was less in this film that bothered me, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The final Dwarf/Smaug sequence was ridiculous and over the top, but I can forgive much for the imagery of the golden Dwarf statue (nonsensical though it was). All of Dwarven hubris and greed captured in one brilliant image. And Smaug's reaction to it was brilliant as well; WETA and Cumberbatch did an amazing job of capturing the dragon's avarice just in his expression (and the sight of him covered in gold and shaking it off before flying off to Laketown).

The best way to watch this film would probably be to remove the dialogue tracks and just watch the visuals and listen to the music and sound effects. ;-)

John D. Rateliff said...

Doug K. wrote "the imagery of the golden Dwarf statue (nonsensical though it was). All of Dwarven hubris and greed captured in one brilliant image."

--this is all the more effective if you recognize the statue as having been of King Thror. What better revelation of his hubris and greed than to order a hundred-foot-high statue of himself to be cast in pure gold?*

*though, given how soft and heavy gold is, I'm pretty sure such a statue wd collapse under its own weight, even without the molds being removed too soon, as in the movie.


David Bratman said...

You write, "without the molds being removed too soon, as in the movie."

Were the molds removed too soon? I read Jackson's story as the casting of the statue being a deliberate ploy to first impress Smaug with the grandeur of it and then to pour molten gold all over him, presumably in hopes it would kill him, though that didn't work.

If that wasn't the plan, then why were the dwarves so frantically running around trying to get the smelters lighted up while Smaug was chasing them around the interior of the mountain? What good would a solid golden statue that wasn't intended to trap the dragon into being under it when it melted do?

Or am I supposed to shrug my shoulders and say, "It's a mystery," the way the Osgiliath scenes in Jackson's LOTR were?

Anonymous said...

David, yes that was the plan. I think what John meant (or at least I understood his statement to mean) was that even if the statue had been completed by Thror as originally planned (and not as part of his grandson's frantic and futile plan to destroy Smaug), the statue would have collapsed under its own weight.

Unknown said...

I think it's a bit unfair to talk about "not enough Tolkien" in a movie, that is based only the specific and more action packed 1/3 of the whole story. It's the busy middle part, it's meant to be that way. Despite some excessive indulgences Jackson put into those films, over the course of the two movies he still managed to put more hidden, middle earth lore details and homages to Tolkien, then any one part movie adaptation could hope for.

Also, though Jackson today is much more prone to going over-the-top than Jackson from 10 years ago, but even his most self-indulgent, action scene excesses are always very heartfelt and full of spirit(which in itself is much in tune with "The Hobbit" whimsical, adventureous tone).

The dwarf-Smaug battle is a good example of it. It's completely excessive and overblown, but it is also full of spirit, cinematic energy and serves as a fantastically cathartic moment for the Dwarves, not only showcasing them as a group of brothers facing overwheling odds with almost slapstick vibe, but also gives them a chance to have their own face-to-face showdown with the beast that killed their ancestors. Which is something that Tolkien denied them (if there is one way in which Jackson improved the book, then its the way he used the Dwarves as a group and gave more dramatic weight to their quest)

Unknown said...

I wanted to let you know that your book "Mr. Baggins" is featured in the Appendices to "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" Extended Edition when Richard Armitage talks about his research for the role of Thorin. Thanks for your insightful reviews of the films and awesome research. I don't have a copy of your Tolkien books yet, but they're at the top of my wish list.

mmp88 said...

I agree with you. I'm not a purist, but having read the books, the first movie was excelent! it had Tolkien's world and the changes or new things Jackson added were almost unnoticed or at least made sense and made wanna look DoS so badly. But this one... Tolkien's world was lost due to many action scenes and a love story that wasn't needed... I didn't like the idea of Tauriel when I heard of it, but went to see the movie with my mind open to that, and was amazed by her as a strong fighter elf! that reminded me of the strong women Tolkien wrote about like Galadriel or Eowyn! and the moment when she talks with Kili was so tender like the ones of aragorn/arwen, or the ones in the book of Galadriel/Gimli orEowyn/faramir! I thought it was a great addition! and then.... it was ruined by the Lake Town scene... not only because it made her look ridiculous, but it made her look like a very bad copy of Arwen! and then to make it worse, too much LOTR dialogues and scenes!! I felt I was having many LOTR dejavus.... And the fact Jackson wasn't faithful to the book like in the first movie... I just felt I was looking at an action movie that just by coincidence was called the hobbit and had the characters....
The second time I watched was better, but still can't believe that after 4 amazing movies he decided to do something like this... hopefully the last one will be better.... hopefully...

Unknown said...

I was extremely disappointed by this film. The forced Phantom Menace type allusions to the LOTR trilogy drove me mad! It's one thing to try and capture tone.. or blatantly connect your two trilogies with completely new and ridiculous story lines.. but direct recreations of scenes from trilogy #1 in trilogy #2 is going too far! KINGSFOIL SCENE!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Unknown said...

I definitely agree that this was more like an action film with the characters from the Hobbit rather than an adaptation of the book, which disappoints me. The first film was much better in this regard so hopefully it will get back on track with the third film but somehow I doubt it.

Lalo said...

All I can say, is that this extended vertion of the Disolation will have more of Tolkien's and all that action in the same film, and I'm just waitong for it.

Deniz Bevan said...

I agree! My take was pretty much summed up by "I wanted to see The Hobbit not a video game" (

Unknown said...

jackson leaving out details is fine. if you want the movie to be exaclty like the book then you should just read the book again. what makes a book a good book isnt the same as what makes a movie a good movie.

TCip said...

Not sure if anyone else mentioned this, but what i miss in the character development is the Bromance.
LTR was full of Bromance. Heck the entire first movie was one long Fellowship/Bromance.
the characters here never interact with each other. except for the elf woman who seems to have a thing for short and stout.
and Legolas, gee, could he be any more hummorless?
oh, i forgot, someone did care for someone. Legolas was upset when the Orc was beheaded.

Mr. Body said...

Why can't you all just admit that this movie was complete shit?

Is it that hard? Next year, when this movie is forgotten and no one cares any longer, you can quietly admit it to yourself...this movie was complete shit and Peter Jackson is a fucking tool for screwing up the story past any recognition.

Action is Hollywood's answer to a bad script.

Adam Martin, you are an idiot.
"The dwarf-Smaug battle is full of spirit, cinematic energy and serves as a fantastically cathartic moment for the Dwarves, not only showcasing them as a group of brothers facing overwheling odds with almost slapstick vibe, but also gives them a chance to have their own face-to-face showdown with the beast that killed their ancestors. Which is something that Tolkien denied them (if there is one way in which Jackson improved the book, then its the way he used the Dwarves as a group and gave more dramatic weight to their quest)"

Just go watch some shitty anime and stop praising Jackson for fucking JRR's dead corpse!

The whole reason the dwarves were too scared and sent him in alone was to give gravity and tension to a dangerous encounter. I don't think you'll ever understand how retarded you sound in the above paragraph. I'm sure it made perfect sense when you wrote it. I'm also sure you were completely oblivious to the idea that someone was butchering a novel.

Unknown said...

I am appalled at the amount of ignorant comments left which suggest that Jackson has "butchered" the novel, or, for you finicky, high-brow defenders: the literature.

The Hobbit was realeased, as a novel, some 17 years before The Lord Of The Rings. Tolkien wrote it and intended it as a children's adventure novel, something that is good fun, exciting, period.

The "one ring," for Tolkien writing the Hobbit, was but a "magical ring" that granted its wearer invisibility, nothing more.

Tolkien was a Philologist. He loved and understood language more than the grand majority of us could ever hope. He essentially developed middle-earth as a sort of back drop for the languages he'd created: Quenya and Sindarin.

To avoid turning this into a full-blown research essay, which I currently do not have time for, I will say this: most of what Jackson presents in The Hobbit is true to Tolkien, although perhaps not word-for-word; and I feel he is doing a fantastic job in spelling out HOW it is that Tolkien managed to tie The Hobbit--long after it's initial creation--into the narrative of The Lord of The Rings and it's world in general.

What happened during those years passed between the time in which Bilbo comes back from the adventure as lived out in the Hobbit and when Frodo sets out to destroy the ring?.. These questions, and the answers to these questions, which Tolkien spent his life developing, are being consolidated and integrated in a beautiful way in The Hobbit trilogy.

If Jackson had but done The Hobbit as it is in print, no one would have been arsed to understand how it relates to The Lord of The Rings, save the Ring...

Excuse me if this is a sloppy post, it was written hastily... I just wished to express my point of view.

Unknown said...

Jason, don't be a dick.