Sunday, December 21, 2014


So, I'd been apprehensive about seeing the new HOBBIT movie, based on early reviews which praised the film for having jettisoned all the acting bits for one long spectacular special effects sequence of battle scenes (not being terribly impressed by special effects myself, however well done; I prefer plot and dialogue and acting).

I've now seen the film, and liked it better than I expected, and liked it better yet on a second viewing. I don't know how well it'll hold up to repeated viewings, but there's enough of what I like in a Tolkien movie to keep me coming back for more. And, contrary to my expectation, the battle scenes and long set pieces of one-on-one combats didn't pall on rewatching, as I expected them to.

I'll want to see it again (and soon!), but I suspect in the end this trilogy of movies will be like the LotR films: My favorite will be the first one, which sets up the scene and story, introduces the major characters, and relies heavily on the interaction between them. Then the second introduces a lot of new characters and delivers several of the most satisfying scenes and performances. Then the third has to both follow-up and pull together all the ongoing plot threads and at the same time deliver on a climax worthy of all those hours of set-up. Inevitably, the third film in each series draws more on Jackson's innovations (as opposed to Tolkien's original text) than the previous two have done,* meaning there's less for the purist in the final films of each set than in the ones that preceded them.

Even so, 'less' is a relative term, and luckily the claim (as criticism or praise) that it was one long roller-coaster ride turns out not to be true.  The character interaction bits that Jackson does so well (and with such an impressive cast to do it with) are still there, with Martin F's Bilbo and McKellan's Gandalf** and Armitage's Thorin all given a chance to shine. It's quite touching how, as Thorin descends into madness, his friendship with Bilbo (one of the high points of the second film) endures -- which makes Bilbo's betrayal all the harder on him when it comes. The minor roles are also well-done: Galadriel and Saruman and Elrond and even Radagast all shine. The wizard-fu is much better done this time than in the Gandalf-Saruman duel way back in 2001*** and we get a clear sense of just how powerful Galadriel is (despite some regrettable makeup choices). And while he can hardly be called a 'minor role' despite his relatively brief amount of screen time in this third film, Cumberbatch's Smaug is now firmly established as the greatest, bar none, of all the movie dragon's I've ever seen.

Of the other continuing roles, most (Thranduil, Legolas, Tauriel, Azog, Bolg) are just the same here as in the previous film. Frye's Master of Laketown is just as bad, but luckily his performance is soon cut short. Sadly to say, his lackey Alfrid lingers on and on and on with his cringeworthy antics for most of the film's running time. Bard is much better than in the previous film, mainly because they keep him busy so there's less moping around. Pretty much the only new character of note is Dain, here portrayed as a mad-eyed Scot.

The film's greatest departure from the original is the rather baffling omission of any wargs from the Battle of Five Armies. Given that they were one of the five armies from which the conflict gets its name, this seemed an odd omission (for the record, the 'five armies' of the book are the dwarves, elves, men, goblins, and wargs; those of the film are the dwarves, elves, men, orcs of Dol Guldor, and orcs of Mt Gundabad). Its greatest continuity gap is the presence of multiple trolls in the attack on Dale, all moving about in the sunlight with no explanation of how they manage this feat (it cd be rationalized that the book describes the bats as forming a cloud that darkens the day, but that's not the case in the movie, where they just flap around menacingly).

Ironically, the one thing which Jackson did to make this third movie more like the book than the previous two was to the film's detriment. Tolkien does not individualize all the dwarves of Thorin & Company much, whereas Jackson went out of his way in the first film to make each a distinct personality. There was less of that in the second film but it was still present. Now with the third and final film Jackson has reverted to Tolkien's example: of Thorin's companions Kili gets his own subplot, Fili gets enough development to prove he wd have been a good and worthy King under the Mountain, and Balin and Dwalin get a line or two apiece, while the rest fade into anonymity. A pity, given what a good job he'd done with them before. Let's hope the extended edition goes some way to fixing this shortcoming -- and I'm curious to see if, as seems to be the case in that quick glimpse of all the surviving dwarves near the end, Bifur finally gets that stone axe removed from his forehead.

Speaking of proportion, one thing I've seen over and over among the nay-sayers who hated the film (not all of whom have bothered to see it) is the whole argument that these shd have been two movies instead of three, or even a single one-shot film. Some go so far as to try to figure out how many pages of Tolkien's book correspond to how many minutes of film time, trying to quantify the qualitative -- a vain task if ever there was one.   I don't understand this argument at all; it seems to me wholly specious. Let me put it this way: if someone told me I could visit one of my favorite places in the world once, or twice, or three times, the idea that three times was too many and I ought to be satisfied with fewer doesn't, all other factors being equal, make sense. The same applies if they asked if I wanted a cup of my favorite tea -- why wdn't I want a second or third cup, if they were offered and I was still thirsty? I love Tolkien's works, and I'm glad to see more of them, not less. Tolkien himself said the chief flaw of THE LORD OF THE RINGS was that it was too short. I'm glad the original book wasn't abridged before publication as his potential publishers wanted. I'm happy there have been so many posthumous publications, and that the HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH SERIES ran to a full twelve volumes. I'm glad Peter Jackson got to do THE LORD OF THE RINGS as three movies, not two or one, and I'm glad he got to do THE HOBBIT as well. Those who hate Tolkien or the Jackson films or both think less is more. For the rest of us more is more, and less is less.

The parallel argument, that if the films were shorter there'd be more Tolkien in them, is demonstrably false.  In the extended editions, which are longer than the theatrical releases, there are scenes from the book that don't appear in the shorter version of the film. A good case in point is the recently released extended edition of THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, which includes the scene were Gandalf introduces the party of dwarves two-by-two to Beorn -- an iconic moment in the book that didn't make it on screen in the theatrical release. So there's good evidence that the longer the films, the more Tolkien Jackson gets on screen.

The strongest criticism I can make of this film is that a movie named THE HOBBIT needs more scenes in it starring Bilbo, the Hobbit. When Bilbo's there, my interest is riveted on the screen in a way it's not when Azog, Bolg, Legolas, Tauriel, Bard, or special effects dominate.  It's Bilbo, and Gandalf and Thorin, and the White Council and Necromancer, and Smaug and the other twelve dwarves of Thorin & Company, who made this a film I wanted to watch (and, now, rewatch).

So, in the end: a good film. Not as great as the first and second that preceded it,   but with enough memorable scenes to be worth watching and re-watching for years to come. And a satisfying conclusion to the series as a whole.

As for Jackson's legacy, I think he's proven to us that Tolkien can be filmed, something a lot of people thought impossible until he proved them wrong. For all the things in them that drive purists mad,**** they do capture the essence of Tolkien's books to a degree I wd have thought impossible. And they've now established themselves as classics -- at least, the first (LotR) series has, and it seems likely the second (HOBBIT) one will follow in its footsteps in this, as in so much else. As such, I think it's inevitable that someday these movies will be remade, with a whole new cast and script and director, now that Jackson has proved it possible. Just as we get a new film version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE each generation or so, so too I think with Tolkien.  In any case, it'll be interesting to see. And, if I may make a prediction, I strongly suspect the people who hate Jackson now will hate his successor all the more, and will hold up the Jackson as examples of what he (or she) shd have done, just as some of Jackson's biggest critics began to praise the wretched Rankin-Bass HOBBIT (which they had preciously disparaged) once the Jackson films came out. 

But for now, this is the end of the line. And I must say it's been quite a journey. I think Jackson can be proud of what he's accomplished. 

--John R.
current reading: THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY (slowly)
current music: Big Star (1st and 2nd albums)
current anime: TOKYO ESP

 * just as Tolkien himself started out imitating Morris and Dunsany et al and over the years came to draw less on outside sources and more and more on his own earlier works, so too Jackson tends to became his own main source as each series extends: the great imperative at the end of this movie is to make it both wrap up Tolkien's story and sync up as much as possible with the first of the LotR movies (some of the opening dialogue of which actually plays just before the closing credits).

** it's ironic that McKellan actually comes first in the credits, rather than Martin F., the Hobbit of the title.

***I've decided that my favorite use of all that special effects technology in the film was its enabling a ninety-two years old man (Sir Christopher Lee) to engage in a swordfight

****the dwarven battle pig now has to be added to that list, alongside all the trolls attacking Dale in daylight


Unknown said...

Thang you Berry a Lifelong Fan of Tolkien,(Christmas 1966) & a College Graduate in Film,
(1972) these TWO Things Merged in a most unique way...You review is a Wonder to behold..."DAMN!the Critics
FULL Speed Ahead PJ"...You review is just what Bombadil (Bomby, The one to read...
charlie donalson.

Unknown said...

John You Rock!

David Bratman said...

As one of the people who's been making the book pages per minute comparison, let me explain that it's not an attempt to quantify the qualitative, it's an attempt to quantify the quantitative, one of the few truly objective statements that can be made about the movie-making process, though its meaning must still be interpreted.

The topic of pages per minute first came up from defenders, not attackers, of Jackson's Fellowship, who explained that various things like Bombadil had to be omitted because there wasn't time for them. This amounts to a straightofrward statement that the movie has to proceed through the book at a pretty fair clip. The defenders mocked completists who wanted the whole book recounted in the movies, saying that this would have required Jackson's LOTR to be 40 hours long.

It is, accordingly, no more than reasonable to point out that Jackson's Hobbit takes the book at such a pace that, if he'd filmed LOTR at the same pace, it would have been 40 hours long. And with the Hobbit, he still didn't manage to get all the book in. Because he was spending so much time on stuff that wasn't in the book at all.

Perhaps you would have liked a 40-hour LOTR. You defend the length of the Hobbit films on the grounds that "more is more" and the longer the films are, the more time you can spend in Middle-earth. Assuming an endless series of chase scenes and battles is the kind of Middle-earth you want.

But most of us get our returns to Middle-earth by re-reading (or, if we care to, re-watching the movies), and Tolkien's regret that LOTR isn't longer - he could have made it longer if he'd wanted to, and his drafts and letters reveal that, during the writing, he consistently under-estimated how long it would turn out to be - don't negate his wise awareness that sheer length does not equal quality. In other words, more is not always more.

"Now it is a strange thing," Tolkien says, "but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway." Which goes some way towards explaining Jackson's battles, though even Tolkien managed to be more restrained.

N.E. Brigand said...

Spoilers aplenty to follow...

I wonder if you could elaborate on why you feel that "The film's greatest departure from the original is the rather baffling omission of any wargs from the Battle of Five Armies"? Apart from this change fitting the previous two movies, where the Wargs were shown as servants rather than allies of the Goblins, consider that even in the book, in the 28 paragraphs with which Tolkien describes the action of the battle (23 in "The Clouds Burst" and the rest after the fact in "The Return Journey"), the words "warg", "wargs", "wolves" and "wolf" are used just seven times (once in "wolf-rider"), while the words "goblin" and "goblins" are used 26 times (plus four further mentions of the "bodyguard of Bolg").

Or is mine another flawed example of quantitatively addressing a qualitative subject? Because the Wargs perhaps feel more important to the reader than the number of references to them in battle belie? Maybe. I wonder, though, if Tolkien downplaying them is what leads so many people to confusion about who exactly are the "Five Armies" (a term used only twice in the whole book, after all--oops, more numbers).

In any case, I am surprised you find this departure from the source to be greater than, for instance, some of the following:

--Gandalf being caged by the Necromancer;
--the thrush, and thus Bilbo, playing no part in Bard's victory;
--Bard and Smaug conversing before the dragon is shot;
--the Master dying during Smaug's attack;
--the entire surviving populace of Esgaroth moving to the ruins of Dale, which results in their being in the middle of the battle;
--Thranduil being eager rather than reluctant to attack the Dwarves;
--the scouting mission by Legolas and Tauriel to Gundabad;
--the arrival of the Were-worms;
--Radagast's presence;
--Beorn being dropped by an eagle into battle;
--Azog still living, not killed a century earlier by Dain;
--Thorin and his nephews dying not in the midst of the central battle but on a separate skirmish at Ravenhill (where the Elvish forces, of course, are not headquartered); and
--the conclusion of the battle not being told after the fact (while this decision was entirely predictable, I think it makes for one of the biggest changes from the book, which boldly leaps from the battle being in doubt to its gloomy aftermath).

I suspect that with a little more thought, I could come up with a second list, just as long, of further notable changes. And yes, it may be that some of these, as you say, will be brought closer to the source in the Extended Edition. And some of the changes I mention were already in place in the two earlier Hobbit movies. But your reference was to how this film differed from Tolkien's book, so those changes still apply.

(Is the pig really driving other purists mad? It has no basis in the text, of course, but I think that it works better than Thranduil's Megaloceros or Radagast's rabbits, and these movies would probably be stronger for either making much more of such evocations of traditional fairy tales or cutting them.)

Finally, I think the question of how much Peter Jackson's movies differ from Tolkien's books has been given much less attention than is generally believed to be the case, at least in terms of cinematic adaptation generally. Someone ought to take a look at prominent book-to-move adaptations of the past twenty years and establish a scale by which this matter can be better judged. How faithful is Jackson's Hobbit when compared to, say, Deborah Moggach and Joe Wright's take on Pride and Prejudice, a book about one-third as large again as Tolkien's?

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Charles: glad you liked the post. You go back further than I do (September 1973), but we're all equals in Tolkiendom. Haven't looked at the thread; thanks for the reminder that I shd do so.

--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David

re. page per minute, I do not "[mock] completists who wanted the whole book recounted in the movies, saying that this would have required Jackson's LOTR to be 40 hours long." for the simple reason that I AM a completist and would gladly watch a forty hour adaptation.* Plus I have long been an advocate for the inclusion of Bombadil in adaptations; cf. my entire essay (in Jan & Phil's book) devoted to his inclusion or omission in various audio and video and stage adaptations.

re. "Assuming an endless series of chase scenes and battles is the kind of Middle-earth you want."

Well, given that the very post you're responding to directly contradicts that assumption ("The . . . argument that if the films were shorter there'd be more Tolkien in them is demonstrably false"), the answer is no, of course.

Where we do agree is in the passage you cite in your final paragraph: Tolkien was right that much of what makes THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT special simply can't be recreated in any other medium than a book.

--John R.

*my favorite PRIDE AND PREJUDICE adaptation is the five-hour one from 1980, which I like much better than the two-hour one starring Keira Knightley.

John D. Rateliff said...

P.S.: For those interested in David's take on the latest HOBBIT movie at greater length, where he has room to develop his argument beyond the constrictions of a comments box, here's a link to his own review of the final Peter Jackson film:

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi N.E.B.

The absence of the wargs was a big deal for me because this film is named THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES: that made identification of the five armies more important than they wd have been had the film instead had a subtitle such as AND BACK AGAIN or (better still) THE KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN.

The Purists and the Pig: well, I'm a purist and it drives me to distraction. So I thought the comment was fair, as extrapolation.

Re. film adaptations: I'd love to see such a book that covers examples all the way back to the origins of film (e.g., Baum himself made an Oz film) up to the present (including Jackson's Tolkien movies, the Harry Potter and Pullman and Mockingjay films, et al). I'm told Adaptation Studies is a well-estabilished subset of film criticism, but all that's outside my area of expertise.

re. the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, I remember being disappointed with how they got far less of the story into the film than had been the case with the (far better, I thought) 1980 five-part series.

--John R.

David Bratman said...

John, no, I didn't think you were one of those defenders I described in my second paragraph. However, it was those defenders who originated the topic of the page per minute count. It wasn't brought up by the nay-sayers, and it's a reasonable discussion point either way.

It didn't require the Hobbit films to prove that the longer the films are, the more Tolkien that Jackson gets into it. As I pointed out way back in my Summa Jacksonica article in 2004, Jackson's extended Fellowship is both a better movie and more faithful to Tolkien than the theatrical release, thus proving the two goals (of making a good movie and being faithful to Tolkien) were not incompatible (some defenders of Jackson's butchery were claiming that they were incompatible, not that I expect you were among them).

But he had that space - and more! - in The Hobbit in the theatrical cuts and he didn't use it for that purpose. There's less Tolkien per movie in the Hobbit movies than in the LOTRs. In fact there's less, and in #2 virtually none at all. To suggest he needed the extra space of the extended edition to fit it in sounds disingenuous. It's that he didn't want it there, and is tossing in lagniappe in the DVD to fool the fans into thinking he cares.

Unknown said...

John I would be very interested in reading the essay you refer to about the inclusion of Bombadil in Jan and Phil's book. Could you say the full title of the book so I may find a copy?

rainswept said...

@Gerry ... It's Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson's the Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy. Readily available on Abebooks.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Gerry

Yes, as Rainswept says, that's the book. My essay is called "Two Kinds of Absence: Elision and Exclusion in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings". Specifically, it looks at the decision to include or exclude Bombadil from all the prior treatments --including the radio plays (Tiller, Sibley, Mayes), unproduced scripts (Tiller, Boorman), the London stage play, et al. Then it shifts into looking at the consequences of omitting Tom in Jackson's version, and scrutinizes Jackson's claim that the Bombadil scenes could still take place off-screen.