Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (and adapted by Peter Jackson)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.

So begins the 1937 fantasy classic, recently adapted into a new three-film epic film series by lunatic director Peter Jackson.  I saw it over the winter break and then went back and re-read the book for the first time in probably a decade.  I have various thoughts about the two, in which I will not hold back any particular spoilers for the film (if you’ve not seen it) or the book (if you can even call it spoilers for a book that is 76 years old).

I have a long association with The Hobbit.  I’ve read it many times, and as many similarly-situated individuals tend to I fell from it into The Lord of the Rings in adolescence, and from there on to The Silmarillion and some of the other Tolkien works, but those with less enthusiasm.  I’ve seen the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s attempt at The Lord of the Rings.  I even played the part of Dwalin in a children’s theater production one time (leading to my subsequent and otherwise inexplicable happiness that the film Dwalin is really cool).  I naturally also saw Peter Jackson’s take on the Rings books.  I really liked the first one but was less enthusiastic about the next two.  But enough geek cred, let’s do the book.

One of the things that is easy to forget about The Hobbit is how funny it is.  That’s not a word that tends to describe much of Tolkien’s later writing; there’s a bit of it towards the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, but at that point he thought he was writing an explicit Hobbit sequel and so that’s perhaps not surprising.  There’s very little humor in the later LotR books or The Silmarillion at all.  Given the subject matter, that’s perhaps to be expected, since in both cases we’re dealing with large armies in conflict against Satanic powers that intend to rule and dominate the world.  Maybe that’s too bad, though, because Tolkien could actually do it quite well.  The whole tone of The Hobbit is a traditional fairy tale told with barely contained delight.  Although it’s generally told from Bilbo’s perspective there’s also an omniscient narrator who occasionally interrupts to throw in various asides and observations about the people and events.

Bilbo is of course the eponymous hobbit who is living in the luxury hole in the Shire, enjoying regular meals, his country squire lifestyle and not up to much of anything.  Nonetheless, Gandalf the wizard sees something in him and decides to bring him along on a quest along with thirteen dwarves, billing him as an expert thief or “treasure hunter”, if he prefers.  The dwarves don’t actually buy this but know better than to cross a wizard.  Bilbo himself doesn’t even intend to go but basically gets tricked into it anyway by Gandalf, who essentially shoves him out the door without giving him a polite way to say “no”.

As a fairy tale this is absolutely great stuff.  In terms of fitting into Tolkien’s legendarium, this is sort of a questionable undertaking.  The dwarves are off to try to beat the dragon Smaug, who overthrew their mountain kingdom many years ago.  In your average fairy tale, there’s a dragon under every other rock.  This isn’t the case in Tolkien’s later works, where the dragons were created directly by Morgoth (Middle Earth’s equivalent of Satan), and although there were a reasonable number of them, only four were explicitly named, making even one dragon a pretty big deal – they were explicitly made for the purpose of fighting whole armies by themselves.  Even here, though, we’re told that Smaug beat a whole human town and dwarven fortress all by himself back when he was younger.  And this bunch of dwarves has no particular plan for defeating the dragon once they arrive at the mountain and no goal for what they are trying to do.  They are also incompetent, since they get repeatedly beaten up and captured.  In fact, let’s do a list of this.
  1. They are first captured by a trio of trolls, who intend to eat them, almost immediately after starting out.  Gandalf manages to save them.
  2. They are then captured by goblins in the mountains, who steal their horses and all their supplies.  Originally this is just because the goblins are assholes and do this to anyone they can catch, but the goblins do decide to murder them specifically once they find out who this particular bunch is.  Again, Gandalf manages to bail them out.
  3. This may be a continuation of #2, but after trying to get away they get treed by evil wolves and hide in the treetops, at which point the goblins they just escaped catch up with them.  The goblins respond by setting the forest on fire.  Our heroes are saved by giant, talking eagles.
  4. They’re subsequently captured by giant spiders.  This time, Bilbo has acquired an invisibility ring and frees the dwarves.
  5. After escaping the spiders they are captured by elves and thrown into a dungeon.  Bilbo manages to get them out, again with the invisibility ring.
Depending on how you count, they also end up trapped in the mountain once they do eventually get there, and are subsequently besieged inside it without adequate provisions.  They also don’t kill the dragon; what they do is really annoy it, and it leaves to go burn down the nearest town, where a single bowman manages to take it down with a lucky shot.  Really, the dwarves basically go around pissing off a bunch of people and they all end up converging on the mountain in time for a final epic fight followed by resolution, like an episode of Seinfeld.  Also of note is that the book is pretty short and doesn’t waste a lot of time.  And it’s full of absolutely perfect pithy observations that explain everything you need to know in a minimum of space – for instance that the goblins don’t make anything that is beautiful, but they make plenty of things that are clever, or the description of the dragon’s rage when he finds one single solitary item missing from a hoard that he has no particular use for but has a pretty good idea regarding the market value of.

In short, this book is really as good as I remembered it.  Excellent stuff.

When I first heard that Jackson was going to adapt it to the screen, I was a little hesitant and a little excited.  I think that The Lord of the Rings is really almost impossible to film, and Jackson and his crew did probably about the best job that you could expect within the American studio system and the different media.  A lot of the changes that were made were justified, but at the same time he threw in some pretty stupid humor (e.g., dwarf-tossing jokes) and sucked out most of the poetry and quiet contemplation.  The literary confrontation between Gandalf and Denethor in the book, a masterpiece of passive-aggressive spoken and unspoken antagonism later apologized as a “conflict between two terrible old men” devolved into one of the individuals beating another with a stick and driving him off a cliff while on fire.  Points for spectacle, demerits for subtlety.  But then, a glance at his filmography shows that restraint has never been Jackson’s strong point.

So the somewhat lighter tone of The Hobbit matches Jackson’s strengths, I thought, but then I hear that the studio wanted to make it three movies rather than two, and they filmed it in super high framerate 3D, and there was grousing.  So I didn’t have super high expectations, and furthermore I heard so much negative stuff about the 3D version I didn’t even try it.  And after it all, I have to say they did a pretty good job.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and just say that a lot of the problems inherent in trying to do this adaptation are Tolkien’s, not Jackson’s.  Lord of the Rings is generally somber, serious, and epic.  The Hobbit has Cockney-accented trolls, talking animals of every sort (eagles, spiders, dragons) and is generally goofy.  If you’re trying to adapt both into the same coherent universe then you have to make adjustments to one or the other, and they made LotR first, so there you go, that thematic problem isn’t the filmmakers’ necessarily.  They also decided to throw in a bunch of other random crap from the Appendices of LotR  and other ancillary Tolkien material, which I guess you have to do if the studio is making you add three hours of screen time, and that is self-inflicted, since most of that stuff is also serious and doesn’t mesh too well with The Hobbit necessarily.

There are also a lot of different levels of Tolkien fandom out there.  You’ve got people who know that it was Gandalf who entered Dol Goldur, not Radagast, and that the corruption of Greenwood the Great began long before Bilbo Baggins ever left the Shire, and this stuff ruins their movie experience.  Then you’ve got people like me who know those things but don’t care as long as the movie is coherent.  And then you’ve got people like my wife who are only there because their spouse agreed to see Guilt Trip in exchange and don’t know what an orc is.  Jackson basically ignores the first category, throws bones where possible to the second category and doesn’t dumb things down too much for the third, although there are occasional glitches.

Anyway, this movie starts with a frame story of Ian Holm as Old Bilbo narrating the story of his adventure shortly before the birthday party which will play an important role in Fellowship of the Ring.  Or perhaps it really starts with the tale of how Smaug the dragon kicked the dwarves out from under the Lonely Mountain – a well done scene where you don’t see the dragon very much.  And there are further flashbacks and forwards, covering stuff like the Battle of Azanulbizar and a pretty unnecessary cameo of Frodo dealing with party invitations.  This is a long movie and it takes a while to get going.  Somewhat surprisingly Jackson actually shortens the introduction of the dwarves, who show up in more separate groups in the book.  Here you get Dwalin, then Balin, then Fili and Kili, and then the filmmakers figure you get the point after that.  A little surprising that they actually cut something, but there you go.  They do something similar with the three trolls, where the book version of the dwarves get caught in ones and twos over a surprisingly long period of time.

I think that Gandalf maybe mentions “goblins” one time in the whole movie, the rest of the time sticking to “orc” for the primary antagonists.  This is consistent with LotR and makes sense, but that’s sort of emblematic of the tone.  Orcs sound meaner than goblins.  They’re also leather-clad dermatologically challenged assholes who ride around on hyenas.  Somewhat surprisingly they openly ride around in broad daylight – they aren’t trolls of course, this wouldn’t turn them to stone or anything, but in all of Tolkien’s works your average garden-variety orc would only come aboveground at night or on overcast days if they had any say whatsoever about it.  I don’t remember if this was addressed in Jackson’s previous movies or not, and it’s actually such a minor nitpick that I can’t believe I’m even mentioning it.  Moving on.

Jackson gets good work out of the cast, with Ian McKellan once more turning in a bravura performance as Gandalf the wizard.  Martin Freeman is a good Bilbo, even if he seemed as perplexed as I did why he actually decides to tag along on this adventure (Gandalf doesn’t trick him here, and he uses surprisingly good sense in deciding to initially decline).  The dwarves are also surprisingly effective and there aren’t as many Bombur jokes as I feared.  They’ve got good camaraderie.  The riddle game with Gollum also steals the whole film, as you might expect.

Like I said above, I think most of the changes that were made were reasonable or at least justifiable in the film transition.  For instance, here no one's seen the dragon in 60 years and due to some other signs the dwarves aren't even really sure Smaug is even still alive, making their quest slightly less foolhardy than it otherwise might be, and more dwarves actually escaped from Smaug here.

There was only one change that really bothered me, and it was at the very end of the film.  In the book the protagonists are treed by wolves and Gandalf responds by flinging improvised incendiary grenades at them.  This works, but then the goblins show up – they’re not afraid of fire and they’ve got the ability to use tools, so they redirect the fire towards the trees that our heroes are hiding in and just wait to see how they will choose to die.  Even Gandalf is out of ideas at this point, and the goblins sit around and sing some mocking songs at them.

Obviously such a powerless situation is to be avoided in a major studio action picture these days, as we just got through a long scene of the protagonists hacking through ten thousand CGI monster dudes.  Instead of the goblins whose leader was just killed chasing them, it’s a totally different group of orcs that catch up and the trees are also more spaced out, and there’s a dramatic cliff there too for some reason.  Rather than sitting up in the tree waiting to burn up and being scared to come down, we end up with yet another fight scene on the ground where Bilbo finally finds his courage and fights some giant orc to the death.  Now I’m sorry, these scene had really good cinematography and was suitably dramatic, but really?  Bilbo did kill some giant spiders in the book, but that’s about it for battle prowess and he did it while invisible, at that.  So I ended up being pretty disappointed at the very end after being reasonably entertained up till then.  This may just be me, though.

So, classic book, reasonably entertaining movie, enough to get me to watch the sequels, at any rate.  I can’t fathom how there’s extra footage in the directors extended cut, but apparently there is.  The mind boggles.

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