Sunday, October 14, 2012
Apprehensions About The Hobbit
Fact is, unlike Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is a kid's book.Tolkien wrote it for his children, snitching bits and pieces of his Silmarillion mythology, as well as material from the Elder Edda, etc; actually, the book wasn't really set in Middle-Earth exactly, but given the fact that it gave rise to LOTR, it served as a kind of alternate portal for the Silmarillion stuff, and it got more and more anchored in Middle Earth as Tolkien developed his Third Age ideas. But there were all sorts of things about The Hobbit that Tolkien was unhappy about...in its origins, it wasn't really of a piece with the other material, and he'd made some choices that really grated on him. He was very fastidious about linguistic invention, and regretted borrowing the Eddaic dwarf list when naming Thorin and Co...also the fact that he pilfered all manner of Anglo-Saxon names. There weren't any Germanic types in the Silmarillion, and the dwarves had Semitic-sounding names. Moreover, the tone and style of The Hobbit wasn't really congruent with LOTR. Most of what we know about Hobbits isn't derived from The Hobbit, but from LOTR, where he really went to town with them...there's very little Hobbitry in The Hobbit, speaking comparatively. There were also all sorts of stylistic things that pained him, bebotherings and confustications, things like that.
Having already revised the book pretty significantly to make the Riddles in the Dark biz consistent with LOTR, he decided to attempt a much more thorough overhaul, and actually completed two or three chapters, which you can find in Douglas A. Anderson's Annotated Hobbit. But even though the bebotherings are gone, and a lot of other kid-book touches too, you just kind of wind up missing the original. It's damaged somehow by this tampering...just isn't quite itself. Fact is, at some point, an artist has simply got to accept the fact that art is a human institution, you never get it completely right, and you just have to let it fly on its own...it's rather like having a child. Well, in any case, Tolkien put the revision aside.
We have Peter Jackson faced with the challenge of turning this kid's story into something that feels more like LOTR. Tolkien gave up on this, mind you, and as much as I liked Jackson's movies, I have to say that Tolkien does Tolkien better that Jackson does. In general, the LOTR movies worked best when they stuck close to the source, or depicted stuff that was implied by it, i.e. giving some expository screentime to Saruman, or showing Boromir's final battle. The least successful installment was Two Towers, and that was the one that did the most violence to the book, particularly with the Godawful characterization of Faramir. While Jackson got some characters deadon, such as Gollum, Gandalf, and Sam, others were middling, and some, like Faramir (in Two Towers, not Return of the King) and Gimli, simply stank. Gimli's constant
pratfalls were a particularly bad omen for The Hobbit, but more about that shortly.
Now, I understand that Jackson is planning three, count 'em three, Hobbit movies, in an adaptation of a book that's only about three hundred pages long. I could see maybe, just maybe, doing two movies...break 'em in half after the spider-fight and the dwarves getting captured by the forest elves. But three installments? Even if they're only two and not three hours long, that's still way too much bread and too little butter, and we've seen Jackson pull a similar stunt...his Kong remake. As I said in my aforementioned blog entry, the thing was twice as long as the original and half as fast. It was positively crammed with padding, useless buildup, complicated but lousy characterizations, and all-round aching stupidity. And he was dealing with source material that was already quite sufficient in length and admirably designed. For him to get three films out of The Hobbit, he's going to have to rely a whole whole lot on his own personal invention, and we have good reason to be nervous. Even though he's plundering material taken from the LOTR appendixes, he still won't have enough unless he fleshes out a great deal of it himself, and undoubtedly all that stuff is going to wander pretty far from Tolkien's conceptions...there's going to be a shitload of frog DNA in this dinosaur.
Might as well really get into the dwarves now. Aside from Thorin, Tolkien doesn't characterize his dwarves in The Hobbit...well, Bombur is a fat idiot, okay. But individualizing the dwarves wasn't really necessary for a kids' book. Still, you'd have to do something with them in a movie, particularly if you're planning to make it of a piece with the LOTR flicks...and this really opens the door to a world of cinematic hurt. I think some guys could do a good job with it...the dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman were way better than Jackson's Gimli, for example. But I'm pretty sure we're going to get Gimli times thirteen. Rendering Jackson's temptation particularly acute will be the fact that the dwarves in The Hobbit really are comedy dwarves...they're not that funny in general, and they're not characterized, but they are comic...I think Jackson's going to add heaps of subpar Monty-Pythonish biz, complemented by ill-chosen concept choices. If you doubt me, consider the way the dwarves look in the trailers. The prosthetics, costumes, beards, hair, trappings, just seem, at first glance, plain goofy. Maybe they'll work when you finally see the movie...I'm skeptical. Then there's the fact that every one of these guys is going to be endowed, if that's the right word, with a backstory, a personal journey, a character arc. God, I'm so sick of that kind of doctrinaire bullshit...and if you listened to Jackson and his screenplay collaborators on the LOTR DVDs, it was plain that they're totally committed to that approach. But, by spinning his wheels with each and every individual dwarf, Jackson will be able to waste more of our time.
And there's other stuff in the trailers that's got me on edge. Did you see Radagast? He was in the second trailer briefly, in a chariot drawn by giant rabbits. What the fuck? You got to see a brief closeup of his face...he has birdshit down the side of it, because he has a nest under his hat. Good Lord. Then, of course, there's the bit where the dwarves have fallen into something, a canyon or suchlike, and a comic-looking troll drops on them, and one of them groans, "You've got to be joking!" Is this what's going to pass for writing in these flicks? Perhaps we can also have somebody saying that they're "Getting a bad feeling about this," or "Getting too old for this"...yikes.
Then there's the certainty that Jackson is going to have to come up with alternate versions of so many of the scenes. There's a whole lot of kid's book stuff in the first chapter that he will surely have to chuck, although I expect him to do a pretty good job on a visualization of Smaug's descent on the Lonely Mountain during Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold... we've already heard some of Howard Shore's music for that, and it's cool. However, it's hard to imagine that the sequence with the trolls will resemble Tolkien's version too much. He had three talking comedy trolls who decide to kill the dwarves with their great fat asses, and Gandalf tricking them into staying up for a very quick sunrise. In Jackson's trailers, we can see that there's some sort of fight, which ends with the dwarves falling into a canyon and the troll landing on them. There's either going to be an attempt to make the scene less kidstuffy, or make it funnier in some way, maybe both...I don't think I'm going to like it.
Then there's the Rivendell material. Tolkien gives you very little idea of what the place is like, although it's run by Elrond, and inhabited by elves that sing, "Tra-la-la lally, down in the valley." Well undoubtedly the movie's elves will be like the ones in Jackson's LOTR, which is to say, hit and miss. I liked Hugo Weaving's Elrond and Orlando Bloom's Legolas; Kate Blanchett's Galadriel was a member of the slow-talking club, though, and Haldir was just well...epicene, and showed up at Helm's Deep to boot. Bottom line, Jackson's elves might very well improve on Tolkien's originals in this flick; but I expect him to drag the Rivendell material out as a long as he can, to the story's detriment.
Of course, in my opinion, the book doesn't really hit its stride till we get to the Misty Mountains. If the trailer's any indication we're going to have the giants, which is swell, but evidently they're going to be chucking boulders at our guys, and I bet it's going to be a lot of Jacksonian bombast, although it might be worthwhile if it's not too coked out and ostensibly funny. Once we get underground, it should play to Jacksons's strengths...the Moria sequence was one of the best things in his LOTR after all. He should be able to do a good job on the Great Goblin; I expect there'll be a whole lot more fighting and running-around than there was in the book, but that's jake with me. Bilbo's brush with Gollum is likely to be fine...after all, Jackson's Gollum really clicked. I do wonder whether he'll restrain himself and just have Bilbo escaping and leaving Gollum well behind...given the fact that Jackson shoehorned Elrond, Arwen, and Galadriel into places in LOTR where they just didn't belong, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he has Gollum tagging along for a while, and that would be stinko.
Let's see...the rockslide should be scary and spectacular, but Jackson always tends to go overboard on things like that...ditto the escape from the wargs on the eagles .Regarding Beorn, the thing where Gandalf tricks him about the dwarves in the book is pure kiddy-lit biz, and I don't know how Jackson can get around that...once again, I think he'll try to make it genuinely funny, with bad results. Beorn himself is scary, and could be successful, though.
As for Mirkwood, the climax of that section could well be very impressive, but there sure is going to be a giant dollop of dwarf-comedy leading up to it, them lugging Bombur around, etc. Moreover, we've seen some shots of Mirkwood already, and Jackson's version is all wrong. It doesn't look like that. Tolkien's version is a nasty black evergreen climax forest with the floor covered with pine-needles, nothing much in the way of undergrowth, and practically no animals. Jackson's Mirkwood is kind of a cross between his Skull Island Jungle, and something out of Hansel and Gretel. The bit with the starving dwarves seeing the mobile elvish feast which winks out every time they step into the light should be a no-brainer, both scary and funny...but we've got to worry about practically everything with the dwarves. I'm expecting an exciting monster show with the spiders, but...I was expecting good monsters with King Kong, too. Just don't trust Jackson any more.
Now, of course, in the book, just before we get to Mirkwood, Gandalf leaves the company and heads south to deal with "the Necromancer," who we'll eventually learn is Sauron, reconstituted after his defeat at the hands of the Elvish-Human alliance...he's ensconced himself in southern Mirkwood at the fortress of Dol Goldur. Apparently, Jackson has decided to incorporate a lot of this Necromancer business into his movie, which I think is rather unfortunate, since it really wasn't part of The Hobbit. I mean, Bilbo's the protagonist, and the movie should pretty much revolve around him. There's only one major sequence which isn't from his point of view, and that's the attack on Esgaroth by Smaug. Now, there is non-Hobbit Bilbo-centric material that could be injected...Tolkien did write an account, in the style of LOTR, of Gandalf's meeting with Thorin and Co., before they got to Bag End., wherein he explains what he's up to with Bilbo. Bilbo isn't there, but he's the subject. Don't know if Jackson will use that...he might not have the rights. If he does use it, it'll be towards the beginning of the flick.
There might be other appendix-pilfering before that, Gandalf penetrating Dol Guldur and speaking to the Thorin's imprisoned father, Thrain, followed by Gandalf delivering dark tidings about Dol Guldur to the White Council...it's never really described, but it's implied. Mainly, non-Hobbit add-ons should come in following Gandalf's departure for points south...evidently we're going to get Sauron's eviction from Mirkwood, which might be incredibly great, but could also involve all the padding in the world, and seriously slow down the dwarf/Mirkwood strand, which really needs to be the main focus. We'll see. I bet there'll be a lot of nifty FX, but I think the storytelling will be unsound. I suppose the Dol Guldur business might be interwoven over a longer stretch of the film...I wouldn't mind it if the dwarves' imprisonment with the elves is interrupted in spots...otherwise, much more dwarf-comedy.
Which we will, of necessity, get barrels and barrels of when they escape onto the river hidden in big kegs. Once again, this will be a kids' book comedy minefield. I predict it will be chock full of groanworthy banter and non-gags...Bombur in a barrel will surely bring out the absolute worst in Jackson...perhaps we'll even get some luscious fart jokes.
However...once we get to Esgaroth, the story should be easier to adapt. Likely Jackson will portray Laketown much the same funky grimy way he portrayed Bree, but that would be much more appropriate here. The town-on-stilts will almost certainly be an impressive effect, and the politics, involving the dwarves' reception, the Lakemen's inflated expectations, and the Master's sliminess, are rendered in some detail by Tolkien...Jackson should have no difficulty following his lead, although he might want to introduce Bard at this point. Tolkien's Bard doesn't show up until Smaug attacks later on, and we really should've had something about him beforehand.
I presume we're going to have lots of buildup to Smaug as the dwarves head to the Lonely Mountain. The settings should be nifty...one of the things I really liked about the LOTR movies was the way Jackson paid very serious attention to Tolkien's descriptions of places like Edoras, Helm's Deep, Minas Tirith, etc. If Dale and Erebor get the same treatment, I'll be delighted. As for Bilbo's descents into Smaug's lair, I'm rather expecting them to be well-done too.
But a lot is going to depend on the handling of Smaug. They'd better nail the voice-casting, and it will be really terrible if the basic visual conception doesn't work. In the Rankin bass Hobbit, Richard Boone's voice and the overall direction clicked, although I disliked Smaug's hairy oriental-dragon head. Smaug should be real reptilian, and rather long, not like your basic batlike Dragonslayer dragon, the one that we've seen again and again for the last thirty years, most notably in that last harry Potter flick (best movie dragon ever by the way). The Dragonslayer template really is well-rationalized, but Smaug doesn't look like that. He's a wyrm, kind of a flying serpent with legs. Apparently the reason that Guillermo Del Toro dropped out as director was that he and Jackson couldn't agree over the conception of Smaug...Del Toro was wedded to the Dragonslayer design, I believe. So I assume Jackson will do something different, but that doesn't mean it'll be good.
The attack on Laketown should be dynamite...I do hope that it' a purely Laketown-men versus Smaug affair, although I strongly suspect Jackson is uncomfortable with the fact that Bilbo doesn't do any actual dragonslaying. It might sound daffy that I'm worried bout this, but remember...Jackson wanted to have Sauron himself show up outisde the Black Gate at the climax of LOTR. He even shot some of a fight between Sauron and Aragorn (it wound up as that dustup with the troll) but ultimately he backed off on his brainstorm, and he'll probably do the right thing with Smaug's demise.
Since Desolation of Smaug is the title of the second movie, I assume his death will be the climax of Part Two...which doesn't leave a hell of a lot for a third movie. I think the buildup to the Battle of the Five Armies and the battle itself will be good...Jackson generally knocked that epic stuff out of the park in LOTR. But all the post-Smaug material was thirty-forty pages in the book. In order to get anything like a feature-length film, Jackson will have to rely very much on appendix-cribbing and his own personal invention, and I've already registered my anxieties on that score.
Once again, I would very much prefer it if the movies were fabulous. If Jackson merely gets certain important sequences right, I think I'll be sufficiently happy. He needs to do a good job on the Misty Mountains/ Goblins biz, Mirkwood and the the spider fight, Smaug and his destruction, and the Battle of the Five Armies. I expect Gandalf to be good again, and probably Bilbo will be too. But...it's hard for me to imagine that the dwarves will be anything but awful. I'm looking forward to the movies, but if they're all wrong, I'm pretty confident that they'll go bad in precisely the ways I've outlined. I will, of course, return with a blow-by-blow review in which I will gladly admit I was wrong about whatever, if necessary.