Jumping The Dragon

Am I the only person who thinks that Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie really shat? (Warning: spoilers.) After coming back from  the theater I had a quick surf on the Twitter hashtag #TheHobbit and skimmed a couple of geek-site reviews, but only ran across one person who remarked that talking about it with her friends afterward was more fun than seeing the movie.

Has anyone read the book? Man, the Tolkien family is never going to let Jackson get his hot little hands on The Silmarillion now, and I’ve come around to thinking it’s a good thing.

It’s not a question of demanding slavish adaptation. Film requires you to do things differently than prose narrative; instead of saying “Orcs are massing in the mountains,” you show Orcs doing some massing-type things, and it’s a little corny, but acceptable, for Thorin to have a hereditary grudge match with a distinctive Orc. Likewise, film can start to grind when the whole cast marches everywhere in a lump, like women going to the restroom; I don’t mind that Jackson split the party up after they arrived in Lake-town. But, sorry, The Hobbit is not the story of thirteen Dwarves and a hobbit crossing the wilderland with a pack of Orcs on their trail. The company gets out of the goblin caves, survives pursuit until the Eagles rescue everyone, and don’t see an Orc up close again till the Battle Of Five Armies.

You want me to what?

You want me to what?

What do we get from Jackson? A criminally foreshortened encounter with Beorn the skin-changer, mostly shoved to the side by skirmishes with Orcs. Gandalf leaves the company in Mirkwood and takes his side trip to Dol Guldur; fine on Jackson that he interpolates material that only appeared in the Appendices of the books, so as to change scene and perspective. I quite hoped for some quietly spooky, hair-prickling moments, but no, visually it was a reprise of Jackson’s Isengard, only with Ian McKellen fighting Orcs. Lots of Orcs. (I think this may be where I went to the bathroom. One more ominous long shot of McKellen standing precariously on the edge of a broken stone span and I would have started to rave and throw popcorn.)

And Mirkwood? Where were the feasting, singing Wood-elves, disappearing in a flash of light and leaving the Dwarves thwarted and benighted? Where was Bilbo’s glorious uprush of courage and wit as he scampered invisibly through the trees, chanting derisory verses at the spiders? There was plenty of time for those episodes, you know, those old narrative concepts called incident and character development, if so much screen time hadn’t been blown on another big fight scene introducing some deus-ex-machina Elves. Trust me, Peter, by the time we got to that point in the film I was already sick of pitched melees even if a red-haired Valkyrie Elf was involved.

I was quite looking forward to the Dwarves whitewater-rafting in barrels — it promised high suspense and low comedy. But oh, God, the minute they’re out of the flume, here come more Orcs — way more than Jackson needed as an excuse for Legolas and Tauriel, another fairly forgivable interpolation, to track the company to Lake-town. Oh well, I thought, now we’re in the town, and he’s done a decent if heavy-handed job fleshing out local politics and the character of Bard the Bowman, on to the Mountain. But no, Jesus Christ on a bicycle, what now, it’s Orcs on the roof! And Elves fighting them! Ninja Elves! Let me go out and look at the poster, no, I’m in the right theater, this isn’t 47 Ronin that I wandered into. I’m stumped at how little reaction the Lake-towners showed to two other gangs races of Middle-Earth brawling at tedious length right outside their first-floor windows, unless Lake-town is poor enough that it’s gotten a little rougher than Tolkien bothered to mention and the residents have become inured, like the people living near the Union Jack pub up the road from me a bit.

And then Bilbo tackled the job he was hired to do — I was so waiting for the line “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool!!” — and everything turned into a Saturday morning anime serial. I can understand the desire to show the great smithies and mines of the Dwarves actually operating, but this was not the time to do it or the way, especially while asking the audience to believe that Smaug, the dragon who reduced Erebor and Dale to cinders in the space of a day, wouldn’t just get a little loft, scorch a troop of intruding dwarves to ashes, and roll back over to sleep some more. If they’re all going to troop in there and perform acrobatics with ropes and pulleys and bellows, what was the point of engaging a burglar? That was the point when I turned to the Cute Engineer and said “Jackson has officially  jumped the shark.” Or, well, the dragon.

I’m not actually sorry I went. The project started well and who knows, it may end well, though I have a horrible feeling that it’s mostly going to be special effects of the dragon smashing everything and more interminable CGI beheadings and stunt fighting. And since Jackson’s inserted a little romance — again, forgivable, elaboration of the Aragorn and Arwen subplot didn’t really hurt LotR — I gotta know whether Kili ever gets any hot elf-stuff.

Smaug’s gradual, enormous emergence from his mounded treasure was good. Stephen Fry’s smarmy Master of Laketown was good. Martin Freeman couldn’t screw up if he tried, and Richard Armitage makes you believe that he is (1) a dwarf and (2) a king. Visually, these films remain celestial — Bilbo’s emergence into the roof of Mirkwood and a cloud of blue butterflies, the elaborately believable Laketown sets. The moments when Jackson did Tolkien straight, or used subtle dialogue to  show his characters’ hearts, were perfect. But — sorry, Peter, endless fights are boring. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Really. Promise me that the DVD will include a shortened edition.

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11 thoughts on “Jumping The Dragon

    • It’s frustrating because the few spots where he gets it right are good — and then, much more so in the second than the first, he gets it gratuitiously wrong and I want to yell “You wasted that cast on this?”

  1. I do respect your opinion. I just don’t share it.

    No, I haven’t read the Hobbit, neither did I read the LotR. Not that I’m not interested. When I’m old and retired with a lot of time on my hands, I’ll probably do. I don’t want to die without having read at least a little Tolkien. Reading novels just doesn’t work for me, I have this many hobbies and this little time. But don’t get me wrong, without having read any, I still know a lot about these books, either through friends or research. Yeah I played Dungeons & Dragons a lot back in college, so I must have read most of these books in fragments here and there over the years.

    What I am though is a true fan of cinema. If there is any artistic part in me, than that part of my brain must have evolved exclusively for the 7th art. But hey, that’s me. I know you are more about literature (who the fuck decided ‘literature’ should be spelled with only one T? I *always* do the mistake. If they are to take words from French/Latin couldn’t they spell it the same?). Others are all about music. Well, I’m cinema.

    There are a number of movies which I saw after having read the book. The Firm (1993 — Tom Cruise) was one of them. And really, the movie sucked. Jurassic Park (1993) was one too. And believe me, it’s really different from the book, but really in a good way, and it’s one of my favorite movies. I have yet to see a War of the Worlds that works. The story there is huge, but H.G. Wells was a slow pace writer and somehow attempts at it so far were more toward action than story (and War of the Worlds in the USA with Tom Cruise was the most stupid idea anyone ever had, the only part that remotely resembled the story was… ah never mind, there was nothing that resembled the story).

    Making a movie that is an exact clone of the book doesn’t work every time. It depends a lot of the style of the writer. A “visual” writer will usually be easy to port to the screen, a “auditive” author cannot be ported without a lot of dropped material and a lot of changes to the story. But I’m not of those that will scream when I notice a different in a movie as compared to the book. I notice them, and it’s fine. It’s how the producer/director (or sometimes just the screenwriter) saw it. Sometimes, you can tell it would have been complicated to really stay tuned to the book, sometimes there is no explanation other than someone didn’t really like how it was in the book.

    I remember how the big Tolkien fans were screaming about stuff in LotR that was different. I didn’t read it, but I can imagine some stuff couldn’t work the same when ported to the screen half a century after it was written. Some stuff probably didn’t make much sense today. I don’t know, just speculating. But be happy, Jackson kept sex out of it, just like it was in Tolkien, rather than go with the more common image of the pervert elvish female character we’ve seen in just too much material.

    Mid-way into the release of LotR in early 2000s, Peter Jackson considered making the Hobbit right away, as he realized the first movie worked (it is said that he wasn’t very confident that it would work as much as it did), considering releasing it a year after the third one (like a year apart, the the three movies). But as he ran the idea, he realized it would hardly do a 2-hour movie, and as we know now, he can’t really do stuff under 3 hours. He cancelled it and I was sad he did. (That’s how he ended up adding half an hour after the end of the last LotR, going into the Hobbit without really going into it.) When it went back on it, his idea was to go a long way beyond the book. As I understand it, he borrowed a lot from The Silmarillion (not that I have the slightest idea what that one book is about) to expand the Hobbit, so I doubt that one will go into a movie.

    The Hobbit is not the LotR, yet people expected more of the same. So many critics are bad toward it because of the comparison. Yet, it seems a lot that Peter really wanted to make the connection stronger than it really was in the book (I’ve heard from fans that one is not a perfect sequel to the other because Tolkien had changed is mind on several of his ideas and even wrote plain contradictions). I think Jackson wanted to get rid of these contradictions and changed material to suit that.

    I’m glad that he did what he did. I’m glad to revisit this world again, with different characters (and some of the same characters). I do know many of Tolkien fans would have likes a right-from-the-bood adaptation, but even if I had read that book myself, I’m pretty sure I would stuck to this same opinion. I’m really glad he decided to extend over the original story, add a lot of his own story, his own interpretration. My son and I are waiting forward to the last chapter next year.

    I will complete this long comment with an answer to what you mentioned in your post. There will obviously not be a shorter DVD version. I’m not sure what version you want, but here is the marketing strategy that the studio uses. In May or so, they will release a DVD that is exactly the theatrical version. And in October or so they will release the extended version. The extended version is closer to what Peter really wants in the theater (closer to the script), but as the production goes, there are always a few scenes that cannot be completed for one reason and another. There are a few scenes that are taken back before the release because they may break the pace a bit (back story or the like), and brilliant directors like Peter Jackson (Cameron did the same with Avatar, he pulled back the first 20 minutes right away because he realized he was better starting the movie right into action) know that people in the theater want more of the action and less of the boring story. But the fans will get the DVD and get the missing story there later. Unfortunately, even if cinema is an art, its an expensive one and they know they have to think about money in the editing part. So if you thought the movie was already too long, get the first release this summer, but if you want the bits of story that have been taken out, wait for the extended release. Yes, I’m waiting for the extended one.

    The extended version of the first part is just 13 minutes longer, so it must have been well in production/editing. Each of the LofR were a little over 30 minutes longer. (Extended cut of Avatar is one hour longer than theatrical release — let’s talk about one ambitious director that ended up knowing that a 4-hour release wouldn’t work, but fans are happy to have the final definitive cut).

    I hope I didn’t bored you half-way in the middle of this comment lol — there is always a delete button if I’m annoying 🙂

    • I actually have seen the extended version of Hobbit #1 and I like it, including the interpolations that were complete invention by Jackson. In that chapter he “kidded” the book, enjoying “in jokes” that readers would appreciate even if no source existed in the original text.

      But in this he just turned the story into a bad Dungeons and Dragons narrative and left out way, way too much wonderful, clever, suspenseful, atmospheric material, that ought to have been a film-maker’s dream, in favor of bash, fight, bash. You will see if you do read the story as it was written. I didn’t like bash, fight, bash when I was a teenager reading Tolkien and I don’t like it any better now. Violence is easy, story is hard.

      • I see your points.

        I don’t like violence as is. I don’t mind it when it’s well used, rather than free. I concede I grew tired of the orcs at some point. I would have hoped for a little more variety. I understand they are the villains in this story, but they could have encountered something others than the spiders, somewhere, which were not orcs. I’m fine with the number of battles, I would have varied them a bit. Yes, it’s easier than story, but it’s something you are looking forward to in this kind of story, isn’t it?

        I was not aware that there was supposed to be suspense. The whole LotR and this one story seemed just a straightforward adventure. You don’t get much surprises, you have a good idea of what is going to happen from A to B. You know they will have obstacles, that won’t surprise you, you just don’t know what it will be. I would have been happy to have a little suspense, if such was supposed to be. I’d say the only question I really had was if the guy with the boat (don’t remember the name) was good or not, what was his intention. But then, the answer came quite rapidly, and we quickly found out why he was acting this weird.

        Oh I had one comment regarding the 3D. Peter Jackson’s first attempt at 3D left us with a lot of problems, which were surprising because they were stuff that are generally known for quite a while, and even Cameron didn’t make these mistakes and it was his first attempt too in Avatar. This one wasn’t perfect, but the 3D was overall a lot better.

        • The “guy with the boat” was Bard, and in Tolkien he only shows up a bit later; giving him a lead-in and fleshing him out was one of the things Jackson did well, pointing up the complacency of the Lake-men and the veniality of the Master (though he did it so heavy-handedly I rolled my eyes; Tolkien’s Bard is not an unjustly accused “Enemy Of the People,” just a gloomy bastard who always predicts the worst and this time he’s right.

          I am fine with violence if it isn’t unrelieved; I think we’re on the same page there. It’s part of adventure stories, but this business of endless Orcs being mowed down (without ever doing much damage to a significant character), and the dragon who destroyed whole towns going amok in a confined space without anyone even being visibly scorched is ridiculous.

          And yes, where was the suspense? Tolkien told the story of Bilbo sneaking down once to steal a cup from the hoard, sneaking down again to converse with Smaug, and then Smaug taking off OUT of the mountain to leave the whole band wondering when he would barrel down out of the sky and demolish them; the last minute rescue of the Dwarves’ sentries (including Bombur) in that one would have been good filming. And Mirkwood! Bilbo led the spiders a merry chase through the trees, improvising mocking songs to drive them nuts, to give the Dwarves time to escape from the spiderwebs. Much more fun than “saved by the Elves” (again). No sign of the wise birds — the aged ravens who could talk the languages of Dwarves and Men — who help the Dwarves in their quest. CGI would have made that easy.

          Instead we just got one fight after another. It was like a one night stand with no foreplay and no technique.

          • Not only one fight after another, but ridiculous scenes created to uphold the inevitable computer games and/or theme park ride. The barrel-riding and the gold foundry scene were too ridiculous to be entertaining beyond reflexive chuckles at the intentional silliness.

            Thanks to the desires of various people I saw the second one twice. Not in 3D. I don’t know why people go to see 3D. It’s hard on the eyes and adds nothing. Anyway, the second installment was flat. There were some interesting characters, Bard in particular, but it was mostly a joy ride. I’d like to have seen more of Beorn — but then, he’s sort of a Bombadil, isn’t he?

            (Jurassic Park was the first novel I perceived as having been written mainly for its marketable derivatives. It was not a great novel but made a fabulous movie, apart from those children, whom I’d love to have seen eaten.)

          • There, see, you DO agree with me about children, sometimes.

            I understood why Jackson chose to have the barrels open (closed barrels don’t give you much to film) but the sucking sound began as soon as they became involved in an absurd battle with onshore Orcs, who aside from not existing in the book would have made dwarf rissoles of the lot of them in any realistic situation. Once you’ve grasped that the heroes can’t be touched by sword or fire no matter how preposterous the odds, it’s nap time.

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