Monday, December 16, 2013

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug":

[Warning: here be spoilers.]

PART I: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

[For a thorough review from a somewhat different perspective, please read my friend Charles's review of "Unexpected Journey" here, if you haven't already done so.]

Like most folks, I had my doubts about Peter Jackson's cinematic approach to JRR Tolkien's children's novel, The Hobbit. Jackson had taken quite a few liberties with the plot of Lord of the Rings, but his filmic trilogy was, at the same time, a respectful homage to Tolkien's work, capturing the brave spirit and lofty nobility of the novels, and leaving most of their major themes and basic conflicts intact. Hearing that Jackson had decided to turn Tolkien's The Hobbit into yet another nine-hour trilogy, I felt a mixture of disappointment and disgust. I knew that the only way to accomplish such a thing would be to add in a mountain of extra(neous) material, and I felt that Jackson was just grubbing for more cash by stretching the modest story out into three-film length.

So I went into my viewing of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (which I saw via iTunes) with no small amount of skepticism and trepidation. In the end, I came away from the experience with deeply mixed feelings. If I had to rate the movie on a 10-point scale, I'd give it a 6—just this side of positive.

Prequels are strange things, especially when they're made ten years after the trilogy that preceded them. It was a bit depressing to see how most of the actors from Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" had aged. Elijah Wood (whose character, Frodo, really had no business being in "The Hobbit") was no longer quite so lithe and spry; Ian Holm's Bilbo was significantly slower and somewhat hesitant of speech; Ian McKellen's Gandalf, despite retaining his commanding voice and stage presence, had developed—for lack of a better term—eye jowls. The great Christopher Lee, as Saruman, also seemed to lack the force he had possessed in the first trilogy. By contrast, Hugo Weaving's Elrond was positively creepy in his agelessness. I was reminded of actor Keir Dullea, who reprised the role of David Bowman for "2010: The Year We Make Contact" in 1984, sixteen years after he had played Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Dullea seemed not to have aged a day. Weaving was just as uncanny—perhaps more so, given how the rest of the cast of "The Hobbit" had aged around him.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" begins with a flashback to the days of glory of the dwarves, whose Kingdom Under the Mountain lay under Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, in that era.* Jackson's film captures the grandeur of Erebor's vaulted spaces—the awesome veins of gold that ran up and down the mountain's interior, the care and competence with which the dwarves fashioned their treasures. Then the dragon, Smaug, appeared out of nowhere and destroyed both Erebor's kingdom and the nearby city of Dale. The dwarves were left homeless; their king, Thrain, lost the Arkenstone, a gem that signified his authority to rule. The flashback narration tells us that Thrain's obsession with Erebor's hoard of treasure had become a sickness—a foreshadowing of the corrupting influence of the One Ring of Power. Thus is the basic conflict established: the homeless dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), must oust the dragon and reclaim their kingdom. The plot then switches to the present, and we meet a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to accompany a party of thirteen dwarves on their quest to reconquer Erebor. Bilbo has been singled out by Gandalf for his stealth and cleverness—hobbits are naturally stealthy, and Bilbo's ancestors on his mother's side were of a more adventurous stripe than were more typical Hobbiton hobbits. Many adventures ensue; the party encounters both Azog the orc (barely mentioned in the novel but a major antagonist in the film) and Radagast the Brown, a fellow wizard and friend of Gandalf who lives in seclusion in the forest. The company also runs into a trio of trolls; they meet (and somehow survive) stone giants in the midst of "a thunder battle," and they manage to fight their way out of the clutches of the Great Goblin and his legions of cave goblins. Bilbo, lost in the caverns, discovers the One Ring of Power and has his famous encounter with Gollum. As in the novel, he and Gollum play the riddle game to see whether Gollum will get to eat Bilbo for dinner.

That encounter, for me, was the highlight of the movie. First, the scene belonged there because it was actually in the novel. Second, Jackson did an excellent job of visualizing the scene in the way I imagined it happening. Although some of the riddles from the book were left out, I thoroughly enjoyed the way the encounter was staged: it was done as if we were watching a two-man, minimalist play, sort of a cannibalistic "Waiting for Godot," and I'm all about the minimalism. Gollum is a metaphor for attachment: his withered, grasping, skeletal form is the result of long years of possessiveness and unrequited desire; he has kept and guarded the Ring for decades, but what benefits has it accorded him aside from the satisfaction of having it? Ever hungry, Gollum does his best to out-riddle the fat, delicious Bilbo, but in the end, Bilbo cheats by asking Gollum what he has in his own (Bilbo's own) pocket. Gollum, with his instinctive cunning, correctly guesses that Bilbo now possesses the Precious—the Ring that Gollum had just lost. Yes... I enjoyed this scene.

I also enjoyed Jackson's portrayal of the stone giants, who appear in the novel as something of an adventitious hierophany—a disruptive occurrence of explosive cosmic power serving no apparent purpose. Remember the rock-creature from "Galaxy Quest"? Jackson's stone giants are the rock-creature's steroid-freak cousins. Imagine Iron Mike Tyson—but imagine him the size of a mountain and made of boulders. Now imagine several of these mountain-sized Mike Tysons engaged in an Irish brawl. The scene in the movie, like the scene in the book, was utterly random, and the reader/viewer is left scratching his head. The only lesson one can derive from the experience is that there are forces out there that are unimaginably potent. Nature (or supernature) is not to be trifled with. It could also be that Tolkien was slipping in an etiological fairy tale: an explanation of where thunder really comes from.

The Gollum scene and the stone-giant scene were a joy to witness, but the extra-canonical material was difficult to see past. Jackson's "Hobbit" frequently felt more like a critique of Tolkien than a tribute to him. It was almost as if Jackson (or his fellow scriptwriters, including Mexican titan Guillermo del Toro) had read The Hobbit and decided that the story needed more action here, more parallel subplots there. That, I think, is my fundamental problem with Jackson's version of the story. Azog? Barely figures in the novel's plot. Saruman? Nowhere to be found in Tolkien's pages. Radagast the Brown? Like Azog, barely mentioned. Galadriel? As with Saruman, she never appears in the novel.

It is, perhaps, the figure of Radagast the Brown who causes the most problems for me. You see, I like Radagast, but the entire Radagast subplot felt like a dangerous digression from the primary story, i.e., Bilbo and Company's quest to regain Erebor. Jackson spends a lot of time introducing us to Radagast, a fact that made me think the wizard would figure prominently over the entire trilogy (not so, it turns out). Radagast (played by the delightful Sylvester McCoy) strikes me as a sort of Saint Francis, living in deep communion with nature. He's smart, energetic, and surprisingly powerful for a dotty old man—qualities I'd also associate with Taoist mountain sages. The forest speaks to him; he reads the world's tidings through the ground, the trees, the weather, and the wildlife. Although he may seem skittish and scatterbrained, evidence of his power comes when we see him defeat a proto-Nazgûl in physical combat. Radagast is obviously not someone to take lightly; Saruman, who despises Radagast for his filthy-looking teeth and his fondness for magic mushrooms, sorely underestimates the wizard's greatness. We viewers, too, are tempted to dismiss Radagast because his dirty scalp is covered in bird droppings, and because he has the capacity to freak himself out.

So Radagast was a compelling character for me. I automatically rooted for him. He was a different expression of Maiar power from Gandalf, but equally significant. He had, in fact, just a hint of Tom Bombadil in him: like Bombadil, Radagast was a cosmic figure with parochial interests; his focus was mainly the forest. Unlike Bombadil, however, Radagast worried about the larger picture. But Radagast's presence in Jackson's version of the story felt, once again, like a critique of Tolkien. Tolkien's original narrative was relentlessly linear; there was nothing zigzaggily postmodernist about it. Jackson, perhaps taking his cue from George Lucas's tripartite story structure in "Return of the Jedi" (space battle, forest battle, lightsaber battle), made "The Hobbit" into a story with multiple subplots. Radagast was emblematic of this move, and while I liked his character very much, his existence nagged me.

In the end, though, I found Jackson's "The Hobbit" watchable. The acting was great, the cinematography was up to Jackson's usual par, and the plot moved along at an entertaining clip. It was a delight to see Barry Humphries—a.k.a. Dame Edna—as the hilarious Great Goblin, whose death was as far from Shakespearean as it was possible to go. Despite the many dwarves in the cast, each dwarf managed to have a distinct personality. Still, by the end of the film, I had no clear idea of what Jackson was trying to accomplish. Had he decided to take liberties with the story, but in a way that was still somehow loyal to the spirit of Tolkien's narrative, as he had done in tackling The Lord of the Rings? Or had he decided to go his own way, and to impart his own pronounced "Jacksonic" spin on the text? Should I or shouldn't I view Jackson's "Hobbit" as a stand-alone work of art—a work that owes an indefinite something to its source material, but which has nevertheless been fashioned more in the spirit of a TV reboot like the 2003 "Battlestar Galactica" miniseries?

PART II: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

The second film in the series, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," helped me figure out Jackson's intentions. I now know that, unlike with "Lord of the Rings," Jackson has decided to strike out on his own. He has taken fuller ownership of Tolkien's tale; far from creating a homage or tribute to Tolkien's narrative, Jackson is out-and-out creating his own version of the story. While I hesitate to call Jackson's project a reboot, I'd submit that his work is edging very close to reboot territory. The evidence: continued use of flashbacks, non-canonical events, the inclusion of extra-canonical characters and, most daring of all, the blatant fabrication of one principal character (Tauriel the Silvan [sic] Elf—more on her and her subplot later) found nowhere in the Tolkien oeuvre.

A quick summary of events, then: "Smaug" doesn't immediately pick up where the previous film left off. The plot begins with a flashback to Gandalf and Thorin at the Prancing Pony in Bree, one year ago, before cutting back to the party in the present time, now running away from Azog's orc pack toward the house of Beorn the "skin-changer." We're with Beorn only briefly before we move on to the perilous journey through Mirkwood, a darkly enchanted forest that lives up to its name as it casts glamours and illusions among the company. Our heroes encounter the awful spiders that had been hinted at in the first movie ("Some kind of spawn of Ungoliant, or I'm not a wizard!" spits Radagast the Brown in that film), and are, as in the book, captured by the Wood Elves. Among the Wood Elves, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is the son of Thranduil, the Elvenking (Lee Pace). At this point in history, Legolas has no love of dwarves. Kili, meanwhile, falls in love with Legolas's lieutenant, Tauriel. While he is held captive, Kili and Tauriel form a sweet bond that has the potential to grow into true love. This is a rather major subplot in the movie, and is nowhere to be found in the novel. With Bilbo's help, the dwarves escape. Jackson's version of the "Barrels out of Bond" sequence is quite exciting, as the dwarves and Bilbo ride the river while under attack by orcs (Azog and his pack again) and pursued by their elven captors, who deal expeditiously with the orcs. Then comes the journey into Lake-town, in which the dwarves and Bilbo are smuggled into town by Bard. The Master of the town, craving a portion of Erebor's hoard (Thorin promises to share his kingdom's wealth with the town), supplies the company with the provisions and weapons they'll need to retake the mountain. Gandalf, meanwhile, visits Dol Guldur, the apparently abandoned fortress, to learn more about the Necromancer who has taken up residence there. He makes a horrifying discovery, engages in a titanic magical battle, and ends up imprisoned. The final phase of the movie is about the party's subterranean adventure: the adventurers find and open the Lonely Mountain's hidden magical door; they send Bilbo in to find the Arkenstone; Bilbo encounters Smaug and engages in a cat-and-mouse dialogue with the dragon. There's a pitched, chaotic battle as the dwarves attempt to kill Smaug, which ends in one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole of Jackson's Middle-Earth opus as we see Smaug emerge from the mountain, covered in molten gold.

So "Smaug" ends with Gandalf in thrall, a bit like Han Solo at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back." In fact, the cliffhanger nature of "Smaug" felt very "Empire"-y. Despite the disappointment that came with such an abrupt ending, I felt that this movie was head and shoulders above the first one, quite possibly because, once I had understood Jackson's true agenda, I made a firm decision just to roll with it. Jackson's "Hobbit" movies are meant to be a stand-alone work; there's little reason to compare them to the novel. From the beginning, Jackson elected to turn a short novel into a nine-hour epic, which meant that he was fundamentally reinterpreting Tolkien for the big screen. This wasn't entirely clear to me after one film, but it's been made manifestly clear after two. Jackson has permitted himself some liberties that a Tolkien purist could describe only as egregious. Tauriel, and her relationship with Kili the dwarf, is a huge case in point.

According to Wikipedia, Tauriel is purely the brainchild of Peter Jackson and screenwriter Fran Walsh. Although the filmmakers have been at pains, in the past, to say that any extra-textual material does in fact come from legitimate Tolkienian canon (appendices, The Silmarillion, Lost Tales, etc.), the creation of Tauriel involves a bit of hermeneutical chutzpah: Tauriel, Jackson and Walsh imply, is a character that Tolkien would have included had he thought to do so. As I noted in my review of the previous film, above, this thinking feels more like a critique of Tolkien than anything else, but given what I now know of Jackson's intentions, I'm inclined to let Jackson critique all he wants. As played by Evangeline Lilly, Tauriel is a bit of a rebel among her elven kin. Unlike the Elvenking, Thranduil, she sees the Elves occupying the same cosmos as all other living creatures; the Elves can't wall themselves off from the world's problems because they're part of that world. Thranduil has a soft spot for Tauriel, whom he may view almost as a niece or a daughter. He cautions her not to lead Legolas on, but there's little chance of that, as Tauriel finds herself instead charmed by Kili the dwarf, with whom she even engages, at one point, in humorous sexual repartee. (Kili, behind bars, asks why he hasn't been more closely inspected, because one never knows whether "something" might be "down my trousers." Tauriel tartly replies, "Or maybe nothing." A dick joke!) Kili, for his part, fell in love with Tauriel the moment he watched her expertly and gracefully slay a large spider in Mirkwood.

During the escape from the Elvenking's prison, Kili is shot by a Morgul arrow. When Tauriel learns of this from a captured orc, she goes alone in search of the orc pack pursuing the dwarves, determined to hunt the creatures down herself. Legolas, driven by his own desires and ignoring the dictates of his father, follows Tauriel and ends up helping her. The two Elves track the orcs to Lake-town and dispatch most of them with cold, balletic efficiency. While in Lake-town, Tauriel takes the athelas (a.k.a. kingsfoil) found by Bofur to help bring the injured Kili back from the brink. In experiencing Elvish medicine, Kili has the same otherworldly vision that Frodo had (will have?) when Arwen treated (will treat?) his Morgul stab wound: Kili sees Tauriel as if she simultaneously inhabited both the normal earth and a luminous realm. This scene was one of many paralleling Jackson's work in "Lord of the Rings."

Like Radagast in the first film, Tauriel is brusquely inserted into the second film's plot, immediately generating her own potentially distracting subplot. But as I wrote earlier, I no longer care. Peter Jackson has resolved to interpret Tolkien's The Hobbit as he sees fit, and this series of movies, like it or not, is a Middle-Earth-sized middle finger to Tolkien purists and loyalists.**

A comment on Elves: Jackson, riffing off Tolkien, portrays the Elves as possibly enlightened beings with heightened perceptions and longer sight into the future than most normal beings are blessed with. The ability to inhabit multiple worlds could be seen as a function of that enlightenment; it's certainly a familiar trope in Buddhism, a tradition in which buddhas and bodhisattvas simultaneously exist in multiple worlds, each world a celestial or infernal analogue of this terrestrial one. Jackson's Elves are also portrayed as ruthless, efficient terminators, calling to mind nothing so much as the stoic samurai in the novels of James Clavell, unsentimentally sending their opponents "to the Void" if the situation demands it. Tauriel herself, according to Evangeline Lilly, is "a killing machine." Legolas, meanwhile, is his usual proficient self. I lost count of how many orcs he killed.

As a fight-choreography junkie, I appreciated the fight scenes in "Smaug" more than I did the ones in "Unexpected Journey"—especially the Elf-versus-orc fight during the "Barrels out of Bond" sequence. In the previous film, especially in the goblin-cave scene, the fights were cartoonishly silly (the goblins were little more than bowling pins) and not motivated by much emotion, except for the dwarves' obvious desire for escape. In "Smaug," however, the fights are generally more serious in tone, barring the occasional humorous orc death. However enlightened they might be, the Elves obviously hate the orcs, and this hatred is telegraphed in the fight choreography. Tolkien himself might have been shocked by the sheer number of casual beheadings and impalements that take place in this film—a film that was, I should remind you, based on a novel meant for children.

There was another type of fight, though, that caught my attention, mainly because I was sitting in a theater with a Korean audience. This was the fight between Gandalf—who has entered Dol Guldur knowing full well that the place is a trap—and the partially regenerated, yet already extremely powerful, Sauron. (The utterance of Sauron's name in the context of "The Hobbit" is yet another Jacksonian heresy, but Gandalf explicitly calls out that name as he's being defeated.) The fight must have looked uncannily familiar to Korean eyes: it was essentially a battle of ki, of fundamental energy. Gandalf is one of the Maiar, something like a minor deity incarnated, in his case, as an old man. Sauron is also Maiar, originally a lieutenant of the dark being Morgoth/Melkor, who rebelled against the creator, Eru. The contest that takes place in Dol Guldur, then, should be understood not as a conflict of mere physical forces, but as a combat between cosmic principles. I enjoyed Jackson's portrayal of Sauron in this film: disembodied, yet hinting at a body—smoky, seemingly ephemeral, yet full of black, demonic hate. Gandalf, embodied and shackled with mortal limits, represents an exquisite contrast to Sauron; the battle, though brief, is epic. Koreans have seen this sort of confrontation before, probably thousands of times: ravening blasts of energy are the stock-in-trade of Korean and Japanese animé, in which powerful characters from Pikachu on down fling hurricanes and solar prominences of fire, death rays, and soul-lightning at each other.

There's one final fight on which I have to comment, and that would be the battle between the dwarves and Smaug inside the treasure-hoard and furnaces of Erebor. How exactly does one fight a massive, talking, evil-tempered dragon? The dwarves know their way around Erebor, and elect to lead the dragon into the furnace-chamber, where the forges are. Smaug is goaded into re-lighting the forges, which allows the dwarves to melt metal and send it sluicing toward the dragon. It's not a very good tactic, as tactics go; the dragon's movements are unpredictable, and Erebor's immense interior gives Smaug the chance to move about freely. It's the final part of the battle, though, that truly confuses me. The dwarves lead Smaug into the main thronehall. Together, they tug on the chains attached to a huge stone structure, which turns out to be the cover for an enormous, solid-gold statue of a dwarf—probably a famous ruler. The stones covering the golden statue fall away; Smaug, for whatever reason, turns around and watches the statue as it's revealed, then is mesmerized by the sheer amount of gold it must contain. As if on cue, the statue suddenly liquefies, pouring itself onto the floor of the thronehall and covering Smaug, seemingly burying him. Smaug is not so easily defeated, though, and only moments later he emerges from the golden muck, a beautiful aureate version of himself. He drags himself out of the mountain, flapping his wings and managing to gain enough altitude to shake himself free of all the liquid gold. He then makes his way to Lake-town to exact his revenge on the people who helped the dwarves, rumbling, "I am fire! I am death!" Bilbo, watching Smaug depart, asks faintly, "What have we done?" The battle with the dragon was visually splendid, but that bit with the golden statue failed to make any sense to me. How did the dwarves get the statue to melt so suddenly? How, in the midst of all that chaos, did they time the statue's melting so perfectly? What was that statue doing, sitting so close to the furnaces, if it could melt so easily? And gold is a soft metal: wouldn't a statue of pure gold collapse under its own weight? None of this made any sense to me. Perhaps a nerd's explanation in defense of this scene might involve dwarvish enchantments on the statue, keeping it solid until the sheer heat from the furnaces broke through the magic, releasing a torrent of gold into the thronehall. But no mention was made of any enchantments, so the battle scene played out somewhat nonsensically. That, by the way, is my only major complaint about the film. It's too bad this problem appears so close to the end.

Let's talk about Smaug a bit. The malign dragon was voiced by the sonorous Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh off his tour de force as a somewhat epicene version of Khan Noonien Singh in "Star Trek Into Darkness." As cinematic dragons go, Smaug looked magnificent, but it would be impossible to talk about Smaug without also mentioning one of Smaug's cousins, the most iconic of all big-screen dragons: Vermithrax Pejorative of the movie "Dragonslayer." As happened with Vermithrax in the 1981 "Dragonslayer," Smaug is shown to the audience in bits and pieces at first; we receive sinister hints of his awesome proportions long before the entire dragon comes into view. As conceived by the special-effects wizards of Peter Jackson's Weta workshop, Smaug has something of the tyrannosaur about him. When the dragon begins to rampage, as dragons are wont to do, he evokes both the T. rex attack from "Jurassic Park" and Vermithrax's attack on Galen Bradwarden in "Dragonslayer." As with a tyrannosaur, Smaug's jaw structure contains a bit of a natural, toothy grin ("My teeth are swords!" declares the dragon at one point); and the way Smaug breathes fire, spreads his wings threateningly, and crawls menacingly around Erebor's guts evokes Vermithrax. Smaug's chest glows in warning as he prepares to utter flame; this put me in mind of a different cinematic dragon: the beast from Robert Zemeckis's "Beowulf" that is Beowulf's cursed, half-demon son. That dragon, too, had relatively thin skin on its neck and upper chest, allowing us to see the buildup of flame within. All in all, Smaug was an impressive achievement, and the CGI that allowed the dragon to utter human speech was flawless: Smaug never looked silly when speaking. He was what Sean Connery's witty, articulate dragon from "Dragonheart" should have been.

Cumberbatch did stellar voice work, and the other cast members of "Smaug" deserve similar kudos. Everyone hit his or her marks perfectly. I was especially delighted to see the great Stephen Fry as the dissolute, gouty Master of Lake-town. The Weta special-effects team was its usual conscientious self; the cinematography was as gorgeous as we've come to expect from a large-scale Peter Jackson film; the music was typically sweeping in that inimitable Howard Shore way. I did feel, though, that Radagast was under-used this time around, and that the dwarves were harder to distinguish (except for the major ones, like Thorin and Balin and, in this film, Kili). The film's pace was intense and steady, and although Jackson has elected to perform major cosmetic surgery on Tolkien's novel, the story Jackson gives us isn't bad at all (look for a quick Jackson cameo right at the very beginning of the movie, in the Bree scene); the viewer simply needs to take the movie on its own terms, and let go of all purist/loyalist thoughts. In fact, this story is more engrossing than the one we got in the first "Hobbit" film. There were cries of disappointment in the theater when "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" ended on its cliffhanger note, but I took that to mean that the audience had become emotionally invested in the film. A good sign.

If I gave "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" a 6 out of 10, I'd have to give "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" an 8 out of 10. It was a much better, more tightly written film, despite the highly disappointing and somewhat nonsensical fight sequence at the end.*** True: it was also more obviously Peter Jackson's baby, less beholden to Tolkien this time around than the previous film was. But what can we do about that? My solution, while watching the movie, was just to roll with events. Tauriel? OK, she's in, and she's kinda cute, and that whole Tauriel/Kili subplot added a new, albeit mildly distracting, wrinkle to the plot. Gandalf's side trip to Dol Guldur? Sure, there's no titanic fight with Sauron in the novel, but it was a visual treat in the movie. By offering so many implicit and explicit references to "Lord of the Rings," Jackson is tying the new trilogy firmly to the previous one, making them into a single, enormous whole. In doing this, he risks losing the "children's story" dimension of Tolkien's little novel, but I'd say Jackson has long passed the point of no return in his choice to serve his own artistic vision and not create a second homage/tribute.

I do wonder, though, what this trilogy could have become with Guillermo del Toro at the helm, as originally planned. If you saw "Hellboy II," then you know that del Toro already has his own vision of what an elf is and is capable of. Jackson's Elves are a lot like Vulcans in the Star Trek series: at times intellectual, at times intensely passionate, and always phenomenally strong, agile, perceptive, and logical. Del Toro's elves are more gritty, less analytical, less serene and mystical, perhaps more vicious, perhaps more cruel, and certainly more elemental. What would a "deltorovian" spin on this trilogy have been like?

*In the movie version of the story, Bilbo's voiceover narration conflates Erebor (the name of the mountain) with the Kingdom Under the Mountain. As Bilbo tells it, Erebor is the Kingdom Under the Mountain.

**In Jackson's "The Two Towers," Aragorn falls over a cliff during a fight, generating another non-canonical tangent. Eowyn, who is enamored of Aragorn, does her share of hand-wringing as the fate of Aragorn is left uncertain. Some complainers disliked the Eowyn/Aragorn thread, but if you've read Tolkien's trilogy, then you know that Tolkien actually does spend time inside Eowyn's head, focusing both on her romantic feelings for Aragorn and her desire to be more than a "shield maiden" who hangs back from the main battle. Jackson did well to pick up on these themes, which served to make Aragorn's character more complex than he would otherwise have been.

***If you think you understand what went on in that fight scene, especially as regards the giant golden statue, please feel free to offer me a film-nerd explanation. I just don't get how the statue suddenly exploded into liquid, with no transitional phase.


John from Daejeon said...

I didn't/don't care for Jackson's bastardized version of one of Tolkien's masterpieces which I found to greatly diminish both the film and even tarnish the source book in my eyes. Not helping is having to fill out three extremely long films when one would have sufficed for the single novel, but not having Tolkien around gave Jackson free reign to do "his own thing" to Tolkien's classic work. I wonder if del Toro was taken off the work because Jackson's ego would let no one else be associated with the work--so much so, that Tolkien's name doesn't even appear in the opening credits and is given a quick "based on" in passing at the end of the film.

At least with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Suzanne Collins still "owns" her work, and it really showed in the filmed version. Other than some casting choices that upset a few fans, the film doesn't stray far from the source material.

If you get a chance, you might want to see how "Catching Fire" really gets it right.

Kevin Kim said...

I do plan on seeing "Catching Fire," but I have to do it quickly because it's disappearing from local theaters.

John said...

Enjoyed your review. Tolkien was a right of passage for me in my late teens/early 20s. I may have mentioned before that our softball team was named the Ringwraiths (although softball uses ten players rather than the symbolic 9 black riders). A friend and I were also inspired to embark on our own "great adventure", hitchhiking across the Pacific Northwest at the tender age of 18. I've read the trilogy several times, including once out loud to my then wife, which was quite the undertaking. Which is all to say that I'm a big Tolkien fan, although I'm not by any means a purist.

I have Jackson's extended version LOTR DVDs and enjoy them very much. My only real complaint was that he left out too much (what, no Bombadil? Heresy!).

I haven't seen either of The Hobbit movies as yet, which may seem strange given my stated fanaticism. Truth be told, I read The Hobbit first and enjoyed it enough to read the LOTR. But after reading the trilogy, I found the Hobbit to be a somewhat shallow, albeit necessary, prequel to the important events soon to take place in Middle Earth.

So, your review makes me want to watch the movie. I've always wanted to know more about Radagast and the Necromancer. So, if Jackson fleshes those characters out some I'm good with it. And I don't mind checking out a cute elf who tells dick jokes either.

I read a Tolkien biography but don't recall if he had the complete "big picture" in mind when he penned The Hobbit, which was published almost 20 years before LOTR. I believe Tolkien said that the mythology as expressed in The Simarillion was something he had worked on beginning after being wounded in WWI, and everything else flowed from that background. But my point is The Hobbit was not really intended to be a linear prequel (as you mention, it was a story he wrote for his son and not originally intended for publication). So it makes sense that Jackson with the benefit of having the whole story (and back story as well) as source material can legitimately flesh things out that Tolkien only hinted at in The Hobbit. I certainly don't have a problem with.

Anyway, good work on the review. It's always a good day when you can spend time thinking about Tolkien stories!