Monday, January 6, 2014

Raiders of the Lost Desolation of Smaug.

The joys a small daughter brings (1):  When Ursula was about seven,
 I was sporting a full set of hirsute face furniture.  She figured that I was badly in need
of a wizard character for my 'war gamings.'
When you see that a movie credits four screen writers, you know there's a problem, right there.  The Hobbit 2 has that many.  Karen and I saw the movie a week ago, last Monday, in fact (30 December).  I wasn't going to say anything about it on this Blog, but, among others, Tradmastare has, to which I appended the following comment:

"In my view it didn't work. The problem for me is that the book is too long for one movie, and too short for three. But structurally you can't really subdivide it into two. The book is also self-referential in several areas, e.g. Gandalf pulling the same trick on Beorn that he pulled on Bilbo himself at the beginning of the story [I forgot that there is an echo of this numbers game in Bilbo's riddling with Smaug]; the extensive use of tunnels that link the major parts of the story's three-part structure; Smaug and Bilbo, in their love of subterranean creature comforts and riddles, being rather similar types... [ Come to think of it, Gollum forms the third of the ground dwelling trio, all three driven reluctantly to venture forth from their homes...]

"If you can't retell the story in a movie, don't retell it.

"So Peter Jackson, broadly speaking, doesn't. It's a whole different gig, with only the merest nod in the direction of the original structure. The journey through Mirkwood, which was supposed to take weeks becomes a stroll through the forest, give or take some rather importunate spiders; Esgaroth looked great, but what happened to the phlegmatic Bard of the book?

"From a spectacle point of view, the movie comes up trumps - the settings are great. Esgaroth of the long lake knocks Kevin Costner's Waterworld into a cocked hat; Mirkwood at least looked as though it could match the gloomy evil character of the original; and Smaug looks as mighty as the treasure he hoards. No trivial lizard he, squatting upon a few sparklies!

"It was OK: 6/10 for mine (an improvement over Hobbit 1, 4/10). But I reckon a more apt title would probably have been 'Raiders of the Lost Desolation of Smaug.' At least they pronounce 'Smaug' correctly.

The joys a small daughter brings (2):  When Ursula was
very small, she figured Dad really needed a dice box for his war gamings.
It seemed to me as I hit the 'Publish' button that I had a proper posting here, if I enlarged upon these observations.   The settings by and large are wonderful, and the overall story structure broadly resembles the original novel.  There's plenty of action, no error.  But here's a thing.  Quite a lot happens in the equally plot-driven novel, but a good deal of the drama lies less in the action than in the interplay of the characters.  
Although I did use it for that purpose, even took it to the war games club,
I was afraid it might get damaged (I have an idea it might even have done),
so now it houses other treasures...
In my view too much of that character interaction is sacrificed in favour of violent activity.   Now, I like violent action (in movies and on my wargames table), but is it just me, but do you find it cloying after a while? The fight with the spiders is overlong; the white-water barreling overlong; the 'Battle of Esgaroth' is overlong; the battle between the dwarves and Smaug really, really overlong.  I couldn't even figure out what was the point of the last two... Neither made a lick of sense to me.

One of the weaknesses of the novel for the purposes of film adaptation is the lack of 'love interest.'  As a bloky sort of a character, I'm not fussed about that, but I can see how that would impact upon the story's appeal to some of the potential audience.  Recall that the novel's protagonist, Bilbo, remains emphatically a bachelor all his days, and the only female character of the book, Bilbo's cousin by marriage, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, is portrayed as nothing more than a venial leech with an eye for the main chance.

Enter Legolas and Tauriel, the one hoiked out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, being led on by an entirely new character that J.R.R. Tolkien never imagined.  Not only does Tauriel, princess daughter of the King of the forest elves of Mirkwood, disdain to notice Legolas's puppy-dog regard, she gets the hots for one of the dwarves, Fili (I think).  Now, I'm not talking mixed race romances and pairings up.  Isn't this mixed species country?  True, as dwarves go, Fili does look a little bit like a rather raffish elf; and if Tauriel can't be made to look dwarfish (or dwarvish), the fondness of her character for a good hearty stoush might be enough to catch the heart of a particularly broadminded dwarf.  Even supposing the DNA were compatible enough to produce offspring (with the prospect of further generations), what do you call the infant?  As dad is the dwarf, I guess that dwelf might be the go; else we are looking at ewarf.  I venture down these arcane genetic paths to demonstrate my unease at the implications of the implied relationship (at least it isn't made any clearer in the movie, and may yet come to nothing).  Bear in mind, neither elf nor dwarf is human; and also bear in mind the evils of  Saruman's crossbreeding programme of human and orc to produce the Uruk-Hai.  
Not sure about the provenence of this fiery fellow...
Moving on, there is Gandalf's little adventure way down south at Dol Guldur.  What that has to do with Bilbo's story, is hard to imagine.  All Tolkien wanted of it was a narrative device to remove Gandalf from the party (foreshadowed by Gandalf himself) for the journey from the western edge of Mirkwood, through to the Lonely Mountain itself and the final encounter with the dragon.  You can see the need.  For true (literary) heroism, the hero has to conquer on his own.  He  can accept guidance, but he must fight his own fights, according to his ability.  Sauron is a minor, hidden character, not even named in The Hobbit so shadowy he is, known only as The Necromancer.  Why could he not so have remained?

In my view, LOTR and TH are written with two slightly different points of view.  LOTR is a large narrative spanning a large part of the world, and, beginning with The Two Towers, with multiple threads running simultaneously.  As such the outlook is 'eye-of-god', but the perspective limited to those of the main (good guy) characters.  That these points of view are of each of the four hobbits, and occasionally to other characters as well, gives the effect of a more universal - more global - perspective.

Contrast this with The Hobbit, which, after all, purports to be the narrative from Bilbo's limited perspective (There and Back Again, though told from an eye-of-god outlook again).  Departures from Bilbo's specific limited viewpoint are rare (though there is at least one of significance late in the novel: Smaug's attack upon Esgaroth).  Bilbo is emphatically central in the novel, and remains so for the most part in the movie, but he tends to vanish in the action scenes, with no particular role.  That Bilbo is not up to the really big fights in the novel is true enough, but there we don't get extended views of those in which Bilbo's role is not significant, even if he is present.
Trent Boult about to send one down from the windward end...
In any case, I just don't 'get' the big battle between the dwarves and Smaug at the end of Hobbit II.  It looks like action for the sake of action, for mine.  That Smaug can barely even singe just one of the dwarves, but himself gets scorched in a protracted, meanless running fight, in my view diminishes the dragon's stature as an antagonist worthy of Bilbo's guile and Bard's arrow.

Cinematically, the Hobbit looks superb, don't get me wrong about that.  But for mine, the story is a mess, barely comprehensible in itself, such that, however far it deviates from the original novel, I was forced to refer to my recollections of it to keep track of events.

'Nuff said.


  1. Fantastic pics of the treasures gifted by "a small daughter". I have one myself, and I chuckled at the similarity of items they bring.

    Speaking of which, I have a project for mine, that maybe be would interest you and would like to reciprocate. email me at wdpiii at the yodel (yahoo) dot com to talk it over.

    For a hint of what I have in mind see this link:

  2. Raiders of Lost Desolation of Smaug - Episode 1 - "Elf Sex in the City".

    I love Tolkien and have read all the books many many times (As well as those released by his son). I have seen this movie twice - the first time was a 9pm showing in which I had to go to the toilet twice, and then fell asleep in the last hour.

    1. I didn't think it was that bad... I like Tolkien, but not what you'd call a big fan. 'The Hobbit' is his best in my view, and I thought highly of (most of) the'Fellowship of the Ring', but the rest of LOTR I found overlong. Interestingly, I thought the first LOTR movie the best of the three...

      I like your Elf Sex in the City subtitle - very good!

  3. Thank you for this, Ion. Another friend of mine posted a review of H2 on his blog, and while it wasn't as reflective as yours, it was similarly ambivalent.

    I haven't seen either of the Hobbit films, though I dearly loved PJ's LOTR films, and am not in a hurry to rush out and see them, though perhaps I will one day. I suspect I will feel about them the way I feel about the later Star Wars movies, the ones that came after the first 3, in that there was too much excess, laziness, and general production of grist for the giant mill of franchising, licensing, and bundling that powers mass market movies these days.
    Those images of your Ursula's devotion to her father are quite lovely, and speak well of you.
    I created an account on GameKnot, michael_peterson_3, but find that I can't challenge you to a game of chess or send you a private message since the site considers me a wretched newbie, but I'm there and would happily play chess with you there. Can you challenge me?

    1. Can do! My settings would have excluded you ... Thank you for your comments. Considering Ursula's interests and talents developed in directions totally different from mine, we got on - still get on - well. That she is now domiciled in Australia is due to the better opportunities available. I'll check out the blog review you mentioned...

  4. >>she gets the hots for one of the dwarves, Fili (I think)...

    Fili of course dies in The Hobbit so I am expecting him to die in the movie numero 3 heroically saving Tauriel from some orcs....

    I agree with you concerning the length of the fights (and do we really have to have two fight scenes featuring the elven pair? We get the message, elves are uber ninja types). The trouble with Jackson is that he never knows when to stop...

    I actually prefered the first film to the second. For a story primarily about dwarves and a Hobbit, this film certainly does have a lot of elven content.

    1. The first film had its moments, sure. I think what sunk it for mine was the protracted fight and chase through the mountains - all action and no dramatic tension that went on, and on and ... on ... I was just about cheering for Scrotum-face and the lads come the finish... Contrast that flight with the dramatic tension of the journey and flight through Moria in LOTR I. It was always one of my favorite passages (so to speak) in LOTR; and the movie rendered it extremely well (including a mighty balrog!).

      I believe Peter Jackson - Sir Peter I believe he should be called now - is a fine cinematographer. But I do question his ability to tell a story. Mind you, I have the same doubts about Steven Spielberg.

  5. Interesting. I loved LotR in both book and movie form, but never got on with the Hobbit. The first movie bored me to tears.

    1. Did you find the most boring bits were the bits with the most action? Just curious, because that was how I felt. Action for action's sake won't cut it for mine. Mind you, I'm just a boring old fuddy-duddy, scarcely the demographic Peter Jackson and his Warner Bros overlords are aiming at.