Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hobbit (or there)

Get it? Get it? See, the novel The Hobbit has an alternate title of "Or there and back again" but since this is going to be a trilogy, the first movie can only cover the "Or there". (I assume the second movie is going to be "and" and the third will be "back again".)

OK, it's not a good joke, but I think it's an original one.

If you want to go see this movie, you just have to understand that it's not really the novel The Hobbit in movie form. It's Lord of the Rings: Episode I: The Gollum Menace. Where The Hobbit is a charming child's story about a bunch of dwarves going on a gold hunt, this is really just a ponderous exercise in milking a previously non-existent movie franchise.

Seriously, if anyone thinks there won't be a third trilogy based on the remaining appendices of LOTR that weren't used here, and the Silmarillion, well, you're either high or basing it on the vagaries of the movie industry in general rather than, say, greed.

Let me say before beginning my bitch-fest that I didn't hate it. I expected little relatable material and an exhausing amount of CGI with more love of excess than good taste, and I got what I expected. This movie really combines the worst aspects of Jackson's LOTR and King Kong, and yet, I say, I did not hate it. Jackson would have had to find new ways to offend me, but he mostly stuck with all the old ways.

The Flower liked it, though she knows the book a little and while she didn't like the deviations, she did like where it was true. The Boy also did not hate it, though he despises Jackson's combat choreography.

As a movie, this is a largely well-produced, well-directed, well-acted and very bland action film. If you liked Battleship, you might like this, for example.

Instead of a, let's say, Jeremy Renner or Daniel Craig as a super-agent, falling from some ridiculous height only to get back up and run off, you have Richard Armitrage as the least dwarfy-looking dwarf in history doing it. Only, instead of a ridiculous but marginally plausible 15 foot drop, you have a suspension-of-disbelief-shattering 300 foot drop.

Instead of calmly walking away from a mega-explosion, but being completely unaffected because you're outside the fiery ball of flame (concussive wave? never heard of it!), you're being smashed by stone giants, only completely unaffected because they didn't directly crush you.

Jackson's King Kong became a crashing bore because of the way the ape juggled around Fay WrayJessica LangeNaomi Watts. Lucas' Clone Wars had similar problems as Annakin threw himself out of a moving flying vehicle from thousands of feet up (culminating in the hilarious "but I have the high ground!" conclusion in the third movie).

Jackson is capable of making some good (or at least comprehensible) choices, like reducing the length of the riddle game part of the book, or reducing the singing (there's a song in nearly every chapter in the book)—and as much as I razzed this in advance, there's one short dwarf song at the beginning that's actually pretty good.

But mostly it's all "Well, if one orc is good and scary, then one thousand will be a thousand times scarier!" Of course, that's not true. One orc can't be scary when your heroes are plowing through thousands of them like they're blind and drunk Imperial Stormtroopers.

And "if being treed by wolf-riding orcs who set the trees on fire is awesome, just imagine how awesome it would be if the trees knocked each other over like dominos and the last tree is at the edge of a cliff that they'll all fall off."

I confess: I laughed. I've always considered myself a fan of excess. I had no idea what excess was. Ken Russell (Tommy, Altered States) called from the grave to say "Whoa. Dude."

While this stuff is tasteless, it's not really what bugs me. What bugs me is perhaps best illustrated by this "Rejected Pitches" sketch. In this presumedly comical video, three cretinous Hollywood types explain how Lord of the Rings couldn't possibly get made because it stars a bunch of short, fat, hairy ugly leads.

That would be hilarious if the LOTR movies were actually about Frodo and Sam. On about the second movie, they became about the love story between Aragorn and only-a-footnote-in-the-book Arwen, and all the improbably and poorly choreographed human battles. By the third movie, they were all about the superheros, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf with more momentum killing love scenes and even less coherent combat scenes.

The Hobbit doubles down by making it largely about the dwarves, particularly the leader, Thorin, whom I've mentioned is the least dwarf-y looking dwarf, having a minimum of facial hair and less exaggerated features than the others.

Did you know that Tarzan was about 38 years old through most of the books? Did you know that Conan the Barbarian was a bit over 6-feet tall and, as a teen, about 180 pounds? Did you know that Edgar Rice Burroughs was about 38 when he wrote the first Tarzan and Robert E. Howard was a bit over six feet tall and about 180 pounds?

Why is this important? Adventure stories tend to be power fantasies. They reflect the audience's and significantly, the author's desire to express themselves in a way that's not socially acceptable.

While the geeks love the massive detail behind Tolkien's fictitious world—and I've had Tolkien fans explain to me that the whole Arwen subplot was just super, being stuff explained in the appendices—the real magic in the stories is their diminutive heroes.

Hobbits aren't just reluctant heroes, they're incapable heroes. They can't fight (too small). They can't run fast (Bilbo must be carried by the dwarves at times in The Hobbit). They have no magic. They can be clever, but are not notably brilliant.

About all they've got going for them is that they're small enough to go unnoticed sometimes, and can move very quietly. Bilbo Baggins is also credited by Gandalf as being very lucky, which is central to him finding the ring.

More than that, they're completely disinclined toward adventure. They have as many meals as they can fit in in a day, they have their comforts and are happy with them, and they even, as a group, strongly disapprove of anything smacking of adventure.

In essence, they are modern man, at least as far as early-20th century English professors are concerned. Bilbo, like Tolkien, is a middle-aged man, comfortably padded, and vaguely remembering the adventures of his youth.

So, here we have Tolkien's power fantasy: No super strength or agility or toughness. The hobbits are heroes because they endure (though seldom without complaint), and because they possess a certain degree of humility. They're good, but not angelic—they are, in essence, humans, moreso than the actual humans of Middle Earth, who are often heroic.

This is what makes the latter LOTR movies and this Hobbit movie is so bland. The extraordinary humanizing qualities of the hobbits is replaced with standard sword and sorcery hijinks. And, look, I've read all of Tarzan, all of Conan, all of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, all of Bran Mak Morn—I love standard S&S hijinks.

And this movie is...well, it's okay S&S, but it's actually held back by the source material, since there's a whole lotta deus ex machina in the book undermining traditionally heroic story approaches.

The gravest injury to the narrative is the climax of the movie, which, while it was way too obvious for me to consider a spoiler, is sort of a spoiler, so if you don't wanna be spoiled, stop reading here.

OK, stopped reading? Here goes: The book's narrative of the dwarves' general lack of faith in Bilbo is, in the movie, concentrated specifically in Thorin. This creates dramatic tension. Thorin can barely stand Bilbo. Since we know that can't persist, we also know something will have to happen to change that.

In the book, Bilbo increases his stock with the dwarves bit-by-bit, with luck and pluck and even a little deception, at the same time increasing his faith in himself. Jackson replaces some of the luck of the book with Bilbo's actions (meh, but okay, I guess), but in the final scene, Thorin is about to be killed by an orc when—

—Bilbo tackles the orc and slays him.

This completely perverts the central notion of hobbits. Now, instead of being brave little souls who try even though they're not physically capable of surviving direct conflict, they're kind of just cowardly jerks. Apparently, they've been able to fight orcs directly all along, and they've just been holding out.

Well, I guess Bilbo just packed a lot of heart. Which I guess would mean, he didn't have any heart before.

Stupid. Self-defeating. Perverse, even. But hey, you got trolls blowing their noses on Bilbo.


  1. I wish I could say I was suprised. Good read, thanks!
    Do you have a review of Jackson's King Kong I should read?

  2. I wasn't blogging when I saw "King Kong" but when people ask me about it, I begin by pointing this out:

    You could watch the original "King Kong" side-by-side with Peter Jackson's remake, and the original would end before the ape shows up in Jackson's flick.

  3. I think he is going to try to answer the criticism of LOTR in this series.

    Good luck with that.

  4. Answer it?

    Like "You thought THAT was bloated, padded and goofy? Take THIS!"?


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