Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"it's real, and it's coming" - on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help

John D. Rateliff, apparently (unless others are hiding in shame) the only top-rank Tolkien scholar who really likes the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies, has kindly posted a link to the first trailer for Jackson's upcoming film of The Hobbit, apparently the first of two movies. (The Hobbit is far briefer than any of the three volumes that make up The Lord of the Rings, yet Jackson managed to make that in only three movies.) John says, "after years of delay, it's real, and it's coming," which he says is a feeling to luxuriate in, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that the same words could equally evoke a feeling of deepest dread - and if said in the tone used throughout the trailer, they probably would. Which is why my response, in the title of this post, is to quote Aragorn on the Nazgul.

Whenever someone expresses negative anticipatory feelings about an upcoming movie on the basis of seeing the trailer, there's always some doofus around to say severely, "You can't judge a movie on its trailer," but you will see in the comments section of the trailer's post no shortage of people willing to express enthusiastic anticipatory feelings about it on the same basis. If they can feel pumped, I can with equal justification feel dismayed. One of them says, "feels like 01 over again," and the feeling of a retread of the previous set of movies is exactly the problem.

One of the less remarked flaws of the Lord of the Rings movies was that they turned the broad structure of the story into a debilitating slog. I discussed a specific example of this in regard to Moria in my essay in Janet Brennan Croft's Tolkien on Film (p. 52), but it's not a matter of concrete moments so much as one of broad perspectives. Near the end of the second movie, Jackson's Gandalf says, "The battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle-earth is about to begin," and even though he immediately goes on to say that all the hopes rest on two hobbits (Jackson says he knows where the heart of the story lies, but he doesn't act as if he believes it), my immediate feeling was a sinking one of "Oh no, do we have to go through all this again?" (Cue Douglas Adams's bowl of petunias.) The problem is that, even though Gandalf makes the same point in the book - he tells Theoden, "If we succeed [against Saruman], then we will face the next task" - Tolkien never gave me that feeling of a weary, endless, repetitive slog. (And if there are those who say the book feels like a slog and the movies are fast and zippy, that still proves my point: the two works have an entirely different ethos. And if some doofus then says, "Of course: a movie is not like a book," they're begging two important questions which are the topic of my aforementioned essay.)

Watching The Hobbit trailer after seeing the Lord of the Rings movies also gives me that feeling of going through the whole thing again. Again, this is not something I get from Tolkien. Maybe it ought to be. The Lord of the Rings starts out as a remarkably close copy of its predecessor: reluctant hobbit adventurer sets out on a journey, takes twelve chapters to go over the same geographic route that The Hobbit covered in a zippy two chapters, with almost interchangeable semi-comic, semi-horrific adventures on the way, before finally heading off in a different direction. But it isn't repetitive, and one major reason it isn't is the difference in tone. After The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings is a bigger, darker book, with a broader, deeper view of the world it's set in. They feel quite different from each other.

It's harder, though, to turn back from The Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit. Tolkien himself grew a bit embarrassed by the earlier book's lighter tone, and attempted a thorough rewriting more in the style of The Lord of the Rings. But he soon abandoned it, in part for just that reason - it would just repeat what he'd already done. (You may find the relics of this draft in John D. Rateliff's estimable The History of The Hobbit.) Jackson, though, has chosen to tread where a wise man decided not to go. He has decided, perhaps inevitably in the circumstances, to frame The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings - that is, a story told later though taking place earlier - and he has given it the tone of the other book, or, more precisely, of the other movies. Everything said in the trailer about the possible dangers and how the journey will change Bilbo is in the book in some way or other, but the feel is entirely different. In Tolkien's books, Frodo sets out with a miasma of danger already hanging over him - one which Jackson, typically, overplays, not knowing the difference between danger and action - but Bilbo rushes out in a whoosh of comic spirit, and his growing misery is based merely on physical discomfort. He knows there's a dragon ahead, and probably other dangers on the way, but he's not thinking about them because he can't even imagine them. They don't hang over the story. Everything hangs over this trailer. The dark ominous tone in which Jackson's Thorin refuses to guarantee Bilbo's safety, whereas in the book a more general warning is comically embedded in a pompous speech, the equally ominous shot of the Ring, whereas it's essential to the tone of The Hobbit that the Ring not have all the baggage that would be piled on it in the sequel.

More notes. The dwarves don't look like dwarves, unless they have comic bulbous noses on. Dear God, this aspect is going to be bad. I do hope that the clip from Howard Shore's LotR film music is just a placeholder until they get something new. And is that some kind of tender romantic moment between Gandalf and ... that must be Galadriel? Look, I'm not going to oppose putting Galadriel in The Hobbit just because Tolkien hadn't invented her yet; retroactively, she was around. The problem is, are you going to ask yourself, is she really appropriate for this story? I will give Jackson credit if he resists the temptation to put Arwen and ten-year-old Estel in his movie. And Martin Freeman as Bilbo seems to act well, though whether this character will really feel like Bilbo remains to be seen. And the words in the dwarves' song are all from Tolkien, hurrah, though that's a gloomier setting of them than any other I've heard. Typical.

ETA: Review saying it "looks like a fan trailer recut from the first three movies."

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