Wednesday, January 15, 2014

stupid hobbit tricks

Like Thorin bedazzled by Smaug's treasure into desiring ownership of all of it, not just the part that's rightfully his, some Tolkienists have fallen under the glamor of the movies into seeing qualities in them that just aren't there.

Latest victim is Corey Olsen, usually a sober if unimaginative scholar, in this article published a month ago but which I've only now read, on the faithfulness of the Hobbit movies to Tolkien's "books" (what books? The Hobbit is only one book). Olsen finds them so on three dubious grounds:

1. That they're faithful to The Hobbit as retrofitted to the world of The Lord of the Rings.
Actually not. The Hobbit was not retrofitted that much. Apart from the rewriting of chapter 5 to change the story of Bilbo's acquisition of the Ring, which Tolkien did not intend for publication until he saw that his publisher intended to print it, the rewritings of The Hobbit, mostly dating from 1966, are very minor and consist mostly of corrections of plot holes and of attempts to cement the setting of the story more firmly into the world of the Silmarillion. The distinct tone of the tale is changed hardly at all.
To show what Tolkien could have done, take a look in The History of The Hobbit to what editor John D. Rateliff designates as "The Fifth Phase," an abortive 1960 draft which does attempt to rewrite The Hobbit in the tone of The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien soon abandoned that. It would have made the work a different book.

2. That what was added to the movies came from The Lord of the Rings or its Appendices or the Silmarillion.
Actually not. Here's a list - I think it's complete - that I already compiled of everything in the second movie with such a source:
1) Flashback to Thorin meeting Gandalf in Bree;
2) Identification of the Necromancer with Sauron, and the consequent general threat to the peace of Middle-earth, but not the shenanigans that go on there (contrary to Olsen's claim, The Lord of the Rings doesn't "focus attention" on this; it's alluded to in both books, but nowhere described in detail);
3) The character of Legolas, but not anything that he does;
4) Brief allusions to Galadriel;
5) Athelas as a healing weed.
That's it. It's even shorter than the one paragraph of plot that comes from The Hobbit.
The things that the movie just totally made up, on the other hand, take up most of its running time. For instance, and just for instance:
There's nothing in any Tolkien book about Bard having to sneak Thorin and Company into Laketown past the guards, and hide them in his house. In the book they walk in openly and we go directly to the scene where Thorin announces his presence to the Master. I'd have thought that would be plenty dramatic enough, as would the book's preceding scene of Bilbo helping the sick and tired dwarves out of the barrels, which is entirely gone from the movie, echoed only in a mocking way by the dwarves having fish poured over them.
There's nothing in any Tolkien book about Kili being injured, staying behind with some companions in Laketown (where they have no business still being), being attacked by the orcs who have been chasing them since literally the previous movie (who also have no business being in Laketown), and then being suddenly and risibly rescued by Legolas and ArwenTauriel, who also have no business being in Laketown either. Of this, literally the only thing that's from the book is some of the character names.
There's nothing in any Tolkien book about the dwarves slamming Beorn's front door shut in his own face (surprisingly, he's still willing to help them after that), or turning the Arkenstone into a McGuffin that confers the right to rule (with Thorin sending Bilbo down to steal that specifically, and since he doesn't manage it (partly because the dragon is there the first time), he accomplishes nothing at the Mountain as a burglar), or Tauriel flirting with Kili while Legolas stands around smoldering, looking more like her angry father than a spurned lover, or the dragon somehow being Bard's fault because his ancestor, Girion, was a bad shot and failed to kill it (!).
There's nothing in any Tolkien book consisting of a long, tedious sequence of scenes in which the dwarves and the dragon chase each other around inside the Mountain. That brings us to Olsen's Excuse No. 3:

3. That the changes are somehow in Tolkien's spirit. Olsen specifically cites "the choice to make Thorin, desperate to avenge his people and live up to his family name, stand up to Smaug instead of cowering in a tunnel." This change is supposedly in Tolkien's spirit because Tolkien changed "the scrupulously honest and apologetic Gollum who wanted to give Bilbo his ring in the first edition of “The Hobbit” into the treacherous and obsessive creature, shrieking out his eternal enmity, that we have all come to take for granted." He's got to be kidding. You could justify any change on the grounds of magnitude, that the greater the change the more it's in Tolkien's spirit. It's like this satire of the Lord of the Rings movies:
"We wanted to bring Tolkien's incredibly intricate, poetic prose to the screen in a way that would be accessible to modern American moviegoers," said Mr. Jackson, a native New Zealander. "One of our scriptwriters suggested that the final epic battle between good and evil might best be portrayed by having the Dark Lord Sauron pursue Frodo and Sam (the ring-bearing Hobbits) in a spectacular car chase through Middle Earth. It really breathes new life into the literary fantasy-action-adventure genre."
Asked how he's dealing with the withering criticism from Tolkien fans, Mr. Jackson bristled: "I can't live my life trying to satisfy the purists. What do these people want? We spent months shooting that car chase, and I used classic cars to make it authentic. I think it's true to the spirit of Tolkien."
Olsen could have gotten more mileage by claiming that this Thorin is truer to the spirit of heroism that pervades The Lord of the Rings.
Well, yes. Richard Armitage is playing Aragorn, far better than Viggo Mortensen did. But he's not Thorin. That's the first problem. Thorin cowers because he's a realist. Here's the only place that Tolkien uses the word "cower" in the book: "The door behind them was pulled nearly to, and blocked from closing with a stone, but up the long tunnel came the dreadful echoes, from far down in the depths, of a bellowing and a trampling that made the ground beneath them tremble. Then the dwarves forgot their joy and their confident boasts of a moment before and cowered down in fright. Smaug was still to be reckoned with. It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him." This is believable. They're frightened. To "stand up to Smaug" would be suicidal. That's how Smaug took over the Mountain in the first place. The dwarves, nor Bilbo, cannot and do not kill the dragon. Characters in The Lord of the Rings make suicidal charges because the fate of the entire world is at stake, and only this way can they hope to enable the accomplishment of their real goal, the destruction of the Ring. No stakes of that kind are up in The Hobbit. Thorin wants his grandfather's kingdom back, and he doesn't insist on going about this in the noblest fashion. "There it is," says Tolkien. "Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much."
The second problem is what the movie does with its heroic Thorin and Company. We get this clownish, overlong, tedious, roller-coaster ride of a chase scene. Tolkien didn't write such things. In this scenario, Smaug would have quickly fried the dwarves to a crisp. Throughout this sequence, Movie-dragon time and again muffs it, despite plenty of easy opportunities, and why? Because then the movie would be over. The result of this is to diminish the story's suspense, not increase it. Tolkien's Smaug is monstrous and terrifying; Movie-dragon is a lot of noise and no action. That's not only not Tolkien, but the exact opposite of his spirit.

Whatever the reasons for making the movies the way they were made, if the question is whether they're faithful to Tolkien's book, the only answer is: no way, no how.

No comments:

Post a Comment