Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Hobbit - The Rant (or, There and Back Again...and Again...and Again)

Heads up; this post may contain spoilers. As it is a commentary on a story published in 1937 to which the film in all major points adheres rather faithfully, any spoilers are, therefore, material that was extraneous to the film anyway, and really shouldn't concern you too much. Take that as you will.

So...I went and saw The Battle of the Five Armies last night (at least I think there were five; it got a little hard to tell at one point). A few key points from the film, before I launch into something a tad more detailed:
  1. Legolas successfully defends his title as Lord of Physics
  2. Dain II Ironfoot should be using an axe, not a hammer
  3. Armoured goats?
Now, to business. 

I've had mixed feelings about these Hobbit films for some time now. When Peter Jackson announced the fracturing of the story into three separate movies I recognized the money-grab instantly, but could also see the structural sense it made to split the story in three. The trouble is, I'm so much in love with the Middle Earth that artists John Howe and Alan Lee have helped the team at Weta bring to life that it's been hard for me to take issue with it. In The Battle of the Five Armies , however, changes have been made to some fundamental aspects of the story, changes which I am not sure I can accept.

This movie doesn't actually cover a lot of book. It would take me perhaps an hour-and-a-half to read aloud the last six chapters in which the events of the film are told, complete with details and entire characters that simply aren't in PJ's interpretation, and yet I sat through a two-and-a-half hour film last night. Knowing this, it saddens me that certain simple yet key things were either altered or overlooked entirely (Roac son of Carc, anyone?). I must urge everyone reading this, if you have not already, read Tokien's novel. If you enjoyed the tale you've encountered (perhaps for the first time) in this trilogy of films, go find a cheap paperback copy of The Hobbit, curl up in an armchair for the day and lose yourself in the tale as it was ever intended to be. Yeah, I'm sentimental about it; but you'll never understand why unless you read it for yourself.

Those who have only ever seen the films, for example, will never know that Bilbo is ultimately responsible for the slaying of Smaug. For it is Bilbo who, in his banter with the dragon, discovers that Smaug the Impenetrable is not quite as impenetrable as he might think he is ("Old fool! Why there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!"). He relates the facts of the matter to Thorin and company, a conversation overheard by...the thrush. The same thrush whose knocking upon the rocks leads Bilbo to discover the door.
"Drat the bird!" said Bilbo crossly. "I believe he is listening, and I don't like the look of him."
"Leave him alone!" said Thorin. "The thrushes are good and friendly-this is a very old bird indeed, and is maybe the last left of the ancient breed that used to live about here, tame to the hands of my father and grandfather. They were a long-lived and magical race, and this might even be one of those that were alive then, a couple of hundreds years or more ago. The Men of Dale used to have the trick of understanding their language, and used them for messengers to fly to the Men of the Lake and elsewhere.
"Well, he'll have news to take to Lake-town all right, if that is what he is after," said Bilbo; "though I don't suppose there are any people left there that trouble with thrush-language."
 Turn your eyes southward now, where Esgaroth is under attack. The town has seen the dragon coming, rallied, and with evacuation underway has met Smaug onslaught with a storm of arrows. A bowman named Bard is down to his last arrow, and is startled when a (nay, the) thrush alights on his shoulder. 
Unafraid it perched by his ear and it brought him news. Marvelling he found he could understand its tongue, for he was of the race of Dale.
"Wait! Wait!" it said to him. "The moon is rising. Look for the hollow of the left breast as he flies and turns above you!" And while Bard paused in wonder it told him of tidings up in the Mountain and of all that it had heard. Then Bard drew his bow-string to his ear.
There's a reason my SCA heraldry is
a black thrush holding an arrow.
The rest, as they say, is history. The film paints quite a different picture. Bard, the only person in the town fighting the wyrm, standing alone atop a tower with some ridiculous jury-rigged ballista (Smaug has broken his bow and is talking to him...what?) spots the gap in the dragon's armour all by himself. It removes Bilbo entirely from the central role for which Tolkien always intended him; this is a story about a hobbit who, intentionally or otherwise, is responsible for some incredible events (like the slaying of the last great dragon), the weight of which he does not fully understand.

Let's fast-forward to Thorin's death on the screen. He is killed in a gimmicky single-combat sequence atop a frozen waterfall with an orc who was meant to be dead 142 years ago. And I don't mean "meant" in that they supposed he had died from his wounds; Tolkien writes that Azog was killed in 2799 by Dain II Ironfoot, and the Battle of the Five Armies was fought in 2941. So, yeah. Way to stick to the text, PJ. That's been bugging me for three years now. Anyway, that's not really the point. The point is the way it affects Thorin's character at the end of the story. We see him come back to being himself again, come bursting out of the mountain and rally the dwarven forces to him, break the goblin ranks, and then...jump on an armoured mountain that materialized from frakking nowhere and bugger off up a mountain to chase a single orc. Where he dies, and Bilbo happens to be there also (because he must warn Thorin of the other secret army, which PJ invented so that he'd have something to warn Thorin about) just in time to hear the great dwarf's last words...which are damn near identical to Boromir's last words to Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). But that's not how the story goes.
When Gandalf saw Bilbo, he was delighted. "Baggins!" he exclaimed. "Well I never! Alive after all - I am glad! I began to wonder if even your luck would see you through! A terrible business, and it nearly was disastrous. But other news can wait. Come!" he said more gravely. "You are called for;" and leading the hobbit he took him within the tent.
"Hail! Thorin," he said as he entered. "I have brought him."
There indeed lay Thorin Oakenshield, wounded with many wounds, and his rent armour and notched axe were cast upon the floor. He looked up as Bilbo came beside him.
"Farewell, good thief," he said. "I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed. Since I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth, I wish to part in friendship from you, and I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate."
Thorin dies not in single combat with some mythical orc but as a soldier, wounded many times by many foes as he led by example in the middle of everything. And lying, torn and bleeding on his deathbed after the battle is won, he asks for Bilbo to be brought to him so that he can make amends. It's his initiative, the summons of a king which Tolkien knew is no small matter. Jackson's obsession with nemesis, pitting Azog against Thorin and Bolg against Legolas (I'm not even gonna touch that one...except maybe once, later), has effectively robbed us of the intended destiny of Thorin Oakenshield.

How great would the battle scene have been if PJ had stuck to the text? I'm frankly sick of the narrative contortions through which the script had to go to set up certain characters' deaths. Instead of
Thorin wielded his axe with mighty strokes, and nothing seemed to harm him. "To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!" he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley.
we get a bunch of elves and dwarves cavorting through towers on mountain peaks and hanging upside-down from giant flying bats (don't ask) in a bizarre series of swashbuckling hijinks that is...ridiculous. There's no other word for it. What of Beorn? He's overlooked entirely, except for one shot where he actually gets airdropped into combat by the Eagles. And then we never see him again. To PJ, this guy's just a giant shapeshifting bear-man who offers some sick CGI opportunities. Tolkien actually had a purpose for Beorn, as he had a purpose for everything he created.
In that last hour Beorn himself had appeared - no one knew how or from where. He came alone, and in bear's shape; and he seemed to have grown almost to giant-size in his wrath. The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers. He fell upon their rear, and broke like a clap of thunder through the ring. The dwarves were making a stand still about their lords upon a low rounded hill. Then Beorn stooped and lifted Thorin, who had fallen pierced with spears, and bore him out of the fray. Swiftly he returned and his wrath was redoubled, so that nothing could withstand him, and no weapon seemed to bite upon him. He scattered the bodyguard, and pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him.
And who wouldn't have loved to see Bolg killed by a giant bear, rather than...Legolas? Yeah, I went there. It bothers me.

Yeah...no contest.

1 comment:

  1. Duhna-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana BAT ELF! To be surpassed in absurdity by above-mentioned master of physics scene. When Legolas finally nopes out, he's told to "go find Strider". "Strider" was ten years old, and not called that yet, because he hadn't strode much of anywhere yet. I'm so very glad Viggo refused to act as Aragorn in the Hobbit. He'd make a pretty terrible ten year old.

    I completely agree with your comments about removing agency from Bilbo and cheapening Thorin's demise. *sigh*

    At this point, I'm very happy they killed off the right people. It's sad that that's a mark of success.

    But I really did enjoy the movie lots! Yay!