Friday, December 13, 2013

A little book turned into a lot of movie

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

When I first saw Sin City I was struck by how bad a movie could be while completely adhering to the source material. Books and comic books frequently have images and moments that don't hold up well to being filmed. In Sin City it's mostly a dialogue problem - characters say things which work really well on the starkly fantastic pages of the comic book, but which sound hilariously implausible when spoken by an actual human being. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the song is the problem. You know which song I'm talking about. The one with the acrobatic plate-flinging. The Hobbit is a significantly more childish book than The Lord of the Rings, and does include some very silly songs and funny narrative commentary, but a lot of that comes out looking ridiculous in the movie when you're looking at serious actors preparing to embark on a dangerous, three-movie adventure.

The song is just the first of some really odd choices in a movie that's looking for a genre. The Hobbit badly wants to be a LotR film, but it also wants to be a children's movie, and a character piece for Bilbo Baggins. Peter Jackson tried to do all of this and unfortunately it just didn't come out very well. The choice to include the cups and plates song, but not to include the jolly singing elves is confusing. The decision to add a comedy beat at the end of the goblin chase is perplexing when you've spent 10 minutes watching the weird sexual tension between Galadriel and Gandalf as they argue with Elrond and Saruman in the slowest scene in the film. What is so frustrating is that you can't make an argument that this is the result of Jackson being a Tolkien purist - the inclusion of Azog and Thorin's back story is neat, but it's only one line in the original novel. It's great to see Radagast on screen, but nowhere in the books is there any suggestion that he's the 'head we see in the movie (and it's really frustrating to see a character who's written as a St. Francis of Assisi analogue played for laughs like he's in a Cheech and Chong bit).

I also noticed an irritating plot hole when I rewatched this last night - Radagast mentions to Gandalf that a shadow has fallen over the forest, and that "some have even come to call it the Mirkwood"; I'm going to be a pedantic geek here - if Gandalf went to Dol Guldur in the 2063rd year of the Third Age (the same time as our quest) then Greenwood the Great had been know as Mirkwood for over a thousand years. In LotR Legolas uses the name Mirkwood for his home forest - and since elves are stubborn and stuck in their ways and calling it Mirkwood long after the Necromancer has been driven out, it is unlikely that Radagast would have to reveal with horror to Gandalf that men are calling the forest Mirkwood and to have him do so just so they get to throw in a line about how creepy the forest has gotten is an idiotic reason to mess with the plumbing of the universe.

All of that being said, there are some truly wonderful things about the film. Martin Freeman's Bilbo is effortlessly delightful, and the tensions between him and the dwarves are not only accurate to the novel but interesting to watch and powerfully moving. Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum (and steps in as Second Unit Director) before the trials of Mordor; he is creepy and pathetic, and incredibly compelling. The relationship between Bilbo and Thorin is developed at just the right pace and with just the right pathos. And, of course, Peter Jackson films Middle Earth like it's his lover.

Which brings us to another problem - it seems like technology might finally be getting too good to be true. When the LotR came out, no one had anything but compliments for the CGI; when The Hobbit first premiered not only was the CGI criticized, the whole film was criticized - high frame rates served to make all the animation look cheap and all the actors look terrifying; only the beautiful landscapes and backgrounds of Middle Earth saved the visuals of the film. Seeing it last night in IMAX 3D only made it worse - the high frame rate is jarring and makes what I'm sure were very expensive visual effects look very cheap (hint: if the series you're filming involves a dragon, you don't want to do ANYTHING to make your CGI fire look cheesy).

The long and short of it is that I very badly want to like this move, there are large parts of it that I do like, and a second viewing has improved my opinion of it, but due to some strange choices I don't think that I'll ever enjoy it the same way I enjoy The Two Towers (immensely, and every chance I get) or even the way that I enjoy the Rankin/Bass 1977 cartoon (with fond nostalgia and a vague need to buy the DVD). Maybe I'll watch this move once in a while, but I don't think that I'll feel the need to immerse myself in it regularly, which is sad because that IS something that I feel for the book, as well as for the LotR films.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(Spoilers Below! I guess? It's an old book. I'm not sure I believe in spoilers for books this old.)

There's a huge problem with being an obsessive geek - I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, but I kept thinking "but that's not how it happened in the book!" because I am a jerk and I don't like change.

There aren't a ton of problems with the changes that they made; the introduction of Bard works really well, truncating the Mirkwood experience is probably necessary, singing at the spiders might come off as ridiculous (even thought I wanted to see that SO BAD) so I guess it was safe to leave out, and showing us Gandalf's timeline does a good deal to increase tension and provide a sometimes-needed break from the 13 dwarves.

But some of the changes from book to movie really, really bothered me. I'll limit myself to one example, but it's a big one: only Bilbo should interact with Smaug. That's something that I think is key to the story - Bilbo faces the dragon alone and the dwarves are less interested in a tête-à-tête for the sake of vengeance than they are with letting Bilbo burgle. Smaug isn't completely right when he tries to convince Bilbo that the dwarves are letting him take all the risk while they get all the money, but he's not far wrong either. Tolkien wanted to emphasize that contrast - dwarves aren't human, dwarves aren't elvish, and dwarves aren't wizards - dwarves are dwarvish and have a different way of doing things, a way that is sometimes harsh but usually pragmatic; but you don't get the contrast if you have the dwarves fight Smaug for a quarter of the film. In the book, dwarves are kind of assholes - these movie dwarves are a bit too cuddly and broad-minded, which concerns me because some of the action coming in the next segment of the story relies on dwarves being assholes.

It's pretty typical of me to worry about things that haven't happened yet, so I'll leave off speculating as to whether or not the dwarves are big enough jerks and move on to other things.

Someone save us from high frame rate and the renaissance of 3D. I don't like it, it's incredibly distracting, and it detracts from my enjoyment of the film. This time the animators got it right and Smaug is probably the best looking thing in the movie, which is pretty sad because we're talking about a movie filmed in New Zealand - every exterior scene should be ball-crushingly beautiful, but it's not because you can't really see it because your eyes are overwhelmed with the hyperclarity of the high frame rate. It makes everything look flat and dull and too bright at the same time. This is a Peter Jackson Middle Earth movie with a huge budget, but high frame rate makes it look like a cross between a basic-cable daytime special and an overproduced videogame. There's a sequence that takes place in a river; it looks like it was filmed on a GoPro - this isn't Middle Earth, this is the over saturated video your drunk brother shot while kayaking. The images jump from having no depth of field to having a vertiginous, fathomless depth in seconds. It is dizzying and it literally made my eyes hurt. (This could be a problem with my eyes since I have very little depth perception in the real world, which is part of why I like movies so much - someone else is doing the focusing for me).

For all my bitching, though, I did really enjoy the film. Last year when Unexpected Journey came out I walked out of the theater saying "I don't know how I feel about what just happened." Last night I walked out of the theater and said, "yeah, it has some issues but that was rad! Wanna see it again?" I do think that I'll see if again, but I think I'll try to find a 2D 24fps version so that I can give my eyes a break and really take it in without having to blink hard every few seconds.

One final note: my dad and sister are convinced that Peter O'Toole would be the perfect person to voice Smaug, and I don't disagree with them, but any concerns about Benedict Cumberbatch were totally groundless - he has a TERRIFYING voice and it's fantastic for the chiefest and greatest of calamities.

So, you should check it out, and after 5 hours of late-night Middle Earth, I should take a nap.

     - Alli


  1. I'd really like to hear your other complaints too, personally.

    1. ********SPOILERS BELOW**********

      The two other big problems that I have are with Esgaroth being run like a police state and leaving behind the three dwarves. The Master is supposed to be conniving and greedy, but not a dictator - the city is supposed to be full of poor, flawed, gullible people, not an oppressed group of downtrodden wretches, just human people; and making Bard into a martyr instead of just a good man is heavy-handed - it erases all the shades of gray and turns this into a black and white, good versus evil conflict instead of sticking to the source material and having a voluntary collective of people who elected one power-hungry but not terrible man.

      And leaving Bofur, Fili, and Kili behind isolates Thorin as an asshole, which is an issue even further complicated by the non-canon injury to Kili and bizarre relationship with Tauriel. They set it up in the movie so that it kind of makes sense to leave Kili, but only because of other things that never happened in the book. There's enough drama to the story as it was written without mixing in superfluous conflicts and splitting up the dwarves - which is driving me crazy because it means that I'm pretty sure that some of the stuff at the end of the novel is going to be completely different or just not happen at all. And it looks like they're setting up SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN'T READ IT the survival of Fili and Kili with Kili instead of Dain as the fifth King Under the Mountain. Which is all maddening because, again, the novel has enough drama and there's no point to messing with the continuity of the universe.

      Anyway, those are the biggies. There's some minor stuff that I could bitch about - the insanely sped-up timeline, using Orcs instead of Goblins as the other side in the Battle of Five Armies, the whole thing with Bard's arrow, and so forth. But overall, it was a hell of a lot better (in my opinion at least) than the first segment. I guess I'll just have to wait until next year to see if I was just overreacting.

  2. Just like my sentiments about LotR: The Fellowship. God, how I hated that movie.
    Also, it has been over 10 years since I last read the Hobbit and judging from your thoughts, it's just as good that I won't read it again until after I've seen the movies. XD

    1. So much wistful staring in Fellowship - I don't get it.

      I purposefully reread the book before I go see each movie for the express purpose of having solid ground to stand on for getting grumpy. It's kind of sad how much I troll myself. :D