Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Distraction I: The Desolation of a Perfectly Good Book

You, my good internet friends, have left me in a posting pickle.  Everyone who weighed in on my last post asked for something different in the way of fluffy posts, so I'm back to throwing darts blindfolded to decide.  For no good reason, here is my first distraction post.


So first of all, I am not a hardcore Tolkien fan, nor am I a rigid purist about film adaptations of books.  I don't always agree with the choices that Peter Jackson made in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I mostly understand the artistic motivations behind those choices.  (One notable exception: this fucking ridiculous invention.)

I do, however, recognize naked greed when I see it.  The Hobbit is a one-film book — two at the very most, and even that is stretching it, if you ask me.  It's artistically unconscionable to bloat the thing into a trilogy.  The Hobbit is a neat little children's tale: my copy numbers 330 pages, and that's in comfortably large "read me a bedtime story" print.  Sure, there are occasional plot holes, and Tolkien didn't spend nearly so much time working out the inner lives of the characters as he did in his later works, but when was the last time you picked up a story written to entertain children that had airtight plot consistency and rich psychological portraits of the characters?  There's simply no need to spend more than six hours of screen time telling the story.

(And let's be fair here: The Hobbit is hardly artistically shallow.  I'd never have noticed it when I was a kid, but as an overeducated damned intellectual a grown man who knows a little history, I'm intrigued to see the moments in which Bilbo Baggins seems to speak Tolkien's personal feelings about warfare.  This is a subject for a post of its own, but for all his Nordic hero-worship and his racist, Orientalist mentality, Tolkien was also a veteran of WWI who knew first-hand how awful war really was, and how far from epic valor day-to-day soldier's life was.  Sam Gamgee fills the same sort of role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) 

But that's a general critique of the entire concept of a trilogy of Hobbit films.  The matter at hand is the currently screening travesty, The Desolation of Smaug.

First of all, I'll give them this much: Smaug looks more convincing than I expected, even though I can no longer be intimidated by CGI anything.  I kind of feel like they should have let Benedict Cumberbatch just work out the voice on his own instead of altering it digitally, but there's a lot of unfortunate historical precedent for using some goofy echo effect on a dragon's voice.  He's not a bad job, on the whole.

Just about everything else, though, was a fucking joke.  I mean, damn.  I can start with one complaint and let the chain spring thence naturally.
  1. TAURIEL.  Okay, I get it, Tolkien wasn't much for female characters, and they want girls to go see this film, too.  I was willing to tolerate this thinking when they gave the literary Glorfindel's lines and plot functions to the cinematic Arwen; after all, in an epic story that size, there has to be some conglomeration and telescoping if you don't want a sixteen-hour piece of cinema.  And, you know, Arwen actually exists in the books.  But inventing a whole new character who has no function in the extant plot?  Tacky.
  2. You know what else is tacky?  Inventing an utterly ridiculous romantic subplot between an elf and a dwarf in a story that depends on elves and dwarves distrusting each other and never really bridging the gap outside of battle scenarios.  (See my previous complaint.)  You wanna see elves and dwarves learn to trust and care for each other?  Read The Lord of the Rings!  (Or fuck, I dunno, watch Jackson's LotR trilogy.)  Yes, Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner are hot, but it's already cheating to let Turner run around in the films looking like his movie-star-handsome self.  Where's the huge dwarvish beard, dude?  Oh, right, that would get in the way of you looking all pouty and cute.  And since elves are apparently incapable of growing facial hair, one has to assume that Tauriel wouldn't be into anyone with more than a five-o'-clock shadow.
  3. Speaking of which: what the fuck is the use of inventing a second romantic subplot with Tauriel?  Do elven kingdoms always have such lopsided sex statistics that there's only one female in sight among dozens of dudes?  
  4. Oh wait, I forgot: that provides you with an excuse to throw in Legolas, since everyone liked him in the last trilogy, even though I'm pretty sure that Tolkien didn't even begin to create the character until The Hobbit was already in print.
  5. And oh yeah, there's also the convenient heterosexuality that you can drape on Legolas that way.  Don't think I haven't noticed the way that the producers are styling and promoting the film in distinctly macho, heteronormative ways.  Perhaps they were disquieted by the slow-building friendship between Legolas and Gimli in the first trilogy, uninterrupted by any female character.  (Tolkien's assumptions of wartime camaraderie and general homosociality are no doubt puzzling to many younger readers and, especially, viewers.)

    (Sidebar 1: I like to think that the last three problems hint at the producers' fears that without the presence of Evangeline Lilly, Legolas and Kili would somehow end up having desperate, furtive sex in a corner of the Woodland Elves' realm, and they had to butch things up to please their audience.  Or the audience's parents, at any rate.
    Sidebar 2: Cue a new generation of gay slash/fic starring Legolas and Kili...NOW!)
  6. All of which is pretty weird in light of the film's seeming insistence that every elf besides Legolas and Tauriel act campy enough to be an extra in The Birdcage.  The vocal tone and body language that Lee Pace uses as Thranduil makes me think of nothing so much as Andreas Voutsinas in History of the World, Part I.
  7. I dislike Jackson's choice to make a bigger deal of the Arkenstone than Tolkien himself did, but I get it.  I acknowledge that Tolkien's plotting of the burglary and wealth-recovery operation was on the thin side, and that people might start to wonder what the hell a bunch of nitwit dwarves and one hobbit planned to do to get that stuff home.  (In the book, this exact concern becomes a plot device; I suspect Tolkien was banking on small children not thinking this far ahead.)  Obsessing about a single crucial McGuffin is definitely easier for Hollywood-trained viewers to understand.
  8. But then what am I to make of Gandalf apparently losing his goddamn mind and telling Thorin, "take back your homeland," when he knows perfectly well that Thorin has only the aforementioned bunch of nitwit dwarves and one hobbit as the vanguard?  The movie only worsens a problem that Tolkien originated: that there is no sane reason to select Bilbo as the company burglar, except the mysterious charisma of the reluctant/cowardly hero.  If Gandalf is as smart as everyone says, then surely he could do something other than to send this pack of chuckleheads off to steal from a humongous dragon.
  9. The revamp of the Master of Lake-Town as a despotic unelected tyrant, rather than a canny businessman elected by his fellows like he is in the book, is fucking stupid.  I feel insulted by this entire subplot.
  10. The addition of Bard's little children worrying about being killed is even stupider.
  11. It's totally bananas that a bunch of orcs are able to raid Lake-Town, get ambushed by elves, and have an entire guerrilla battle without any residents noticing.
  12. WTF Kili gets shot!?  There shouldn't have been a battle at that point in the story anyway!!  Why oh why are you sidetracking yourself with this idiotic subplot?  Oh, that's right: it's an excuse to put Evangeline Lilly back in frame.  I get it now.
  13. I reluctantly come to the conclusion that the only actor doing a better job than Benedict Cumberbatch in this film is Richard Armitage.  How he's managing this, I have no idea.
  14. It kills me to admit it, but much of the original plot in the latter half of the book is so poorly thought out on its own terms that Peter Jackson may well have decided that he had to do something about it,  and if that's the case, then why not sex it up with battles and desperate political struggles and, um, sex?  Kills me, I tell you.


  1. You've just given me an excuse never to see this movie, ever. If hubby ever suggests it, I'll just say, "Read this post." I'll bookmark it -- just in case. :)

    This trilogizing of The Hobbit is nothing but a money grab, pure and simple. Makes me sick.

  2. I agree with everything you said! Plus, I checked when I got home --- Smaug eats it about three pages after where movie 2 just ended, and the rest of the entire book isn't much longer. I fear for the third film.

    The worst thing was nobody in my family told me they made the Hobbit a trilogy, so last year when we got to the end of movie one and we saw one glimpse of Smaug and then the film ended I was PISSED!

  3. And this is why I'm not bothering to watch it.

    What really gets me is the 'they want girls to watch it' - my niece, an eight year old sparkle-obsessed, pink and purple wearing perfectly normal girl, thought Tauriel was silly and the battle bits exciting, and when I made some mention about there not being many other girl characters she came back with the Tolkein accurate point that dwarf girls look just like dwarf boys anyway so who knows, plus 'any girl would see the dwarfs were silly and not want to go on an adventure with them, if you go on an adventure you want to know you're likely to come back'.