Archive for the 'Directors: Jackson' Category
There have been rumblings lately about the surfeit of CGI-heavy films, especially superhero movies, and about a certain monotony in the results. Critics and fans are hailing Mad Max: Fury Road, in no little part because George Miller did stage much of the action, with real fantasy vehicles and hair-raising stunts, and employed CGI only when necessary. Among the diehard Peter Jackson fans over on TheOneRing.net, many argue that the emphasis on practical effects over digital in the Lord of the Rings trilogy should have been carried over to the Hobbit trilogy, despite the advances in CGI technology in the nine-year gap between them.
Earlier this month, Variety‘s Brian Lowry published an editorial laying out the problem. He concentrated on the superhero movies that have increasingly come to dominate the tentpole level of big-studio filmmaking:
The ability to mount enormous battles featuring multiple super-powered characters, however, has become its own trap. And while the results can be visually astounding, the movies regularly feel as lifeless and mechanized as the technology responsible for bringing those visions to fruition.
The why of it remains something of a mystery, but the outcome is frequently a hugely expensive–if often enough quite lucrative–tentpole release that certainly puts the money onscreen, yet nevertheless proves more numbing than exciting, even during what should be the show-stopping sequences.
The original “Avengers” was mostly a happy exception, even with its prolonged alien-invasion climax. “Age of Ultron,” while ambitious in exploring relationships among characters, becomes drearily repetitive as the heroes mow down another CGI horde, this time consisting of artificially intelligent robots.
The pattern has become predictable. “Iron Man,” a terrific movie overall — particularly in capturing the origin story — degenerated into a mundane brawl between two armor-clad characters. Ditto the “Hulk” reboot with Edward Norton, which culminated with the title character’s ho-hum showdown with another green behemoth, the Abomination.
One can argue, in fact, that the much-maligned second “Star Wars” trilogy sacrificed an element of its humanity in George Lucas’ embrace of a wholly digital filmmaking approach. At a certain point, watching droid armies being whacked to pieces begins to yield diminishing returns.
Put more simply, just because CGI wizardry allows you to do something, whether hoisting an entire city into the air or leveling skyscrapers willy-nilly, doesn’t always mean you should. Because while the box office figures might suggest otherwise, there is an audience out there that’s weary of these movies precisely because of the hollow quality to the inevitable final 30 minutes of unrelenting mayhem.
This struck a chord with me, because since the beginning of the year I have seen trailers for several CGI-heavy films. (How many of them begin with an ominous “helicopter shot” high over a CGI city, usually at night?) Most of them melt into each other in my memory, but I do recall that they included Insurgent (the teaser, below left) and Jupiter Ascending (trailer #3, below right).
My reactions to the Insurgent and Jupiter Ascending images were: 1) another burning cityscape with a CGI person flying through the air, and 2) wild horses couldn’t drag me to these.
Compare these two frames with the image at the top of this entry. My reactions to the Mad Max: Fury Road teaser, which I only saw in HD on my computer, were: 1) what a gorgeous shot, 2) why is that guy doing that–he’s crazy, 3) George Miller and all these other people are crazy, and 4) I must see this film ASAP. The same qualities attracted me to The Road Warrior, but this time Miller had a far bigger budget, allowing him to create more vehicles and make them more elaborate.
The increasingly same old-same old quality about superhero films extends to science-fiction films and dystopian future ones.
CGI is a marvelous technology and has been used to create wonderful films, scenes, and characters. Gollum remains one of its most successful and memorable creations. I suspect that many, like me, remember that initial jolt of amazement in the scene in The Two Towers when the mild “Smeagol” and villainous “Gollum” sides of his nature talked to each other, and a sudden switch to shot/reverse shot made his split visible, as if he had two bodies:
It was a brilliant way to handle the scene, but it also depended on us accepting Gollum as a character on the same plane of existence as Frodo and Sam. Yes, the technology for Gollum was improved for his reappearance in The Hobbit, but it wasn’t dramatically better, and the first trilogy was the real breakthrough.
Smaug was another creation where one could hardly deny that CGI was used with astonishing complexity and skill (see bottom). The same is true for The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (also with effects by Weta Digital, which also managed to fill in scenes involving the late Paul Walker in Furious 7 without barely anyone noticing).
Lest all this become too Weta-centric, I also have seen the teaser for Robert Zemickis’ The Walk a few times. Again there’s a computer-generated cityscape, as in Insurgent and Jupiter Ascending, but the effect is quite different. It’s an attempt to create realism in a story based on actual events; the actor obviously can’t be placed high above New York, and the Trade Towers are gone. The effect is anything but clichéd. That I was to see, too.
Another well-reviewed current science-fiction film, Ex Machina, uses CGI in an original way. David liked it less well than I did, but whatever one thinks of the film as a whole, the robot character Ava is not something we’ve seen on the screen before–at least, not done this way.
Historically, any art form goes through cycles. Hugely successful films will give rise to many imitators, and imitation eventually leads to cliché. The question is, will the filmmakers called upon to make big effects-heavy films make the effort to use CGI in an imaginative way? With sequel after sequel in the largest franchises already planned by the studios for years into the future, will the apparent assumption that flashy CGI is enough to attract the action-movie crowd prove wrong?
The madness of Mad Max
Despite the critics’ emphasis on the practical effects and real locations in Fury Road, it should be pointed out that Miller used quite a bit of CGI in the film. Indeed, he was no stranger to digital effects. For Babe (1995), his team used CGI to achieve the most realistic talking animals in films to that time. (Miller produced and wrote the script, with Chris Noonan directing; he directed Babe: Pig in the City.) Previously talking animals were usually done with puppets and animatronics, but Miller’s team used 3D scans of animals snouts and muzzles and manipulated the results. Babe won the 1996 Oscar for best visual effects. There were no exploding cities, giant armies, or battling superheroes, but experts recognized those moving animal mouths as cutting-edge stuff.
In Fury Road, CGI is used for effects that would be difficult, impossible, or prohibitively expensive otherwise. Furiosa’s missing left wrist and hand are an obvious example, as is the massive sandstorm that hits the fugitives and pursuers.
The blue night scene was shot day for night and then enhanced digitally, presumably with tinting and the addition of stars. The city which is the Citadel’s source of gasoline and is supposedly Furiosa’s goal as her truck sets out early in the film, is shown on the distant horizon but clearly was not built, since none of the action takes place there. The Citadel scenes were done in Australia, while most of the desert material was shot in Namibia. Some parts of the Citadel were built full-scale (e.g., the winch room), while green-screen replaced by digital set extensions supplied the rest. I think I spotted some digital matte paintings in some of the landscapes. But on the whole, Miller stuck to real locations, and most of the scenes of the chases were done with real vehicles and actors, chasing each other around the Namibian desert.
Miller commented, “We don’t defy the laws of physics–there are no flying human beings, no spacecraft–so it doesn’t make sense to do it as CGI. We’ve got real vehicles and real humans in a real desert, and you hope that all that texture will be up there on the screen.” Miller had in fact assumed that he would have to create the “pole cat” sequence, which has men perched on long, swaying poles atop speeding vehicles (above). Action unit director Guy Norris, however, shot a test scene on video, with no CGI. Miller was thrilled: “There were 10 pole cats swaying, coming down the road at speed, all of them on cars, and Guy was on one of the poles filming them. I choked up. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s real. It’s absolutely real.”
According to Simon Gray’s “Max Intensity” in the latest American Cinematographer (not yet online), “Months of rehearsals enabled the stunt crew to perform their choreographed sequences while the vehicles traveled at speeds up to 50 miles an hour.” (AC, June 2015, p. 42)
The reality of it comes through, as in this scene of one of many explosions. The stunt man flinching in the foreground is not the sort of thing you’d see if this were all being faked.
And some of the stunts are not all that different from what we saw in The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome, both made in the pre-CGI days. This scene, for example, among the best in the film, where a motorcycle gang chases Furiosa’s rig.
One reason why Fury Road looks so good is results from Miller’s and and his cinematographer’s decision to avoid the look of most post-apocalyptic movies. Anne Thompson describes their approach: “The cliches of the genre were to desaturate the cinematography. So he and great Australian cinematographer John Seale (dragged out of retirement), saturated the color. ‘We were able to change the skies, and go against the idea that because it’s the apocalypse, there’s no longer any beauty in the world.'” (AC, June 2015, p. 48)
There are desert areas of Africa where the sand is the rich, peachy color that appears in the film. The Namibian desert, however, is not so colorful.
(George Miller, in the official Warner Bros. making-of publicity short)
The film’s senior colorist, Eric Whipp, describes the challenge of differentiating the largely brown, beige, and grey colors of the costumes and vehicles from such backgrounds: “The desert sand in Namibia is, in reality, closer to be gray color, but pushing it toward rich gold colors complemented the characters and vehicles, providing a strong, graphic look. The only other dominant color in the film was blue sky, which we embraced.”
The transformation of the desert into rich yellow and orange tones was done with what was obviously aggressive digital color grading. It runs marvelously counter to the dull blues, browns, and grays that form the dominant look of so many action films.
[May 31: On fxguide, Ian Failes has posted an excellent piece that lays out the practical vs. the digital effects in Fury Road.]
LOTR vs. The Hobbit
Reading Lowry’s comments made me think of Andrew Lesnie, who died recently at the young age of 59. Lesnie had unintentionally played a small but pivotal role in my attempts back in 2002-2003 to get permission to interview the Lord of the Rings filmmakers for my book, The Frodo Franchise. I needed to contact someone high in the production who could be a sort of sponsor for me, helping to gain New Line’s cooperation. The only people I figured could do that would be producer Barrie Osborne or Peter Jackson or Fran Walsh.
In November 2002, I was at a conference in Adelaide, Australia and met Annabelle Sheehan, who at that time was an administrator at the Australian School of Film, Radio and Television. When I told her of my potential project, she offered to put me in touch with Lesnie. I hesitated before responding. I knew that it would be wonderful to interview him, but my subject didn’t relate to cinematography at all. Moreover, he wasn’t in a position to sponsor such a project. Then Annabelle offered to introduce me to Barrie Osborne, which subsequently happened via email. The project became real at that point.
I’ve always regretted that I had no excuse to interview Lesnie. From interviews and his appearances in the supplements for the extended DVD editions of LOTR, he seems a genial man. I also admire the cinematography for LOTR. There’s a great variety in the lighting schemes, and he contributed some very striking moments to the film.
It’s of course very difficult to pin down exactly what Lesnie’s contributions to LOTR were in many scenes, given the considerable dependence on CGI. Still, I think he probably had more affect on the final look of LOTR than he did on The Hobbit. As the three parts of The Hobbit came out, it became increasingly clear that there were no shots or sequences that could stand comparison with the best things in LOTR. I think of well-conceived, dramatic shots like the one in The Fellowship of the Ring where a scene begins with a bucolic view out over a misty morning in the Shire, which is suddenly interrupted by ominous music and the entry from offscreen of one of the Black Riders’ horses.
Another shot I admire is the first exterior after the long sequence of the passage through the Mines of Moria in Fellowship. Gandalf has just fallen into the abyss with the Balrog, and the others flee. The cut to an extreme long shot of the rocky terrain (filmed on Mt. Owen) outside the eastern gate to the Mines is jolting, seemingly switching from a color film to a black-and-white one. A trace of green plants at the lower left is virtually unnoticeable, and only as the camera arcs around to follow the remaining Fellowship’s movements away from the gate (which was added digitally) does a bit of blue sky appear at the upper right and eventually the green of the landscapes in the distance.
Although there are plenty of New Zealand locations in The Hobbit, I can’t think of any that are used as effectively as some of the ones in LOTR–most memorably the Edoras set, which was built full-size on Mount Sunday on the South Island. The swooping helicopter shots around the rocky promontory, with the snowy mountains revolving slowly around it, became iconic moments in the film.
Viewers might think that those background mountains were added digitally, and certainly some scenes, including the ones set at Orthanc, did have backgrounds built up of mountains from a variety of places. The extreme long shots of Rivendell are a patchwork of elements. Not so for Edoras, however. David and I were privileged to fly around Mount Sunday in a small plane–after the Edoras set had been removed–and we saw more or less what one sees in the film.
It was a different time of year, November (the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of May), but the mountains are clearly the same ones.
There was a helicopter camera team, so Lesnie might have had nothing to do with these circling shots, nor with the mountain photography for the magnificent Beacons Sequence in The Return of the King (to which the fires were added digitally).
Again, there is nothing to compare with this in The Hobbit, which, I would say, suffers from having so many sequences with CGI-created landscapes.
The only really memorable shot I can think of from The Hobbit is entirely digital, the emergence of Smaug from Erebor, covered in gold, at the end of The Desolation of Smaug. He bursts through the door and soars up away from the camera, shaking the gold off in sparkling droplets.
The shot of the dragon’s death is nearly as impressive, as Smaug falls slowly downward away from the camera.
The problems with The Hobbit arise, I think, because so much of it, especially in the third part, has been conceived as almost entirely digital. Compare these two pre-battle moments from The Return of the King and The Battle of the Five Armies.
As Théoden addresses his troops before their charge during the Battle of the Pelennor, we are clearly watching real riders on real horses, their spears held at various angles. To be sure, the MASSIVE program was used to multiply horses and riders, but primarily in the extreme long shots. Hundreds of real ones were used in the scene. In the background we again see impressive non-CGI snow-covered mountains. There are four characters here about whom we care: Théoden, Éowyn, Merry, and Éomer. The Battle of the Five Armies shot of Thranduil’s troops, in contrast, involves perfect ranks of anonymous Elves, moving in synchronization. There is no actual landscape behind them, just vague patches of blue, brown, and white.
MASSIVE was used here as well, but for far more figures. Wasn’t the program devised to allow digital “extras” to move independently of each other rather than replicating a very limited number of gestures? It’s ironic, since in the film’s endless battle, characters moving in synchronization seem to be the rule. See the moment when the dwarves assemble their shields into a wall against the orcs, with Elves leaping effortlessly over them.
Which brings up the matter of seemingly weightless characters and creatures. There has been much discussion of the fact that Legolas and Tauriel leap about, stand on other characters’ heads while fighting, and bound up collapsing stone staircases. Admittedly, Tolkien says in the blizzard scene of The Fellowship of the Ring that Legolas’ “feet made little imprint in the snow.” But even assuming that Elves are very light, some of the antics in The Hobbit look plain silly.
And it’s not just Elves that zip about in this fashion. Partway through the Battle of the Five Armies, large rams appear out of nowhere. (I gather that their presence will be explained in the extended edition.)
Thorin, Kili, Fili, and Dwalin ride the rams up the sheer pinnacle to reach Azog’s command post. The rams bounce weightlessly and effortlessly up the steep cliffs, looking more like ping-pong balls than heavy animals. Indeed, gravity seems to be defied quite a bit in the films–even putting aside from the fact that the characters are able to survive impossibly long falls without a scratch. I can’t think of cases in LOTR where such things happen.
Much has been made of the fact that The Hobbit contains many echoes of LOTR, in terms of characters, scenes, and even specific repeated lines. I’ve complained about that myself. Yet there are many fans who prefer The Hobbit to LOTR–many of them fangirls obsessing over Richard Armitage (Thorin), Aidan Turner (Kili), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), and/or Lee Pace (Thranduil). Such fans proudly point to the “fact” that the second trilogy had higher box-office totals than did LOTR. In unadjusted dollars, yes. In adjusted dollars, LOTR made considerably more, and that without the benefit of 3D surcharges. I suspect this disparity arose from the fact that LOTR was so extraordinarily original, and because it balanced CGI and practical effects so effectively. The Hobbit tipped far in the direction of CGI, and it shows.
Many studios and filmmakers will continue to rely on the standard look of action/sci-fi/fantasy CGI, at least until it becomes so obviously repetitive that audiences lose interest. But films like Fury Road and LOTR offer models of how CGI and practical effects can be balanced for a much livelier film.
Long-time readers of this blog may recall that in 2008 I went to Comic-Con for the first time. I can’t recall exactly what led me to take the plunge. It may have been that by that time it was evident that the con had grown into a major opportunity for Hollywood studios to publicize their upcoming blockbusters to their core audience and I wanted to witness the process in person. Until this year, I hadn’t returned to Comic-Con. I was motivated in part by the fact that this was the last big promotional event for a film in the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise. I had briefly discussed Comic-Con in relation to LOTR in The Frodo Franchise, but I had not witnessed any of the appearances of cast and crew promoting the first trilogy. This was my final chance, the end of an era.
I blogged about my first visit four times. I wrote about the LOTR/Hobbit presence on the Frodo Franchise blog. On this blog I gave an overview of the Comic-Con experience, analyzed why Hollywood poured so many resources into an event nominally about comic books, and posted a conversation between Henry Jenkins and me. Henry, who had helped found the area of fan studies back in the 1990s with such widely cited publications as Textual Poachers, was also a Comic-Con newbie that year, and we shared our reactions. (This year Henry was on a panel, “Creativity Is Magic: Fandom, Transmedia, and Transformative Works,” one of a number of panels on fan culture. I missed it because I was in line for Hall H. More on that below.)
A friend of mine who has a press pass assured me that they were not as hard to obtain as I had feared, so, based on my collaboration on this blog and my position on the staff of TheOneRing.net, I applied. To my delight, I was granted one, so I set out to cover Comic-Con more officially.
Going to Comic-Con alone isn’t nearly as fun, and I was lucky enough this year to meet up there with my friends, Professors Jonathan Kuntz and Maria Elena le las Carreras and their irrepressible daughter Rebecca, who are always terrific company.
On the Wednesday evening before Comic-Con begins, there is a preview. This means that people with various special passes can get into the big exhibition hall where most of the booths are set up. These range from dealers in rare comic books to the biggest entertainment companies, like Warner Bros. and Lego. Many of them offer unique items only for sale or give-away at Comic-Con.
Many attendees have realized this, and they buy tickets that include the preview evening. The floor was much more crowded than when I attended the preview night in 2008. There were lots of lines with people trying to get those unique collectibles.
Others were there to look at comics. Yes, there are still plenty of comics at Comic-Con. There are dealers offering rarities, as in the image above. There are comics publishers with their latest offerings.
A particular favorite of ours is Fantagraphics, which specializes in reprinting comics. They’ve launched a set of hard-cover volumes of Walt Kelly’s syndicated Pogo strips. They also, I discovered, are doing a series of Don Rosa comics, also in hardback. In fact, when I was strolling around the booth, I realized that Rosa himself was signing autographs until 8 pm. It was then 7:59, so I grabbed volume 1 and was the last person to get my copy signed. By the way, it includes “Cash Flow,” one of the Uncle Scrooge stories I mentioned in our first blog entry on Inception. Volume 1 hasn’t actually been published, but it’s available for pre-order on Amazon.
The big moment of my evening, entirely by chance.
My first press conference
Once you’re granted a press pass, your name is put on a list made available to the exhibitors and publicists planning events. Companies big and small send you announcements about signings, press conferences, swag available at booths, parties in downtown venues, and so on. Many of these events promote video games, graphic novels, and television, but one sounded intriguing to my film interests: a press conference for Penguins of Madagascar, an entry in Dreamworks’ animated Madagascar franchise. The odd thing was that the event was scheduled in the morning at 11:15, fifteen minutes before the DreamWorks panel in Hall H. If we came to the conference, we couldn’t get into Hall H–unless the PR people reserved seats there for us. The big attraction was that some of the voice talent, including Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich, as well as the two directors would be there.
I showed up and got a front-row seat off to the side. The room filled up (right).
The event itself started somewhat late, and two gentlemen who were not Benedict Cumberbatch or John Malkovich appeared and answered some questions. (I would give their names, but the usual signs put on the table in front of guests were not in evidence.) We were approaching 11:25. John Malkovich and another gentleman appeared. Another couple of questions were asked, and someone announced that Benedict Cumberbatch’s plane had gotten in late the night before and besides we had to leave to make room for the next event scheduled in the room. We were not escorted to reserved seats in Hall H, where I hear that Benedict Cumberbatch did appear.
I can only trust that this is not how most press conferences turn out. Perhaps I will be invited to another one and find out.
Bill Plympton in person
Given that I had no option to go to the Hall H DreamWorks Animation presentation, I sought out an alternative among the several items offered during the noon slot. I had had my eye on a panel which had as its guests the well-known animator Bill Plympton, as well as Jim Lujan, the co-director of the feature-length Revengeance, in progress. David and have long been fond of Plympton’s work, especially his laugh-out-loud classic, Your Face (1987), which was nominated for an Oscar. It’s just a series of distortions of a man’s face as he sings an utterly wimpy love ditty (above).
Plympton continues to be remarkably prolific. He has worked on fourteen episodes of The Simpsons, including doing twelve couch gags. Now he has a feature, Cheatin’, which will be shown for a week starting on August 15 at the downtown independent in Los Angeles. (Earlier this year it played at Slamdance, but I can find no theatrical release date.) You can see a short appeal animated by Plympton for the film’s Kickstarter appeal; its quite informative about the animation techniques used. The campaign itself is over, having raised $100,916, exceeding the goal of $75,000.
Apart from clips from Revengeance, Plympton also showed a brand new short, Footprints, a charming tale of a man’s search for a mysterious house invader. It will be shown on August 14 as part of the Hollyshorts Film Festival, which will honor Plympton with the Indie Animation Icon Award. The film was entirely hand-drawn in black and white and then colored digitally.
During the panel there was a contest for a T-shirt. The question was: What is Bill Plympton’s middle name? Despite a plethora of cell phones, laptops, and tablets in the audience, no one could come up with the right answer. A second question was put forth: what was Plympton’s first theatrically released film? “The Tune,” came a cry from the audience. It was Sam Viviano, art director of Mad Magazine; he walked off with the shirt. Plympton then sheepishly confessed that his middle name is Merton.
Plympton’s films have been hard to find online, but this fall they will become available on Source HD: “It’s the entire catalog, everything I’ve ever done.” That includes about 60 shorts. As a result of this online exposure, he says, “I expect that when I come back to San Diego next year they’re going to have to give me one of those huge 2000-seat rooms.” I hope so, and I hope it will be filled–but not so jammed that I could not get a seat.
Plympton offered all attending his panel a free autographed drawing. I went to collect mine at his booth in the exhibition hall and found him drawing (right), as he must constantly be doing. Note the Cheatin’ poster behind him at the left and the usual bustle of Comic-Con in the background. He paused to dash me off a delightful image of his famous Dog character. (An animator who doesn’t use cels has to be really fast at drawing.)
Plympton DVDs are not all that easy to find, though you can get them and other merchandise at his website’s shop. If you don’t know his work, it’s time to start catching up.
A new experience: The Indigo Ballroom
Seeking to accommodate more fans without violating fire regulations, Comic-Con has expanded into nearby buildings. One of the facilities utilized this year was the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, just across from the Convention Center on the Hall H end. That’s where the DreamWorks press conference sort of took place. Its biggest room was the Indigo Ballroom. I’m not sure it had 2000 seats, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
My colleagues at TheOneRing.net have been presenting panels on the Hobbit series for several years now. In fact, my visit to Comic-Con in 2008 was as a participant on one of those panels, speculating much before the fact on the shape that the Hobbit project would take. At that point the cast hadn’t even been chosen. I suggested that Wisconsin’s own Mark Ruffalo would make an excellent Thorin. I still think he would have, but Richard Armitage has gained a large fan following in that role. I’m not sure that at that early stage Martin Freeman was everyone’s favorite candidate for Bilbo, but he soon became so–including mine. The man is a born hobbit.
That 2008 panel took place in a relatively small room in the Convention Center. In more recent years, the TORn panel has been joined by such luminaries from the filmmaking team as Richard Taylor. It has gained such a following that this year it was booked into the Indigo Ballroom.
Then we learned that George R. R. Martin was booked into the same room in the time-slot directly before TORn. (I’m sure you all know who he is, but for the few who don’t, I’ll just say, he’s the author of the “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, of which Game of Thrones is the first book.) We were all convinced that Martin’s session would be jammed and furthermore that an overlap in fandoms would mean that the audience there for Martin would stay for the TORn panel, excluding those who showed up just before the TORn session. There was much discussion as to how TORn staff not on the panel (like me) could get in and be sure of a seat. How many seats could be reserved? We didn’t know.
I determined to support my colleagues and attend the TORn panel. The question was, how many sessions would I have to sit through to make sure I could get a seat? (Rooms are never cleared between sessions at Comic-Con, since doing so would take too much time and would mean that people in one room for a session would not be able to get in line for the next session in that room. Hence the strategy of sitting through multiple panels in the same room to guarantee a seat at the one you really want to see.)
I arrived early in the afternoon in the middle of a session about some show on Comedy Central. This finally ended and the George R. R. Martin panel began. To my surprise, it was only about two-thirds full. I learned later that Martin often attends Comic-Con. Moreover, this time he wasn’t talking specifically about Game of Thrones. The session was billed as “George R. R. Martin Discusses In the House of the Worm.” The title in question is a new comic-book series that Martin is involved with. (Above, William Christensen, publisher at Avatar Press, interviews Martin.)
I had expected to sit through Martin’s session merely waiting for the TORn one to begin. I had read Game of Thrones, widely assumed to be heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones was entertaining, but by the end I found it repetitious. I figured that the series could only become more so, so I quit there. I haven’t seen the TV episodes. Yet Martin turned out to be quite entertaining. He is a long-time fan, and his reminiscences about fandoms during the 1960s and onward were fascinating. He’s a lively, knowledgeable, and entertaining speaker with a wide experience in both reading and creating fantasy works in those days. His presentation made me wish that I liked that first book better.
The next session was “An Unofficial Look at the Final Middle-earth Film: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies.” (Actually in the program the title said “Final Middle-Earth Film,” but I’m sure my colleagues did not make that capitalization error when they proposed the panel.)
The panel consisted of, from the left, Chris “Calisuri” Pirotta, a TORn co-founder; John Tedeschi, long-time staffer; Cliff “Quickbeam” Broadway, frequent contributor to the site; Kellie Rice, staffer and half of the “Happy Hobbits” fan duo; and Larry D. Curtis, another long-time staffer and frequent contributor. Chris and Cliff were among several TORn interviewees when I was researching The Frodo Franchise.
TORn has made annual appearances at Comic-Con, usually speculating in expert fashion on what might be included–or not–in the next film. Staffers comb the previous films, trailers, Peter Jackson’s production diaries, publicity photos, and cast and staff interviews, seeking for clues. While presenting their findings, they point out things in the earlier parts that people might not have noticed or may have forgotten.
The first line in the Powerpoint image above refers to widespread fan annoyance that Bilbo seems to have been pushed to the periphery of his own story in The Desolation of Smaug. This is a topic of frequent comment on the website. The TORn panel was held on Thursday, two days before any of us had a chance to see the first teaser-trailer’s premiere on Saturday in Hall H. (More on that below.) Although there are shots of Bilbo in that trailer, they mainly show him staring offscreen and reacting. I was left hoping that this is not an indication of more sidelining of our protagonist. In Tolkien’s book Bilbo decides to sit out the Battle of Five Armies and gets knocked unconscious early in the fighting; given that he’s our point-of-view figure, the battle is mainly told through other characters describing it afterward. No one expects Peter Jackson to stay true to that action and sacrifice the chance for another epic battle scene, so maybe Bilbo will get to do his share of fighting.
This year’s celebrity guest made an appearance at the end and took a few questions: Jim Rygiel, multi-Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor for The Lord of the Rings (and more recently Godzilla and The Amazing Spider-Man):
Whether the panel members were right in their speculations will not be known until December 17 (in the USA). Right or not, it was an entertaining and informative session.
What were they really there to see?
There are many rooms devoted to Comic-Con events, not to mention the various open-air booths and attractions set up in open spaces near the convention center. Room 25ABC is fairly large, but it’s considerably smaller than the Indigo Ballroom, 23ABC, and of course, Hall H. I was not alone in being puzzled as to why the panel “Fight Club: From Page to Screen and Beyond,” was scheduled in 25ABC at 7 pm on Saturday evening. Sure, the topic was an older film, and the panel was largely devoted to a forthcoming graphic-novel sequel to the story. Still, the participants included David Fincher, making his first Comic-Con appearance. I can only suspect that Fincher was a late addition to the panel’s line-up and it was too late to change the venue.
The result was that anyone determined to hear what Fincher had to say was bound to line up for the panels just before the Fight Club one and sit through them in order to see it. I decided to line up for “Disney’s Gargoyles 20th Anniversary” at 5 pm, having no idea what the Gargoyles are, and “Publishing 360: Building a Bestseller” at 6 pm, having no intention of trying to build a bestseller.
I got into a line that looked fairly short and was defined by lines of tape laid down on the carpets in the broad corridor outside 25ABC. It turned out to be one of those Disneyland-style ribbon-candy set-ups, where the line folds back on itself time after time, and you end up walking in one direction, turning around to walk in the opposite direction, only to realize that there is another group of people doing the same thing ahead of you in the same line. Fortunately most people seem to stick to the rules pretty closely, perhaps being aware of the wrath they would call down upon themselves by attempting to cut ahead of others.
I ended up about ten people back in line when the room was full. I never did learn what the Gargoyles were, but I suspected some people behind me had been hoping to get into that panel and were not there for the Fincher event. Indeed, as it became clear that no seats were going open up, a small number of people departed, leaving me about six people back from the front. It was looking good for me to get into “Publishing 360.”
At this point, from behind me I heard “Pardon me, but are you Kristin Thompson?” or words to that effect. Thus I met Ryan Gallagher, one of the stalwarts of The Criterion Cast, which describes itself as “A podcast network and website for fans of quality theatrical and home video releases.” (It is not officially associated with The Criterion Collection.) I recognized his name because he has sent many a reader to Observations on Film Art. Ryan’s latest podcast is a preview of Comic-Con, and I expect he will add one looking back on his experiences there.
What are the odds, I thought, and still think, that with 125,000+ visitors to Comic-Con, I would end up in line next to someone who recognized me? Turns out Ryan had been in line for the Gargoyles panel, so after a brief conversation, he departed. Eventually I was among the first into the room for the “Publishing 360″ panel, though there were people already there who didn’t leave, and I suspect the audience for Gargoyles doesn’t overlap all that much with the audience of people longing to write a bestseller. The procedure for building a bestseller, by the way, seems to consist primarily of getting the best agents and editors in the world. Aspiring writers, take note. Before the session began, I located an unoccupied electrical outlet and recharged my recorder. (This is a serious business at Comic-Con. The convention center is full of cell phones, tablets, and cameras dangling from outlets.)
The panel as pictured above consists of, from the left: moderator Rick Kleffel, Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher, and three artists and/or editors from Dark Horse Comics, which will bring out the Palahniuk-penned ten-part sequel starting in May, 2015.
A lot of the panel was about the graphic-novel sequel, of course. The main bit of new information about the film was that although it didn’t do particularly well at the box-office, Fincher finally got 20th-Century Fox to give him figures on how many DVDs were sold. Sales totaled around 13 million, so Fincher reckons the film must have made a profit in the long run. Probably the quotation from Fincher that will be remembered is: “My daughter had a friend called Max. She told me Fight Club is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.” Fincher may not have been to Comic-Con before, but he knows how to please the fans.
Check out the Film website for an audio recording of the panel.
Hall H: Getting in
Hall H tends to draw much of the attention accorded to Comic-Con in the media. It’s the largest venue, with 6500 seats–including a large number reserved for representatives of the studios presenting publicity events there. That’s a big venue, but compared to the roughly 125,000 people attending the con each day, it’s not big enough. Although not everyone at Comic-Con wants to get into Hall H, most days the lines snake down and across the street, along the sidewalks. (A video moving along an entire Hall H line at a walking pace was posted on Youtube last year. It runs for over fourteen minutes, despite the fact that the people toward the front of the line are walking forward past the camera; if they were standing or sitting still, it would have run even longer.) In previous years the only way to guarantee getting into the hall for the first events of a day was to get there the previous evening and stay in line overnight. Short departures were possible if someone held your place, but basically you were there for the duration.
I was lucky enough to benefit from the innovation of a new policy on Hall H admissions. Color-coded wristbands would be handed out as the line formed, pausing at 1 am and resuming at 5am. The first portion of the line got a red band, with other colors for the next portions. The purposes were 1) the management could gauge how many people were lined up; 2) those in line could know whether they would get in or not; and 3) for the first time some people could leave for longer stretches of time than required for a rest-room break, as long as someone from their group with the same color wristband remained.
At least, that was how it was described in the online announcement. Those charged with distributing the bands and keeping order informed us that “a majority” of the group had to remain. To what degree that was enforced, we never learned. Fortunately that worked for Jonathan, Maria Elena, and I, since Rebecca had formed a “Hall H-line” group on Facebook and assembled a bunch of friends to camp out in line together. We adults, with our less flexible bones, departed for dinner and some sleep at our hotel. The next morning when we came to rejoin our group, the people in charge of keeping order asked if we had been to the rest room. Yes, we had. That and other things. Apart from everything else, the parking garage under the convention center has to be cleared after 10 pm, so the Kuntzes had to leave to get their car out. Clearly some clarifications of the guidelines are in order, but based on our experience the new wristband policy has improved the Hall H-line experience considerably.
The announced wristband-distribution schedule also had to be adapted. In the past, the Hall H line has started forming in the late afternoon or early evening, depending on the popularity of the first event scheduled for the following morning. Jonathan presciently went and got in line at 2:30 pm, and he was far from the first. Our party gradually grew as other members arrived, and inevitably groups ahead of us also swelled. Soon the line was very, very long. (A small portion of it is pictured above; the line had taken a U-turn a few hundred feet behind us, off right here.) Somewhere around 6:00 the wristbands started to be handed out, and small groups were escorted across the street to line up in the relatively luxurious area on the grass near the entrance to Hall H. There were white canopies overhead and the inevitable red plastic barriers dividing the area into rows approximately one reclining person wide. Those further back in line were less fortunate, having the sidewalk to call their bed. Our group of young stalwarts settled in for games, sleep, and an endless supply of trail mix and donuts. Rumor has it that anyone who arrived after about 9:30 pm didn’t get in. The last wristbands were handed out at around 2:30am. Presumably the handout did not pause at 1 am as planned, since clearly everyone who was going to get in when the hall opened was already there.
The next morning we received a call from Rebecca saying the group had been moved into the “chutes,” a process which had started at 7 am. These are slightly narrower strips of grass with the same plastic barriers; the chutes are opened one at a time, allowing the people in each to go in before the next chute is opened. More people are moved into the emptied chutes, and the process continues until the hall is full.
Although the handlers had said we would be let in at 9:30 for a 10:00 start, they got the process going at 9 am. By 10 we were all seated and ready for the Warner Bros. extravaganza to begin. There I am, wearing my vintage licensed Fellowship of the Ring T-shirt and the crucial pink wristband:
Warner Bros. had two hours in Hall H on Saturday morning to promote their films. The full program is not announced in advance. People were assuming that The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, as the biggest item on tap, would be saved for the end. That turned out to be correct.
The event started with curtains sliding back to reveal a long, panoramic screen on either side of the big central one. This surrounded about the front half of the audience in a U-shaped set of images. Warners installed these screens at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars; naturally no other studios were allowed to use them.
Some short presentations opened the program, beginning with Zack Snyder coming onstage. He introduced Ben Afleck, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot, none of whom spoke. We saw a very brief clip from Batman vs. Superman. The two lead characters’ first meeting had them glaring at each other with glowing eyes, white and red respectively. (Naïve me, wondering why if they’re both good guys, they don’t just join forces to fight evil.) My main impression was that Batman looks like he’s wearing a small tank turret on his head. The fans were apparently pleased with what they saw.
The moderator then introduced Channing Tatum, who stood below the screen as a montage of footage from Jupiter Ascending was shown. This made no impression on me, and I have no memory of it, except that the big action scene looked pretty conventional.
The event really got going with a much longer promotion with George Miller talking about Mad Max: Fury Road. This used the side panels to good effects (above). David and I have been fans of Miller and the Mad Max series ever since Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior in the USA) appeared. It was a treat to hear him talk about the new film, though what he said is pretty much what he has said in other interviews: there’s little CGI in the film, he storyboarded the whole thing rather than writing a script, it’s an attempt to do a continuous chase sequence for an entire film, etc.
Miller presented a montage of quick scenes from the film. It looked good but familiar. There’s Max, chained up on the front of one of the villains’ vehicles, as were some of the captives in The Road Warrior. A lot of the minor characters recall those of the same film. The digital image looked brighter and sharper than the previous films–not necessarily a good thing, since the three first films were muted, conveying a sense that everything and everyone was coated with dust. Unseasonal rains in Australia forced the new film’s shoot to move to Namibia, which looks like it stands in for the Outback pretty well. We must trust that, just as the first three films were significantly different from each other, this fourth film will have a unique flavor not apparent in the footage shown.
This was, by the way, the second preview I’ve seen recently of a film that imitates the awesome (in the old and literal meaning of that word) dust-storm in this well-known National Geographic clip online. And why not, though CGI can never equal the real thing in this case.
Hall H for Hobbit
The second half of Warners’ slot was given over to The Battle of Five Armies. An opening blast of music accompanied the appearance from left to right of a panorama of images from all three Hobbit films:
Even this fairly comprehensive view of the screens leaves out two or three images on the far right. The most revelatory of these shows Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman at Dol Guldur, rescuing Gandalf. The panorama stayed up throughout the presentation. (A rather juddery pan around the whole things can be seen on Youtube.)
Steven Colbert, widely known as a devoted and highly knowledgeable Tolkien fan, MCed the panel, dressed in his costume from the third film, in which he has a nonspeaking bit part. He expressed his love for Tolkien and the films and showed the brief scene in which he appears. Then he introduced the impressive eleven-person panel Warner Bros. had managed to assemble:
From the left, Colbert, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Graham McTavish, Elijah Wood, and Andy Serkis
Of course, most of us couldn’t see them this clearly with the naked eye. Seated about a third of the way back in the auditorium, my view was as shown in the image at the top of this entry. Peter (that’s he in the lower left corner) looked mighty small in reality, but in Hall H three large screens magnify the proceedings for the crowd. (Similar video screens are used in the other very large auditoriums, notably the Indigo Ballroom.)
One highlight was the first screening of the long-awaited teaser trailer. This was released online two days later; the best place to see a large, sharp image that starts streaming almost instantly is on Peter’s Facebook page. I have to say that it looks pretty promising, apart from the continued presence of the distracting and tedious Azog and Bolg.
I won’t give a complete run-down on this panel, since a good video of it has been posted on Youtube (with the two screenings of the teaser trailer cut out). Much of it consists of typical star chit-chat. The most interesting thing said came from Peter. There has been considerable speculation among fans as to whether the filmmakers will stick to the book and let some characters die during the battle. Peter stated that the grim parts of the book are being retained and implied that several characters will indeed die. (This should mean that here will be much lamentation among the “hot Dwarves” aficionados.)
There has also been much speculation as to whether Peter Jackson or anyone else will be filming other adaptations of Tolkien’s work. This question wasn’t addressed during the panel, but the obvious answer is no. The production and distribution rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were sold by Tolkien and his publisher Allen and Unwin to United Artists in 1969. Rather than placing a time limit on the rights, as is customary, they sold them in perpetuity, and any control over the use of those rights forever passed out of the hands of Tolkien and subsequently of his estate. His son Christopher Tolkien has objected to the films that have been made, and he quite possibly will find a way to prevent any sale of film rights relating to the other books, even after his death. The Silmarillion, which takes place primarily in the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth, is, I think, virtually unfilmable. The most filmable single work, The Children of Hurin, is unremittingly grim and would be unlikely to attract any support within the industry. Apart from all that, Peter probably has no desire to prolong the franchise, either as a director or a producer.
In short, we have almost certainly seen the final “Middle-earth” presentation at Comic-Con. I’m glad I was there to see it. The franchise as a whole will undoubtedly have a presence at Comic-Con for years to come. Weta Ltd. has become a major force in the world of film and its future seems assured in a way that it did not a decade ago, when Peter Jackson’s projects were its main customers. Weta Workshop now has taken over making the collectible figures not only for Peter’s work but for other films, and it develops its own original projects for collectibles, television, and publishing. Its booth this year (below) was considerably bigger than the one I saw in 2008. (See the top image here.) It was doing very good business every time I passed by. The full-size Smaug head (above right) attracted considerable attention.
It’s still the case that the vast majority of Comic-Con attendees are not in costume.
All photos down to the one of George R. R. Martin, plus the two of lines for Hall H and the Smaug head on the Weta booth were taken by me.
My camera failed me during the Fight Club panel, so I have borrowed one from Anie Bananie’s Tumblr site, “David Fincher Stole My Life.” The photo of the panoramic screen with the Mad Max image is by Albert L.Ortega for Getty Images and illustrates the Variety story linked as “Warners installed …” in the second paragraph below it.
I mentioned that I was at the con with my friends Jonathan, Maria Elena, and Rebecca. Jonathan and Rebecca provided all the photos taken inside Hall H. (That’s Maria Elena’s TA James Shetty beside me in the green shirt.) Rebecca took the photos of the TORn panel, and Jonathan the ones directly above and below.
Many thanks to Jonathan for booking me a San Diego hotel room while I was in Egypt this past spring, and to Rebecca and her Facebook group for heroically camping out and holding our place in the Hall H line.
The San Diego Convention Center: an escalator’s point of view
Film franchises now make up a significant portion of Hollywood’s output, and that situation that is likely to linger, at least until we see even more blockbuster flops than in 2013. Prequels are one way of extending a franchise. They’re a risky proposition, though. These days, who ever thinks about Butch and Sundance: The Early Days or Hannibal Rising? How many would defend the idea that the second Star Wars trilogy (now Episodes I, II, and III) are equal to or better than the first (now Episodes IV, V, and VI)?
Quite often the original entry is an adaptation of an existing work, and there is no additional source material for a prequel. The filmmakers have to make up the story, and the risk is that the prequel will end up being an imitation of the original or take the premises of the original too far. This is especially true of literary properties, even if the original author pens the prequel, as Thomas Harris did with Hannibal Rising.
Peter Jackson and company would seem to have been in the ideal situation. They adapted a beloved literary classic, The Lord of the Rings, and it became a popular and critical success. There was already a potential prequel in the form of a second classic by the same author, J. R. R. Tolkien. Of course, The Hobbit was published first, and The Lord of the Rings was a sequel to it. Through sheer chance, however, the fact that the distribution rights for The Hobbit had not been sold along with the other film rights to the two novels, the filmmakers were not able to begin with it. Only after LOTR was out did MGM, owner of those distribution rights, come on board as co-producer, and the film Hobbit became a prequel.
Now Jackson had a book written by the same author and access to considerable material in Tolkien’s appendices. He was working with a team consisting of many of the same writers, designers, and technical experts. They were in a strong position to create a film that had the same look and feel as LOTR. With the added material, the dramatic weight and the length of The Hobbit could balance that of the LOTR trilogy. The two stories could blend seamlessly. Possibly more seamlessly than the original novels, which had some gaps and inconsistencies arising from the fact that The Hobbit was a children’s story published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings was a longer, more serious novel that came out nearly twenty years later.
Now that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three parts of The Hobbit, has been released, perhaps it’s time to check in on how the filmmakers are maintaining it as a lead-in to their LOTR trilogy. Unfortunately, I think some serious problems have arisen that were not present in the The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Some of these problems arise from departures from the novel that don’t make sense in relation to the original trilogy; some arise from unclear or unmotivated actions invented by the screenwriters; and worst of all, some result from new characters and situations that too closely resemble those in the original trilogy. Whatever is added to the extended version of Desolation and whatever happens in the third part, There and Back Again, the prequel is now flawed.
The Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey
But first, some unfinished business concerning the first part of the prequel. Almost exactly a year ago, I posted an entry on the theatrical version of Journey. Having already pointed out that there was plenty of material in the Lord of the Rings appendices to extend the two-part Hobbit adaptation to three parts, I defended certain additions to the plot. These were notably the White Council scene at Rivendell and the inclusion of Radagast the Brown, a wizard only referred to in J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel (though he does appear briefly in LOTR). After all, the appendices are really for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, containing additional material for each of the novels.
I was far less keen on the Azog the Defiler plotline, entirely invented by the filmmakers. Yes, there is a scene in the appendices where Azog briefly appears in the battle at Moria, but he dies in that battle. The notion of him chasing down Thorin from motives of revenge is wholly new. I argued that the Azog-related scenes overburdened Journey with extra action that disturbed the balance of the narrative, adding an unnecessary battle at the end that came too soon after what should have been the highlight and climax of the film, the underground escape from the goblins and the Riddles in the Dark scene.
I speculated at the time that some specific scenes eliminated to make room for Azog would be added to the extended edition, perhaps helping to redress the imbalance. Were they, and did they?
The main scenes that I anticipated did get added to the extended-edition DVD/Blu-ray release. I think almost everything added to it is a plus. Most of the new scenes are quiet ones of exposition and characterization rather than frantic action, which the later portions of Journey were sadly lacking. Yet this doesn’t help much to balance the narrative any better, since most of the added bits come in the first half of the film, the half that was already quieter and less jammed with action than the later portions. Still, given how much violent action there is late in the film, any quiet action helps counter it to some degree.
As seemed very likely, early on there is a flashback to Gandalf setting off fireworks at a Hobbit party where he meets young Bilbo for the first time. It’s charming and all too short, zipping by, but at least we see a rambunctious young hobbit very different from the staid, middle-aged Bilbo of Bag End. The contrast helps motivate Gandalf’s disappointment in the adult Bilbo and his remarks about how he has changed. The moment also helps motivate the notion that there is a suppressed Took side to Bilbo’s nature, just waiting to be summoned forth by a pushy wizard.
Another extra early scene shows Bilbo, nervous after the visit from Gandalf, shopping for the ingredients for his supper (including the fish later consumed so thoroughly by Dwalin). The brief scene doesn’t add much to the plot, but it serves to introduce the Shire and Hobbiton to those who may not have seen LOTR, and it provides some humor after the tense ending to the initial conversation with Gandalf.
As I anticipated, the Rivendell interlude is expanded. In fact, the bulk of the new and extended scenes occur here. Bilbo wanders around Rivendell, clearly overwhelmed by its beauty. He not only sees the shards of Narsil but stares at the nearby mural of Isildur cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand. Thus Bilbo sees the Ring shortly before he finds it himself, though there is no one present to tell him what he’s looking at. He also chats with Elrond, who says he is welcome to stay in Rivendell. He presumably means that Bilbo need not accompany the Dwarves when they continue on their journey, but a bit over sixty years later Bilbo will end up living there.
The extra comic bits with the Dwarves, including Bofur’s song, are perhaps entertaining enough, though they continue to film’s general tendency to make them overly boorish.
The White Council scene is extended mainly by Gandalf’s exposition about the Seven Rings of the Dwarves, which Saruman dismisses as irrelevant. The Seven Rings are not referred to in the theatrical version of The Desolation of Smaug, though presumably they were put into Journey for a reason and will return at some point, if only in future extended versions.
The scene with the Great Goblin is stretched out, as he is allowed to sing the Goblintown song from the original book. I think Barry Humphries was an inspired choice to provide the Great Goblin’s voice, so having a little more of him is welcome.
Luckily, there are no extra scenes involving the Azog plotline.
Caution: From here on there are major SPOILERS for the concluding part, The Hobbit: There and Back Again as well as for Desolation.
A better film–if you don’t think too much about it
The reaction to Desolation has been strangely split. On the whole, the critical establishment has heralded it as an improvement on Journey. No long setup of thirteen Dwarves and their quest–just a long series of exciting action scenes culminating in an extraordinary special-effects achievement with the dragon Smaug. The Dwarves’ escape from Thranduil’s realm in barrels rushing down a river with a running battle involving Orcs and Elves has been compared, in the usual reviewers’ cliché, to a thrilling theme-park ride. The battle with the large spiders has also been lauded.
Many fans of Peter Jackson’s other films in the series love Desolation as well and have been going to see it multiple times. Yet fans who know Tolkien’s books really well, while often enjoying the film, have been far more grudging and selective in their praise.
This is largely because Desolation departs far more radically from the novel than any of the previous four films have. New characters have been invented, most notably the female Elf Tauriel, and new scenes fabricated, as with Gandalf’s disastrous solo visit to Dol Guldur, where he ends up imprisoned, or the hectic string of suspense and action scenes at Lake-town. Thranduil briefly appears in the book, but his role as an enemy to the Dwarves has been expanded. The scene of the Dwarves entering Erebor and trying to kill Smaug with molten gold has no parallel in the book.
Inventing scenes needn’t be a problem. Many have complained about the made-up warg attack that ends in Aragorn’s apparent death in The Two Towers, but it is integrated fairly well into the plot. Departures from the original Hobbit novel may be annoying to some, but one should ask how well they fit into the cause-and-effect flow of the plot and into the film as a whole. More specifically, the filmmakers were trying to make The Hobbit into a more substantial film than simply following the book would have allowed. They had to do so in order to blend smoothly into the same world as the LOTR film. The question, then, is really whether the changes 1) are logical in themselves and in relation to the other trilogy, and 2) are an improvement on what the filmmakers could have accomplished had they stuck closer to the story.
Unfortunately, I think that in many cases the new and extended characters and scenes are not as strong as they could have been. More problematically, certain choices steal inspiration from the LOTR film trilogy and in the process undermine the dramatic impact of some of its scenes. This would seem to be something to avoid at all costs in creating a prequel: making the original seem less fresh and dramatic.
Back when I wrote about the decision to split The Hobbit into three parts, I defended Jackson from the accusation that he was clinging to this franchise because he had lost some of his inspiration and didn’t know where to go once the Tolkien adaptations were finished. I don’t know whether it’s true that such a lack of inspiration led to Jackson’s choice to direct the film that he originally wanted to assign to someone else. My point was simply that there was enough material in the novel and in the appendices to expand the film to three parts, if the screenwriters took advantage of that material and fitted it into the plot skillfully. The addition of the White Council/Dol Guldur plot line, largely based on brief statements in the appendices, suggested that Journey was following that path. I don’t think Desolation continues that pattern of relying on snippets from the original books–and there are some that go unused–to flesh out into new story material. This change is to its detriment.
There have been some thoughtful essays suggesting that the film falls down in its invented portions. Timothy R. Furnish, a long-time columnist for TheOneRing.net, has contributed an essay criticizing the main changes from the book. Furnish admits to being a purist, but his claims about the changes suggest that they do not benefit the film. For example, he points out that the plot line involving Gandalf’s and Radagast’s visit to investigate the tombs of the Nazgûl is “rather confusing” and “seems forced and, frankly, unnecessary.” I don’t completely understand that plot line myself, given that it’s not in Tolkien and not explained very well in the film. Elrond said at the White Council meeting that the spells holding the Nazgûl in their tombs were unbreakable. So far there’s no explanation as to how they escaped. Are most viewers able to connect those empty tombs to the Black Riders we had first met early in Fellowship? I doubt it.
The inclusion of this tangential plot line also means that Gandalf is lured away from his commitment to the Dwarves’ quest not once, but twice, which isn’t very effective dramatically. Galadriel goads Gandalf into investigating the tombs, and Radagast persuades him to explore Dol Guldur. Thus the two of them end up being responsible for his defeat by Sauron while themselves not offering much help. Gandalf also looks weak and indecisive, capable of being talked into an unwise course of action.
How could this have been handled better? Stick to the book. Tolkien never tells us what happened to the Nazgûl in the centuries immediately following Sauron’s defeat and Isildur’s taking of the Ring. It just doesn’t matter. Why drag it into the film? (Possibly extra material in the extended version will better explain this minor plot line, but I doubt there will be anything new relating to it.)
Furnish points out something that has been universally criticized among fans of the books. The episode at the home of Beorn, the large man who can change into a bear, has been so truncated as to be rendered almost pointless. Sure, the design of his house is nice, but why bother? Yes, it offers a brief refuge from the pursuit by Azog’s band–but that just raises the unanswered question as to how Azog found them again after they had been carried so very far by the eagles. The filmmakers needed to include Beorn, since he should return to play a major role in the third part. At least his presence strongly hints that they haven’t eliminated him from that major role. Jackson has assured fans that there will be “a couple more scenes in the extended cut of this film, and some more of him, which I won’t be describing, in the third movie!”
A better approach? In the book, the company have lost all their ponies and supplies in the goblin-caves adventure and are in need of rest and assistance, not rescuing from Orcs. They stay with Beorn for a few days. He’s a fascinating figure in the book, with his giant bees and animal servants. He’s also not the defeatist, lonely figure of the film but a pugnacious guardian who keeps a small region east of the Anduin River free of goblins and wargs. Presumably the extended edition will at least give him a little more screen time. This could have been a chance to add some of the charm and humor of the book to a film that sorely lacks them, in its second installment at least.
As Furnish writes, Bard is a “grim-voiced and grim-faced” leaders of Lake-town’s archers in the book, not a ferryman and smuggler with children to feed. Yet, as Furnish says, “making Bard less of a recalcitrant loner is defensible.” I’d say more than defensible. It may be the only major change that improves on Tolkien, at least in one way. Tolkien’s decision to have Smaug killed by a very minor character was probably a mistake, and fleshing Bard out into a significant figure works reasonably well–though it also is encumbered by the whole conceit that the Dwarves and Bilbo have to be smuggled into Lake-town and that Bard is at odds with the Master of Lake-town and his assistant Alfrid (the latter an invention of the filmmakers). In the book, the Dwarves are welcomed to the town from the start, as potential slayers of the dragon and sources of future prosperity. The chapter about Lake-town is titled “A Warm Welcome.”
Furnish also makes a more general point: that both parts of The Hobbit far are short on sympathetic characters. LOTR is full of heroes–and even Boromir, after trying to take the Ring from Frodo late in Fellowship, redeems himself by trying to save Merry and Pippin. But in Jackson’s Hobbit, few of the characters beyond Gandalf, Bilbo, a few of the Dwarves, and Tauriel are particularly admirable. Dwalin, ever suspicious, even suggests killing Bard and taking his boat. Not nice.
Whether or not audiences perceive the characters as Furnish suggests, there is no doubt that LOTR involves characters fighting for the common good and making considerable sacrifices to do so, while most of The Hobbit‘s characters are in contention over the wealth they would gain if Smaug can be killed. There’s also a prominent revenge motif. (Again, Gandalf, Bilbo, Galadriel, and Elrond excepted, and the latter two essentially don’t appear in Desolation.) The Dwarves are a greedy bunch in Tolkien’s novel as well, but The Hobbit is a more comic, more conventional fairy tale than is LOTR, and besides, none of his Dwarves ever behave as callously or as crudely as the film versions do.
This problem of unpleasant characters is particularly noticeable with Legolas. He has been made so intolerant, so offensive, and so callous that many fans would rather he had been left out altogether. Certainly the Tauriel-Kili romance could have worked without him. Perhaps he will improve a bit by the end of the third part, but he is far from the sympathetic Elf that became the idol of fangirls in LOTR. He even looks different, as if Orlando Bloom’s entire face has been Botoxed and too light a shade of blue has been used for his contacts. Here’s a case where purely financial considerations may have played a prominent role in the decision to insert him into The Hobbit.
How could all this have been avoided? In part by trying to achieve something of the sense of fellowship that made LOTR so appealing. Avoid overloading the film with characters who act through motives of revenge and distrust. The invention of the Orc-pursuit subplot is largely to blame for this, as is the caricatured depiction of the Master of Lake-town. The focus should really be on Thorin’s growing obsession with the Dwarves’ lost treasure, which eventually will lead to his break with Bilbo, despite all the latter’s heroic rescues. That obsession is brought up a few times, but it’s obscured by the general emphasis on revenge and greed.
Once more on the issue of padding
Another insightful piece, written by Michael Martinez, takes on the question as to whether Desolation‘s story has been padded out. He points out that in fact a great deal has been cut out of the book, trimming what was already supposedly too short to form the basis for two or three lengthy films. As Martinez writes, the crossing of Mirkwood has been compressed from weeks into what apparently are two or three days. The passage where they wander, dazed, in the woods is the only point at which much time can have passed, and we’re given no sense of how long they are lost before Bilbo climbs the tree–a moment that at least keeps the book’s scene of him delighting at the butterflies he encounters. In the novel, there are other adventures in the woods, and the Dwarves apparently spend about two weeks locked in their cells in Thranduil’s realm, during which time Bilbo, wearing the Ring explores the caverns and finally figures out a way to free them.
The filmmakers then add all sort of things that are not in the book. Is this new material, Martinez asks, padding? He seems not to think so, but I’m not so sure. If the new material is, like the whole Azog subplot, unnecessary and even detrimental to the balance of the narrative, doesn’t it count as padding–especially since it crowds out such things as a more satisfying episode involving Beorn?
Take whole running battle as the Orcs chase the fleeing Dwarves in their barrels down the river and the Elves chase the Orcs. (In the book, the barrels are sent down the chute into the river and simply drift downstream until some Elves steer them along to Lake-town, which is on the near side of the lake.) Yes, the river escape and battle are exciting and fun to watch, if overlong, but they point up yet another problem of balance in this and other action scenes. The barrels chase make the Orcs look remarkably ineffectual. Tauriel and Legolas pick them off at a great rate, both in this scene and in the Lake-town skirmishes. In the river scene, the Orcs do manage to kill some anonymous Elven guards at the sluice gate, and they wound Kili, but they ultimately create more delays than damage and eventually lose their quarry. Such efficient killing of Orcs happens to some extent in Journey as well, but as the Dwarves’ bowman Kili does not have the athletic virtuosity of Legolas and Tauriel, the cannon-fodder nature of the Orcs is less obvious. By the end of Desolation, though, can we really take them that seriously?
The messiness of the Azog/Bolg revenge plot line culminates (at least for now) in the Lake-town scenes, with sinister forces multiplying to a confusing extent. As Martinez puts it, “But with Orcs, elves, dwarves, and the Master’s spies all sneaking around Lake-town I really felt like we had left The Hobbit behind and entered the world of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ or something.” New or not, I would say that such antics constitute padding, in this case via Jackson’s penchant for extending and multiplying dangers and fights.
Certainly all these invented characters and scenes aren’t necessary because there really turns out not to be enough material in The Hobbit and the LOTR appendices to make up three parts. One puzzling aspect of Desolation is that it fails to pick up plot lines the filmmakers themselves had set up in Journey. The latter, despite its awkward concentration of slower sequences early on and rampant, almost continuous fighting in the second half, had established a pretty good set of plot lines (excepting the superfluous Azog one). They’ve all but disappeared.
I speculated in my entry on Journey that we might discover in part 2 that Saruman was already corrupted by desire for the Ring and wants to prevent an attack on Dol Guldur because he’s already looking for the lost Ring himself. That would have been interesting and true to the information in the appendices. Instead, Saruman doesn’t appear in Desolation. Was bringing Saruman into The Hobbit (where he doesn’t appear, given that Tolkien didn’t invent him until well into the drafting of LOTR) just a little salute to a popular actor? Or will he return in the third part to take part in the attack on Dol Guldur? In which case, will he actually be helping the other White Council members, or doing something devious? (In the appendices, we learn that he did help, mainly to get Sauron away from the area near Dol Guldur where the Ring slipped off Isildur’s finger and sank to the bottom of the Anduin; Saruman himself has been searching the river.) The filmmakers created Saruman’s scenes in The Two Towers so skillfully that his absence here is disappointing. If he is going to reappear in the concluding part, it would seem a good idea to at least mention him. If he isn’t, some way of motivating his absence would have been helpful.
Similarly Radagast, whose insertion into the first film I defended, is barely in this one. He doesn’t do much when he is present, either, mainly pressing Gandalf to investigate Dol Guldur and then, once they reach it, going off to take a message from Gandalf to Galadriel. Will Radagast play a significant role in the final part? One would think so, but at this point I’m not betting on it.
That reminds me
Most crucially, I think, instead of using these already established characters in Desolation or just sticking more closely to the book, the filmmakers have introduced many new elements that are essentially diminished versions of characters and events in LOTR. That strikes me as a bad idea and perhaps really does betray a lack of inspiration. Already fans of the LOTR films have complained that so many echoes of LOTR appear in Desolation. Worse is to come, though. When people view LOTR as part of a series of six parts beginning with The Hobbit, they will end up seeing things in LOTR as echoes of Desolation. The result will be to rob LOTR of some of its originality and effectiveness.
Take Tauriel. She’s a pleasant, admirable character, with a stubborn, headstrong streak that keeps her from being bland. Evangeline Lilly’s performance strikes me as excellent. A lot of fans worried about her inclusion in the film but came to like her. They seem to see her as blending well into the world of the film. But there’s a reason for that. She does come from the world of LOTR.
Was it really a good idea to add a major character who’s basically a blend of Arwen and Eowyn? Doesn’t she make both of those characters less distinctive?
If a lowly Sylvan Elf like Tauriel can rescue Kili from a giant spider and later use the herb athelas (“Kingsfoil”) to heal his wound, are LOTR’s similar rescues of Frodo by Aragorn, Arwen, and even Sam not rendered a bit less impressive? (In the book, Bilbo does all the saving of the Dwarves from the spiders; no Elves appear.) Later, the arrow that strikes Kili is referred to as a “Morgul” weapon that will kill him. Thus it resemble Frodo’s wounding by a Morgul blade by the Witch King at Weathertop in Fellowship. Again, Frodo’s wounding, which seems unique and bound up with the Ring’s evil influence, is cheapened. How can just any random Orc be carrying a weapon with a Morgul spell on it, something we were led to think is unique to the Nazgûl (and in the book, such weapons are). In Bard’s house, Kili’s vision of Tauriel surrounded by glowing light recalls Frodo’s vision of Arwen when she approaches him in Fellowship. Arwen’s stature is lessened by the suggestion that all Elven women can appear this way to mortals. (There’s a reason why Thrandruil doesn’t want his son to fall for Tauriel, though I’m sure he would be thrilled were Arwen to agree to marry Legolas.)
With Tauriel’s limitless athleticism and fighting capabilities, won’t she steal some of the thunder from one of the LOTR film’s most beloved characters, Eowyn? Across Tolkien’s two novels, Eowyn as a female warrior of Rohan was unique. She was unique in the films, too, until now, when Tauriel popped up to dispatch dozens of Orcs with the same aplomb that Legolas does. Did the writers never consider this problem? Was there no other way of creating a “strong” female character besides making her a fighter?
For that matter, why not do something more with the strong female character they already have, Galadriel? Why does she send Gandalf off alone to do the dirty work of investigating the tombs and Dol Guldur? After the White Council scene Galadriel assures Gandalf that she’ll come and help him if need be. Why not just give him a hand to begin with and not wait until Gandalf nearly gets himself killed. In the book Galadriel is ultimately the one who destroys Dol Guldur at the same time the Fellowship and other characters are down south attacking the Black Gate and destroying the Ring. It’s not as though she’s a shrinking violet.
Beyond being the strong female, Tauriel is also there partly to create the love triangle between her, Legolas, and Kili. That romance, though, is sketched out in terribly conventional terms. Tauriel’s interest in Kili is expressed through her remark that he’s tall for a Dwarf, and the final moments between them after she has healed his wound turn distinctly maudlin, with him failing to recognize her and asking weakly if she thinks Tauriel could have loved him.
One of the fans on the TORn Message Boards, ec1988, has started a thread called “The inclusion of Tauriel diminished Legolas.” There simplyaven argues that the Tauriel-Kili romance to some extent presages Legolas’ friendship with Gimli and undercuts its presentation in LOTR as an unusual, even unique overcoming of racial hatreds. That seems right. Her “Aren’t we part of this world?” also echoes Merry’s question to Treebeard when the Ents resist the idea of attacking Saruman. (This isn’t the only line repeated almost verbatim from LOTR.)
Another distinct echo of LOTR results from Gandalf’s fight with Sauron in Dol Guldur. It looks remarkably like his duel with Saruman in another tower, Orthanc, in Fellowship. Saruman takes Gandalf’s staff during that one, while Sauron seemingly dissolves Gandalf’s staff into dust:
This moment also echoes the scene in Return of the King where the Witch King knocks Gandalf the White off Shadowfax and dissolves his staff (in the extended edition only).
By now Gandalf has lost a number of staves across the five parts of the epic tale. It has become a sort of unintentional running joke on discussion sites as fans tot up how many staves Gandalf has lost and where he might be getting the replacements. Posts include photos to demonstrate the slight differences among them. One relatively brief example from the Message Boards on TORn comes from 2008–years before The Hobbit included at least one more destroyed staff. As moderator Ataahua remarked, “Back in the day, someone on TORN wondered if Gandalf had a locker of spare robes and staffs at Rivendell, as if it were a handy bus station. :)” Whether Radagast will give Gandalf his to replace the one destroyed by Sauron is a current topic of discussion.
But getting back to the Dol Guldur battle. Sauron slams Gandalf to the ground, then tosses him up so that he’s “velcroed” to the wall–pretty much as Saruman had done:
In Fellowship, Saruman imprisoned Gandalf on a tiny space at the top of Orthanc. Sauron suspends him in a small cage. I wonder if someone watching all six parts straight through might not find the Saruman-Gandalf battle a bit ludicrous because it is so similar to the “earlier” one. (To me, the wizard-duel was already somewhat ludicrous–and of course, it didn’t happen in the book.)
There are other signs of Desolation cannibalizing ideas from LOTR. The invented character of Alfrid, assistant to the Master of Lake-town, is a lot like Theoden’s slimy, treacherous adviser Grima. Thranduil is like Denethor in his refusal to consider the welfare of anyone beyond the boundaries of his own realm. Furnish calls the Master of Lake-town “the Goblin-King with a comb-over and more clothes,” suggesting a cannibalization from within The Hobbit as well.
Gandalf the Wimp
In this film, the writers don’t seem to know what to do with Gandalf. Midway through the book, he simply leaves the Dwarves and Bilbo at the edge of Mirkwood to take care of “some pressing business away south”–as he had planned from the start to do, so there he isn’t suddenly abandoning them. He returns in time to participate in the Battle of Five Armies, near the end of the novel.
Tolkien was smart enough to know that Gandalf was simply too powerful to keep around all the time. Where’s the suspense if you’ve got a wizard along to solve problems like capture by trolls or goblins? So he invented various devices to take him away from the action for stretches of time. (These became more complicated in LOTR; I devote part of a chapter of my book-in-progress to these tactics.) Only near the end of The Hobbit novel do we learn that Gandalf and the White Council have driven the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur. Indeed, Tolkien invented the “Necromancer” simply as an excuse to leave Bilbo and the Dwarves alone, forced to defend themselves. It was only by happy accident that this sinister figure, barely mentioned in the novel, was available to become the source of LOTR’s supreme villain.
So why doesn’t Desolation have Gandalf go off to do his “pressing business” and then concentrate instead on Mirkwood, Thranduil’s imprisonment of the Dwarves, the trip by barrel to Lake-town, and above all on Bilbo’s maturation? I have to believe it’s because Ian McKellen is arguably the biggest star involved in these films. True, others have also become famous as a result of appearing in The Hobbit, but back when the film was being written and shot, Ian was central. In the credits his name appears before that of Martin Freeman.
The problem confronting the filmmakers was that Gandalf is a supporting character in The Hobbit, albeit a major one. (I would argue that he and Frodo are the two protagonists of LOTR, the novel.) It would be appropriate for him to be absent for most of the second half of Desolation, but clearly the filmmakers felt they couldn’t afford to give up their top star for so long. Hence they invented scenes to give him something to do. The obscure mission to the tombs in the High Fells is one such scene. In terms of the plot as a whole, however, it could easily be done without.
More crucial, though, is Gandalf’s invasion of Dol Guldur, his challenge to the hidden forces there, and his losing battle with the Necromancer, now revealed as Sauron. The fact that he ends up helpless and in need of rescue raises yet another question: Why does he do such an idiotic thing? No reason is provided. He is certain that he’s going into a trap, and he has no idea what’s waiting inside for him. What could he possibly hope to accomplish? (If he were going in to try and rescue someone held prisoner inside, that would be another matter.) I think we’re to take it as a brave move on his part, and he does manage to hold his own against Sauron for a short time. But basically it’s a huge mistake on the part of a wizard we’re supposed to consider wise.
The sensible thing for Gandalf to do would be to go and alert Galadriel, who presumably has returned to her home in Lothlorien. That realm is situated relatively close to Dol Guldur, almost directly across the Anduin. Gandalf and Galadriel could summon the White Council and gather Elvish troops to lead an attack on the tower. In the book, that’s what Gandalf’s “pressing business to the south” is.
In general the Gandalf of the films is a far weaker, more vulnerable figure than the one in the books. I cannot imagine the Gandalf of the books would say that he’s afraid and that having Bilbo along on the quest gives him courage, or that he would need such reassurance and guidance from Galadriel. The Witch King could hardly knock him off his horse. In Fellowship (the book) Gandalf manages to hold off the nine Black Riders all night when they attack him on Weathertop. He doesn’t kill any of them, but he manages to escape unscathed.
Moreover, in the book Gandalf has been to Dol Guldur twice before, long before the action of The Hobbit. The first time, nearly 900 years earlier, Sauron is hiding there, slowly regaining physical form. Tolkien’s summary of the event in Appendix B is terse: “Gandalf goes to Dol Guldur. Sauron retreats and hides in the East. The Watchful Peace begins. The Nazgûl remain quiet in Minas Morgul.” Later Gandalf sneaks into Dol Guldur to as a spy and discovers that Sauron has returned. He also finds Thrain, Thorin’s father, dying, and receives from him the key and map that he later gives to Thorin in Bag End. (One would think that a flashback to that scene would have been dramatic and suspenseful.)
Tolkien never tells us what Gandalf did to make Sauron retreat. Maybe just the wizard’s presence frightened him away. Similarly, how he managed to spy inside Dol Guldur remains unexplained. The point, though, is that the filmmakers have made Gandalf weaker primarily to generate even more suspense and violent action and to set up a rescue of the hapless wizard that will surely involve an attack on Dol Guldur in the final part. Never mind that Gandalf’s invasion of Sauron’s stronghold in Desolation makes no sense.
Gandalf isn’t the only one who is made less powerful and dangerous in order to generate a grand action set-piece. Even the villain of the title is made to look rather foolish.
Smaug the Clueless
There is no question that Smaug as a CGI creation is a marvel, and Benedict Cumberbatch provides his voice, as manipulated by the sound crew, very effectively. Throughout his initial scene with Bilbo, which sticks pretty closely to the book, he seems appropriately menacing, sly, and playful in the manner of a cat toying with its prey.
As soon as the Dwarves join Bilbo inside Erebor, however, Smaug is revealed to be strangely ineffectual.
Once the Dwarves decide on their strategy of flooding Samug with molten gold, they split up to take separate routes to the forges. Time and again they manage to elude the beast as he searches for them. At once point he passes right above Thorin’s group and fails to notice them. Wouldn’t Smaug be glancing in all directions as he moved? And so much for his vaunted sense of smell. At one point Thorin leaps into space to avoid a blast of fire (below) and manages to catch hold of a chain hanging conveniently in his trajectory. Smaug follows him, curling around the dangling Dwarf but makes no real attempt to kill him. At one point, Thorin even ends up standing astride the creature’s mouth for a few moments. Now that he has found Thorin, Smaug doesn’t do the obvious–open his mouth and take a bite of him. Later, when Thorin stands exposed on the giant mold full of molten gold, he and Smaug are face to face. The dragon, instead of incinerating him, trades insults. (Of course, movie villains often miss their chance to vanquish their foes, in a convention termed by Roger Ebert “The Fallacy of the Talking Killer.”)
There is so much in the sequence of the Dwarves’ attempt to kill Smaug that is distractingly implausible. Just as the lengthy falls in the Goblintown scene of Journey never seemed to cause so much as a broken bone, in Smaug’s domain the dragon breathes great sheets of fire repeatedly and never seems to singe the Dwarves. When Thorin’s jacket is set afire, he simply takes it off and keeps running.
How could this vast quantity of gold be melted so quickly? How could Thorin ride a river of molten gold in a metal wheelbarrow and survive? Why does the giant Dwarf king’s statue, when the mold is pulled away, stand for several seconds as Smaug admires it before suddenly gushing into a golden lake that momentarily overwhelms the dragon? And why, if Dwarves know so much about dragons, does it not occur to them that a creature full of fire couldn’t be killed in this fashion? Why would Smaug keep bashing down columns and other parts of the “building” which he considers his and where he plays to spend the rest of his life?
As with Gandalf, the filmmakers have robbed Smaug of much of his power in order to concoct a big action scene as a climactic lead-in to the cliffhanger. Admittedly, the shot of Smaug shaking off the coating of gold into tiny fragments is spectacular, and with that he regains something of his original menace. Yet the cliffhanger works mainly because we assume that the men, women, and children of Laketown, in their wooden houses, will be easier for the dragon to kill.
Mistakes, confusion, and omissions
There are a lot of unexplained, unmotivated things about Desolation. Some are relatively minor, such as how Smaug, who has been alone with his treasure ever since attacking Erebor, could know that Thorin had in the interval before returning gained the sobriquet “Oakenshield”? Or why does Lake-town, which seems to station guards and customs official at every possible entry into the city and spies everywhere, not keep a single guard on the broad, long bridge that links it to the shore?
As in parts of LOTR, there is some jiggery-pokery with time and space. Azog is summoned from a forest near Beorn’s house back to Dol Guldur, which he reaches during the same single night that the Thorin and company spend in the house. Gandalf remarks later that to go around Mirkwood would involve hiking 200 miles north and twice as far south (one fact that does come from the book). Dol Guldur is near the southern end of Mirkwood, so we are to believe that Azog’s warg is speedy enough to cover perhaps 350 miles in several hours. Of course, films play with compression of time quite frequently, but this case is very obvious, since there is an immediate return to the Dwarves’ group still at Beorn’s house.
There are other noticeable causal inconsistencies that make a greater difference in the plot. It was set up in The Two Towers that Galadriel and Elrond could communicate telepathically from a considerable distance. Galadriel and Gandalf speak mentally to each other in the White Council scene. Galadriel seemingly disappears instantly at the end of her talk with Gandalf after the White Council.
Now it turns out that Gandalf apparently can disappear, as he does during his battle with Azog, just before he meets Sauron. Why doesn’t he just stay invisible until he has escaped? Moreover, Galadriel speaks mentally to Gandalf from somewhere, presumably fairly far away. Yet he can’t speak to her that way and must send Radagast with a message to her.
What are the rules here? Why does Galadriel seem more powerful than Gandalf? Who are the wizards and how do they as a group relate to the Elves? The filmmakers could have dramatized a major passage in the appendices that explains who the wizards are, messengers sent by the “gods” of Arda to aid and advise the peoples of Middle-earth in their struggle against Sauron. Then we might be left with fewer crucial questions about these powerful figures, and some reliable premises could be established. LOTR does end with the subtle revelation that Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond have the Three Rings of the Elves. (Look quick or you’ll miss them.) The fact that Gandalf has one of the Three comes from that passage on the wizards that I just mentioned. Why ignore that passage, one of the precious few that do relate directly to the action of the White Council plot line?
Again, I think this happens partly because the filmmakers have adopted a tactic of weakening powerful figures like Gandalf and Smaug in order to generate more suspense and big action scenes.
There’s another decision that I think creates confusion. Yes, Azog, the character I dislike both in himself and for his revenge plot line’s unbalancing the film’s scenes, continues to intrude at intervals. As I had speculated, he turns out to be a minion of Sauron. There is still no explanation as to how Sauron could know that Thorin and company have set out from Hobbiton to Erebor and thus direct Azog as to where to hunt for him. For some reason, Bolg, another uber-Orc (above), shows up and summons Azog to Dol Guldur to consult with Sauron–presumably to help prepare his army for a big attack on … something. Then Azog sends Bolg off to take his place and continue the hunt for Thorin. Given that the two seem interchangeable, this whole replacement of Azog by Bolg makes little sense, except presumably to try and inject a little variety into the repetitious revenge plot. Little is the operative word.
One final point. In my previous entry, I mentioned that in Journey the filmmakers did a good job of planting links to LOTR: Saruman’s obstructionism, Galadriel as a powerful figure, Bilbo’s immediate love for Rivendell, the stone trolls seen in Fellowship, the frame story involving birthday-party preparations, and Bilbo’s wealth from the trolls’ hoard. Desolation has far less of this. There’s the picture of young Gimli that Legolas sneers at. There’s also Bilbo’s reaction to the corrupting power of his newly acquired Ring. I think his reaction is overdone. Only a short time after finding it, he seems at least as obsessed with it as we see him sixty years later, at the beginning of Fellowship. Good thing it’s a giant spider that he thinks is trying to take it from him, not one of the Dwarves. Shades of Smeagol! Apart from those added elements, there is little attempt to stitch Desolation a little closer together with LOTR.
Despite everything I’ve laid out here, I enjoy much of Desolation, and it has many good things in it. As usual, the sets, costumes, makeup, and all technical elements have been achieved with the utmost care and imagination. Quite apart from the complex movements of Smaug, with his long body and tail looping through the enclosed spaces of Erebor, there is much to admire. The big action sequences are quite fun. The acting continues to be excellent in most cases, particularly Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Although the hobbit no longer seems the center of his own story, Freeman manages to make every scene he is in a delight and to capture something of the feeling of the book.
Taken as an autonomous film, and despite its lapses in motivation and logic, it offers considerable entertainment and enjoyment. But as the second part of a series, it has gone off the rails, much as the Dwarves lose the Elvish path in Mirkwood. I suspect it will turn out to be the weakest of the six parts. At this point there is little if anything to be done to remedy this. (I cannot imagine that the extended version of Desolation will ameliorate the problems much, though I hope it will do so a little.) We are stuck with Tauriel, Bolg, and a weakened Gandalf for the third film. Still, I hope that There and Back Again will steer more directly toward links to LOTR. We shall see the Battle of Five Armies, and Jackson is nothing if not adept at big battle scenes.
What we can take away about prequels here is simply that filmmakers must not only make an original film in itself but must take utmost care to make it serve the franchise as a whole. Through the insistence that there must be a strong female character no matter what or Jackson’s frequently expressed justification that he added something simply because it would be fun, The Hobbit no longer fits well with The Lord of the Rings. That’s a pity, because up to now the filmmakers had been doing so well.
Purchasers of the extended version of AUJ will note that the packaging is not quite as impressive as that for the LOTR EEs. There is no booklet with John Howe and Alan Lee illustrations, nor one of the very helpful indices indicating which chapters are new or expanded and offering a map through the supplements. Fortunately a dedicated Russian fan, TheHutt (editor of the website Henneth Annun), has created one (left), with a remarkably accurate simulation of the design and contents of the LOTR booklets. The pages can be downloaded here. (Scroll down for the English-language version.) Kudos to him!
For those interested in the saga of Gandalf’s loss of staves. The Dol Guldur duel is chronologically the first time Gandalf loses a staff. Saruman takes the next one in Fellowship. The replacement is lost when Gandalf strikes the Bridge of Khazad-dûm with it, and bridge and staff both shatter. In his new incarnation revealed in Towers, Gandalf gets a white staff, which is destroyed by the Witch King in Return (extended edition). He has a duplicate of it in the Grey Havens scene at the end. Five staves–four of them destroyed–and counting. In the book the only loss of a staff comes at the breaking of the Bridge.
I first read J. R. R. Tolkien’s work during what might be described as the second generation’s discovery of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was very popular from its initial publication in 1937, enough so that the publisher asked for a sequel. Though Tolkien wanted LOTR to come out in a single volume, postwar austerity dictated that it be divided into three separate volumes. After their publication in 1954-55, a devoted following grew. The real explosion, however, came in 1965, when the Ballantine paperback editions appeared in the USA.
I was fifteen at the time and already an aficionado of Victorian literature (H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle). I was used to reading long books (David Copperfield, Don Quixote). Like so many other people who were in high school or college in the 1960s, I loved Tolkien from the start. Eventually I became an academic writer. At some point, I decided to write a book on the two Hobbit novels.
I had done a lot of reading and note-taking for that project by the time of the release of Peter Jackson’s film version, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. With reservations, I liked that film. What fascinated me more, though, was the incredible success of the innovative marketing and merchandising side of the LOTR franchise. I decided this film was going to be historically significant in a major way. In 2002, I decided to write a book about it.
The Tolkien study was put way back behind even the back burner. The franchise book needed to be written now, when I could (I hoped) get access to the filmmakers and to information that would not be available after the last part was released. With enormous good luck and help from many interviewees, I managed to write The Frodo Franchise (2007). My Tolkien project came forward onto the stove and is now in progress.
I’ve kept up my interest in the films, though. Editors have asked me to write short pieces on Jackson’s LOTR, and I’ve done four of those so far. I maintained my Frodo Franchise blog until it became apparent that I would not be granted access to the filmmakers for a book on The Hobbit. Now I’m on the staff of TheOneRing.net, for which I write occasionally. Naturally I’ve kept up on the progress of Jackson’s new trilogy.
Not long ago in these pages, I wrote about the fact that The Hobbit had been expanded from its originally announced two parts to a three-part film. To those who accused the filmmakers of doing this for strictly mercenary purposes, I countered that there were reasons why such an expansion could work well. Mainly these relate to the extra material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, which provide information on two kinds of events: those taking place during the time period when The Hobbit’s action unfolds (most importantly an attack on Sauron’s [aka the Necromancer] lesser dark tower Dol Guldur) and those which took place in the past but which relate to characters and actions in the novel (e.g., Smaug’s attack on Erebor and Dale, the Dwarves Pyrrhic victory over the troops of the Orc Azog at Moria).
Having now seen The Hobbit three times, I want to suggest how successfully, if at all, the filmmakers have incorporated this material. For the most part the non-Hobbit material has been brought in well, or in some cases acceptably.
It’s a prequel now
One objection to the division of The Hobbit into three parts is that the book won’t support a narrative nearly as long as that of the filmed LOTR. Over and over, fans and critics have complained that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit (1937) isn’t designed as Tolkien wrote it, as a children’s story, lighter in tone and shorter than LOTR. They often also object to those who refer to it as a “prequel.” The novel’s events took place years before those of LOTR. It was also published first, appearing in 1937, while LOTR came out in three volumes published in 1954-55. The implication is that Jackson should just have ignored the other film and stuck strictly to the novel, which is about a quarter the length of the LOTR tome. As literature, LOTR is a sequel to The Hobbit.
But the films are different. Even if The Hobbit were adapted page by page, speech by speech exactly as written, those of us who have seen the LOTR film or read the book could not see it as a separate tale. We know already what the Ring is and what eventually happened to it, while readers, if they started with The Hobbit, do not. We know that Elrond is a powerful leader among other powerful Elf leaders, destined eventually to leave Middle-earth for the Undying Lands. We know Gandalf is a wizard who will guide the various peoples through the War of the Ring. And so on. Only viewers who see The Hobbit without having seen LOTR first or having read the book or having read any of the extensive media coverage of both could come to the prequel unaware of such things. And while the novel The Hobbit is not a prequel, the film adaptation certainly is.
Because most of us do know about these major characters and premises, Jackson and his team could hardly avoid trying to make the new film match his version of LOTR. He had to treat events, characters, tone, and setting with some consistency, and he had to link the films as one long account of historical events in the same era of Middle-earth.
Tolkien himself tried to smooth out the disparities between The Hobbit and LOTR, both in tone and causal connections. He revised The Hobbit slightly in 1947, mainly to make the Riddles in the Dark scene work better in the light of what the Ring eventually became when he brought it back as a more crucial plot element in LOTR. In 1951, those revisions got into the second edition of The Hobbit and have remained canonical ever since. In 1960 Tolkien was again disturbed by the differences between the two books and launched into a more thoroughgoing revision of The Hobbit to make it conform exactly to the later events in LOTR. Others convinced him that this was a mistake and that it damaged the charm of the earlier book, already a classic of children’s literature. Eventually he allowed those disparities to remain. He did, however, write passages in the appendices that at least briefly described events that helped stitch the two books’ narratives together.
I don’t see that it’s a problem for the filmmakers to use those passages to try and make their films flow more smoothly from the first to the second. In a few years we will be able to watch all six parts of what will then essentially be a single narrative with a sixty-year gap in the middle. For better or worse, depending on one’s opinion, this is Jackson’s Hobbit. Unlike Tolkien, he is making it after already having made LOTR. He can include the links between the two tales, as well as extra plot material that Tolkien published in the 1950s but hadn’t conceived in the 1930s. The question is not whether those links and that material should have been included but whether they have been well handled.
In terms of the links, many of the ones in An Unexpected Journey seem effective. The notion of starting The Hobbit at a point just before Gandalf’s arrival for Bilbo’s 111th birthday party seems a good one: we see Frodo nailing up the “No Admittance” sign from the early LOTR scene and then heading off to read in the woods and await the wizard (above). There’s an immediate recognition factor. The younger Bilbo mentions Bree, a locale seen in LOTR, and he recalls Gandalf’s fireworks from his youth. A fireworks display also figures in Bilbo’s birthday party scene in LOTR. Bilbo’s initial awe upon arriving in Rivendell and his reluctance to leave it tie in with the fact that he goes to live there after leaving The Shire early in LOTR. Certainly the inclusion of Balin, made into a more prominent character than he is in the novel and played with considerable humor and charm by Ken Stott, should make the discovery of his tomb in LOTR a more meaningful and poignant scene. On the whole, the stitching together of the two films so far is quite accomplished, and I assume it will continue to be so through the other two parts.
But is it padded?
Most of these links between The Hobbit and LOTR are brief references or gestures, made in passing. They are not the reason that Jackson’s team decided, to considerable critical and fan uproar, to make The Hobbit in three parts rather than the originally announced two. In the earlier entry, I suggested that there was material in the appendices of LOTR that fills in information relevant to The Hobbit’s plot.
There’s the backstory of the Dwarves, involving two major events. Bilbo’s exposition at the beginning establishes their great kingdom within Erebor (the Lonely Mountain). Its king, Thror (Thorin Oakenshield’s grandfather), oversees the accumulation of a huge horde of gold and gems, and it attracts the dragon Smaug. Smaug’s destruction of the Dwarves’ home and the neighboring city of Men, Dale (portrayed briefly in a sort of Renaissance Italian style), leads to the Dwarves’ exile and hereditary king Thorin’s eventual decision to try and retake Erebor.
Second, there is the great battle fought between the Dwarves and Orcs at Moria, in which Thror is killed and Thorin earns the respect of his people by defeating the great Orc leader, Azog—chopping off his arm and leaving him, as Thorin wrongly assumes, to die.
All of this the film explains in flashbacks derived from the LOTR appendices, and this embedded material seems to me to come off well. In my opinion, most of the other scraps of text used as the inspiration for scenes not in the original Hobbit novel results in reasonably successful scenes—with one major exception, which I will deal with in the next section.
The most important extra plotline concerns the White Council (not so named in the first part of the film). Initially I speculated that the White Council scene would be a flashback to an early meeting. That’s not the case, since Gandalf meets with Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman during the visit to Rivendell (above). In the novel, when Bilbo and Gandalf revisit Rivendell on their way back to The Shire, the Hobbit simply overhears Gandalf talking to Elrond: “It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.”
Here, by the way, is an example of the sort of inconsistent plot points that Tolkien presumably hoped to eliminate when he struggled to revise The Hobbit in the early 1960s. By then he had written LOTR and given the Wizards their emblematic colors, so Saruman (and later Gandalf) was the only “White” wizard. The “Necromancer” would become Sauron; the “dark hold in the south of Mirkwood” gained a name, Dol Guldur. What Jackson and the other writers have done is to move that meeting of white wizards (which took place somewhere to the south, presumably either in Lothlórien and Orthanc) to Rivendell. That simplifies things.
Now the question remains, to what degree does the White Council hint that Saruman has already become treacherous? Is he dismissing Gandalf’s worries as exaggerated merely because he’s conservative and just doesn’t much respect the Grey Wizard, or is he secretly searching for the Ring himself (as Tolkien revealed in the appendices)? I hope these questions will be explored further in one or both of the upcoming parts.
Interestingly, Gandalf is already visibly frustrated by Saruman’s presence at Rivendell, and the two are at odds about the degree of danger evidenced at Dol Guldur. Saruman favors inaction, meaning that he opposes the Quest of Erebor. Gandalf sees all sorts of ramifications in the presence of the dragon and the odd goings-on at Dol Guldur. Obviously we know Gandalf is right, especially since Galadriel sides with him from the start. The explicit representation of this action within The Hobbit’s plot is, I think, off to an excellent start. I look forward to seeing how it develops.
Gandalf’s seems to regard Saruman with a mixture of frustration, annoyance, and forced friendliness and deference. How will this attitude affect our perception of Gandalf’s words about Saruman when he prepares to go and consult the White Wizard in The Fellowship of the Ring? There, as Frodo prepares to take the Ring and head to Bree, Gandalf says, “I must see the head of my order. He is both wise and powerful. Trust me, Frodo, he’ll know what to do.” In retrospect, Ian McKellen’s reading of these lines in Fellowship works in remarkably well with Gandalf’s attitude toward Saruman in the White Council scene in The Hobbit. He speaks the first two sentences quickly, without inflection, as if reciting them; we could interpret them as arising from a sense of duty rather than hope that Saruman really can or will help. The “Trust me, Frodo” sentence is accompanied by a tight smile, perhaps the sort of forced smile that Gandalf assumes as he turns to greet Saruman in the White Council scene. Given that neither director nor actor was presumably looking forward to someday adding such a scene, they turned out to be lucky that Gandalf’s speech was delivered in such a way that it could imply a lurking dislike or distrust of Saruman. (There is evidence for such distrust in the novel. In his long conversation with Frodo about the Ring, Gandalf remarks “I might perhaps have consulted Saruman the White, but something always held me back …. His knowledge is deep, but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling.”)
One admirable thing about the Rivendell sequence is that the friendships among Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf are portrayed. In the book, these three have known each other for two thousand years. They are the bearers of the Three Elven Rings. Those who know only the film of LOTR are unlikely to be aware of that, since only in the penultimate scene at the Grey Havens are the three openly wearing their Rings—barely noticeable even on the big screen. Oddly, however, the licensed tie-in products for LOTR included replicas of Narya, Nenya, and Vilya, made by the Noble Collection. The three characters are able to communicate telepathically. Elrond, portrayed as rather aloof in LOTR, is a warmer figure here, embracing and teasing Gandalf, and the scene after the White Council meeting in which Galadriel reassures Gandalf and offers him her help is one of the most genuinely moving moments in the film (see top). (We never saw Galadriel and Gandalf together in the LOTR film, though they are together in some of the late book chapters that were cut in the adaptation.)
Radagast the Fool
Then there’s Radagast. The Brown Wizard appears in one scene in the novel version of LOTR, but Jackson and company eliminated him. Radagast is only mentioned in The Hobbit, but now he appears in two extended scenes and presumably will return in the later parts. Many fans object to Radagast’s being made into a comic figure, driving a sled pulled by large rabbits and hosting birds in his hair, with a resulting streak of droppings down the side of his head. Never mind that in Radagast’s one scene in LOTR, Tolkien portrays him as faintly comic, as well as timid and ineffectual. While pumping up the humorous side of the Brown Wizard, Jackson develops him into a character with considerably more gumption.
It has also been claimed that his role in the drama isn’t significant enough to warrant his presence. Did we really need all this time devoted to someone who’s there mainly to give Gandalf the Morgul blade as evidence of foul goings-on at the seemingly deserted Dol Guldur? Yet the dialogue does help motivate his importance. Gandalf declares to Bilbo, “He keeps a watchful eye over the vast forest lands to the east, and a good thing, too, for always evil will look to find a foothold in this world.” That dialogue hook leads to the first scene with Radagast, walking through the forest and finding death and decay, evidence of a mysterious force that he traces to Dol Guldur.
And the blade brought to Gandalf is definitely a significant object. When Gandalf presents it to the Council, Galadriel is very perturbed by it, and Elrond loses his initial certainty that Middle-earth is at peace. By the end of the scene, only Saruman denies the need to investigate what’s going on at Dol Guldur. Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur and the White Council’s subsequent actions in relation to the Necromancer’s presence there will form a crucial subplot in the upcoming parts; we’ve already glimpsed part of Gandalf’s exploration of the stronghold in the trailers.
Radagast also serves to draw the Orc band away from the Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf. He drives his infamous bunny sled across the rolling hills, allowing the group time to find the hidden entry into Rivendell. But is the bunny sled so very ridiculous? Teanna Byerts, aka swordwhale, a member of the Message Boards at TheOneRing.net, has written an informative and amusing essay, “Radagast’s Racing Rhosgobel Rabbits: A Recreational Musher Looks at the Realities of Bunny Sledding.” It turns out that a sled would not be a bad vehicle for a woodland environment, and, allowing for the fact that this is a fantasy film, large rabbits not entirely implausible beasts for pulling them. (A Google Image search on “large rabbit” brings up some bunnies about the size of Radagast’s–and no, they’re not all Photoshopped.) The main problem is that ordinary rabbits would not pull as a team, but as Radagast says with relish, “These are Rhosgobel Rabbits!”
Although there is probably too much silliness relating to Radagast, on balance I think that he is a plus for the film and shouldn’t be dismissed as mere padding. Tolkien’s novels suggest that Radagast is a member of the White Council, one of the “white wizards” Gandalf met with down south. He lives in southern Mirkwood at Rhosgobel, a short way north of Dol Guldur. As Gandalf’s speech quoted above (not in the book) indicates, despite Radagast’s hermit-like ways and fascination with nature, he keeps an eye on things in the area. He also seems to maintain a system of bird messengers and spies for the use of the White Council. (In the novel he, not some passing moth, is responsible for the eagle Gwaihir appearing at Orthanc to rescue Gandalf.) Though Radagast never visits Dol Guldur in the book, he generally does the sorts of things that he does in the film. Although he perhaps contributes little in the first part of the film, we should withhold judgment on his importance to the plot until we see what he does in the second and perhaps the third.
The chase of the Orcs after Radagast’s sled, by the way, exemplifies one of the several lapses of causal motivation in the film. Why do the Orcs try to catch Radagast? They are specifically after Thorin, and the Orcs have no way of knowing that Radagast has any connection to the Dwarves. If they take off after every passing stranger when they are supposed to pursue a specific mission, these Orcs make very poor hunters. And while we’re on the subject, how does Radagast get all the way from southern Mirkwood, which is on the far side of the Misty Mountains, and find Gandalf so quickly?
A final note on Radagast. For those of us who were lucky enough to see Sylvestor McCoy play the Fool to Ian McKellen’s Lear during the stage tour, there is a bit of added resonance in their scene together.
The scene of the stone-giants has been criticized as well. They occupy four minutes of screen time, putting the Dwarves and Bilbo in extreme danger without having any real link to the plot. The scene’s only causal function is to give Thorin another opportunity to belittle Bilbo. The episode derives from a few brief remarks in the middle of the novel’s description of a terrible thunderstorm the group encounters in the high mountain pass:
When he [Bilbo] peeped out in the lightening-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness, where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang …. They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.
Douglas Anderson has suggested that by “stone-giants” Tolkien meant a particular type of troll; he mentions the “Stone-trolls of the Westlands” in Appendix F. (See the second edition of The Annotated Hobbit, p. 104.) If so, they would probably only be a little larger than the three trolls in the earlier forest scene. But whatever they are, they are clearly not fighting but playing a game. Moreover, the Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf (who does not stay behind in Rivendell in the novel) are inside a cave when all this happens. Jackson could have chosen to leave out such a brief references, but he instead turns the creatures into immense giants made of stone, and they are having a flat-out battle rather than a game. I don’t think this was part of an effort to stretch the film into three parts but results from Jackson’s tendency to add or extend action scenes.
Finally, the film considerably lengthens the Goblin-town episode and includes a great deal more combat. In the book, Gandalf quickly kills the Great Goblin and leads the Dwarves and Bilbo in a race for the entrance, with a couple of skirmishes with small groups of Goblins. Again, I don’t think the expansion was created in order to necessitate a third part to the film. This scene had almost certainly been planned and shot well before the decision to ask Warner Bros. for permission to add a third part. Extending the scene is another instance of Jackson’s penchant for big action sequences, and especially battles. I find it a bit overlong myself, but many fans probably like it.
Azog the Defiler of Plots
There is, however, a plotline that does seem to me to be padding. The placement of scenes involving its action damages the narrative rhythm of the film as a whole. The plotline centers around Azog the Defiler, the “Pale Orc” whom Thorin grievously wounded in the battle at Moria (below) and who turns out not to be dead. Instead, he and his band of Orcs, bent on revenge and mounted on wargs (giant wolves) are hunting for Thorin. Making room for this line of action evidently led the filmmakers to cut other scenes that I, and undoubtedly some others, would have preferred to see.
Critics have pointed out a pattern of rescues and respites in both The Hobbit and LOTR. At fairly regular intervals, the characters get into dangerous situations and are rescued, often by someone completely unexpected and even unknown. They then spend a peaceful time with their rescuers before going on to the next challenge. This pattern is so consistent and evident that Ursula K. Le Guin termed it the “rocking-horse gait” of the books.
Obvious examples of down-time are the interludes in Rivendell in both books and the stay in Lothlórien in LOTR. These aren’t dull stretches. They’re occasions for introducing new characters, giving exposition, and bringing a new population with a distinctive culture into the mix of peoples uniting to battle evil. They’re about character development and revelation. They’re about showing off the beauties and wonders that make Middle-earth such an attractive, fully realized fantasy world. And between the battles and chases, they give us, as well as the characters, a bit of respite. This rescue pattern is one of the most basic structures of both of Tolkien’s novels. (I’ve devoted a chapter about it for my book-in-progress.)
The Azog plotline throws off the rescue/respite pattern (which Jackson’s team respected more consistently in LOTR). Worse, it tips the dramaturgical balance of the whole film. First there is the ten-minute troll battle, and then a pause while the group explores the cave. That moment of quiet action lasts only four minutes, and then Radagast shows up. I take this to be the beginning of the next scene of fear and danger, since the Brown Wizard agitatedly launches into a tale about his visit to Dol Guldur, presented as a flashback full of menace and threat. Almost as soon as he finishes, the chase begins. The Radagast scene to the point where the Dwarves’ group hides and Elrond’s Elves drive the Orcs away lasts 9:39 minutes, roughly the same length of time as the trolls scene.
The big Azog battle, in which the Defiler shows up in person and Thorin at last realizes that he’s alive, similarly comes very soon after the end of the huge Goblin-town battle and the concurrent Riddles in the Dark scene. The Goblins/Gollum action lasts 28:37. Once it ends, there’s an all-too-brief scene while the Dwarves and Gandalf think Bilbo has lost or has deserted the group, only for him to show up and explain why he has decided to stay with them (2:53).
Then Azog and his band arrive. The rather straightforward scene in the book, with ordinary Goblins and wolves trapping the company in some fir trees (not on the edge of a cliff), becomes a full-blown battle with Thorin nearly killed and Bilbo prematurely summoning up his submerged courage to save him (11:00). After three viewings, my basic response when the final forest confrontation with Azog begins is, Oh, not again! We’ve just had nearly half an hour of suspense and violence, with considerable variety and impressive filmmaking. The Goblin/Gollum scene should be the high point of the film. To have a shorter battle immediately after it makes the Azog fighting suffer by comparison while undercutting our memory of the earlier, longer one. I don’t think the Azog scenes in general add anything except brute action. Yes, they give Thorin a new revenge motive, but it kicks in only at the end of the film, and he already has plenty of dark motives with his hatred of Smaug and the Elves, particularly Thranduil. Far better to have stuck to Tolkien’s simpler version, ending the film with the group treed by generic Goblins and wolves and then get to the eagles’ rescue as quickly as possible.
The decision to end part 1 by moving away from the group and following a thrush to the Lonely Mountain is, I think, one of the more inspired additions to the story. As the thrush cracks a snail, the sound seemingly carries through the rock and into the cavernous interior, where we see a close view of Smaug’s eye emerging from a great heap of gold and popping open. Smaug is a great villain, unlike Azog, and I suspect his first conversation with Bilbo will be the equal of the Riddles in the Dark scene.
The Azog plotline also introduces a massive coincidence. Just after Balin has told the group the tale of the Moria battle and Gandalf and Balin have exchanged glances suggesting that they do not assume Azog is dead, there’s a cut to Azog’s Orcs appearing and discovering the group. We don’t know how long it has been since the Moria battle, but has this group of hunters been combing Middle-earth for Thorin ever since, while Azog cools his heels at Weathertop waiting for them to report to him? Possibly some sort of motivation for this will be supplied in part 2, but it’s really not a good idea to leave such a flagrant coincidence unexplained within this part.
Doing the numbers
Some have complained about the slow beginning of the film, which, apart from the early flashback to the kingdom of Erebor and city of Dale and their destruction by Smaug, takes place entirely in and around Bilbo’s home, Bag End. As has been endlessly pointed out, Bilbo’s race down the Hill to catch up to the Dwarves starts fully thirty-nine minutes into the film (not counting the open series of logos). To those interested in character and plot–and faithfulness to Tolkien’s book–this makes perfect sense. To those just waiting for the big action scenes, it’s frustrating. But the long exposition has to accomplish something that never challenged Tolkien: differentiating thirteen Dwarves. In the novel, only a few members of the group get any significant amount of characterization, and they mostly remain shadowy background figures whom we don’t have to visualize as individuals. But in a film they’re all there on the screen, and Jackson has to at least give them distinctive appearances. He goes further and assigns them traits, however simple, and on the whole does a good job of it.
To me, apart from the overly coarse behavior of the Dwarves (does Kili really have to be so boorish as to scrape his muddy boots on Bilbo’s furniture?), this early part of the film consists mostly of entertaining, lovely stuff. Kudos to Jackson’s team for keeping not one but both Dwarf songs, which nicely display the contrast of comedy and determination that underlies the group’s nature. The contract-reading scene and Gandalf’s attempts to persuade Bilbo to join the Dwarves’ quest are both entertaining and nicely revealing of Bilbo’s character. I particularly like the quiet conversation between Thorin and Balin, with Balin trying to talk Thorin out of the quest and Thorin revealing his reasons for confidence and hope. (In some ways, this makes little sense, given that it is Balin who later rashly sets out to try to retake Moria and ends up getting himself and his colony of Dwarves killed, but at this point it’s a minor matter.)
Again, though, there’s a problem of balance. So much of this fascinating material is crammed into the opening, and so much of the rest of the film is taken up with dangerous action scenes. It’s notable that the Goblins/Gollum sequence and the final Azog battle add up to 39:37, almost exactly the same length as the opening of the film up to Bilbo’s departure from home. The string of action scenes that begin with the trolls proceeds with only brief letups. A major exception is the Rivendell interlude, with the crucial White Council scene.
Then there’s the Riddles in the Dark, by common consensus the best thing in the film. It’s a relatively quiet and riveting scene, though here, too, Bilbo is clearly in danger from Gollum. Amusing though some of the latter’s antics are, he frequently drops from his Smeagol to his Gollum personality and tries to attack Bilbo. The part after Bilbo puts on the Ring is extremely well done, with him gradually realizing that Gollum can’t see him, and Gollum’s feelings at the loss of the Ring slowly settling from rage to anguish as his big eyes shift and look straight through the invisible Hobbit. Letting Bilbo see Gandalf and the Dwarves escaping and yet not being able to join them because Gollum crouches in the way is a clever touch–a slight improvement on the book, perhaps, since it makes it more plausible that Bilbo can find the group so quickly once he jumps over Gollum and escapes.
A sense of imbalance isn’t just my impression of the film. Timing the individual scenes reveals a remarkable pattern. Without logos or final credits, the film runs about 158 minutes. The mid-point would be roughly 80 minutes into it. The mid-point of a film usually comes at a particularly important dramatic turning point. In this case, at 80:40 minutes, the Elves drive the attacking Orcs away, leaving the Dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo safe and free to follow the secret passage into Rivendell. Thus the Rivendell interlude begins the second half.
I’ve timed the individual scenes and divided them up into action (threat, flight, battle) and quiet (conversations, meals, peaceful traveling) scenes. In the first half of the film, there are roughly fifty-one minutes of quiet scenes and 31 minutes of action. In the second half, the pattern is reversed with a surprising precision. The peaceful scenes run a total of 31 minutes, and the action scenes 48 minutes. (These figures don’t exactly add up to 158 minutes, because I’ve rounded off to the nearest half minute–and it’s not easy to time these things to the second!) Moreover, since the Rivendell scene opens the second half (being in the position of the Bag End scene for the first half), there are about 46 minutes of action in the rest of the film, versus 10.5 minutes worth of peaceful scenes. Hence my sense that the film is unbalanced.
Of course we would expect an adventure film to build toward bigger action scenes near the end, but the first part of The Hobbit has come close to squeezing much of its plot-centered scenes toward its beginning and the action ones toward the end. The stone-giants, Goblins/Gollum, and Azog scenes come all in a row. Imagine the Helm’s Deep battle in The Two Towers ending and the filmmakers ramping up another scene of combat. As it is, ending that part with Gollum’s quiet, menacing plotting against Frodo and Sam is far more effective.
Throughout the second half of The Hobbit, there are precious few pauses for simple conversations when the characters are not scared stiff. One seizes upon the few moments of this type with gratitude, as when Bilbo is about to leave the Dwarves and go back to Rivendell and ultimately home. He has a brief exchange with Bofur, who sadly realizes the truth of Bilbo’s statement that the Dwarves have no place where they belong and yet still summons the friendly good nature to wish the Hobbit well. More touching moments like that are needed.
Azog’s collateral damage
My impression is that Azog has muscled his way in by crowding out material of the quiet sort. Still images on the internet and shots in the trailers show moments that should be in this part of the film but are not. McKellen and others have mentioned in interviews that there was to be a flashback to Gandalf putting off fireworks at a Hobbit party long before and meeting the very young Bilbo. A production image of that scene (below) appeared on the internet, but there’s no such moment in the film. Logically, it could only come early on, perhaps in the conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo after dinner, to show the contrast between the adventurous, eager youth and the staid, middle-aged Bilbo who is determined to resist the Tookish side of his nature.
Some of the trailers and TV spots showed Bilbo at Rivendell, walking up some stairs and coming upon the statue holding the shards of Narsil (below). That blade, which we see cutting the Ring off Sauron’s hand in the prologue battle of The Fellowship of the Ring, will be reforged for Aragorn and renamed Anduril in The Return of the King. The idea that Bilbo might see the pieces of that sword so shortly before finding the Ring itself seems a strong addition to the film.
The frame I used as the top illustration in my earlier entry is from a trailer, but it is not in the film either. It showed Bilbo on a bridge at Rivendell, looking up admiringly at the building or landscape. That might have been part of the scene with Narsil, showing Bilbo wandering around Rivendell. There was supposedly going to be a conversation between Elrond and Bilbo, perhaps also part of the same scene with Narsil, but that, too, is missing. I would much rather hear what Elrond had to say to Bilbo, whether about the sword or Rivendell or Elves in general, than sit through yet more of Azog ordering his characterless Orcs around. (The brief scene, cut into the Rivendell interlude, in which one of those Orcs reports failure to Azog and is thrown to a warg to be devoured is particularly gratuitous and unpleasant. Yes, we need to know that Azog is still alive, but that revelation could have come later.)
I hope and expect that the cut scenes and others like them will be restored to their proper places in the extended-version DVD/Blu-ray release, already announced.
All this promising material was cut, evidently to give more room to Azog. What prompted the filmmakers to add him? I have no idea. In a press junket interview about a week before the release of the film last month, Philippa Boyens was asked about scenes added to The Hobbit’s plot. She responded:
I love Azog, Azog the Defiler. Because we just loved that name and he is a character that we just loved that back story and thought we can’t have him be dead, we’re going to keep him alive. So we enjoyed that … bringing him back. And I think we do that quite powerfully, he’s got a good journey to go on.
This baffles me, since ordinarily Boyens has specific, narrative-based justifications for changes made during the adaptation process. But how can one love Azog as a character? In the book, he’s an unusually large Orc who leads the troops at Moria. He has two lines of dialogue that just establish him as nasty, which is what one would expect of any Orc (see the “Durin’s Folk” section of Appendix A of LOTR). He survives the Moria battle depicted in the film, but Tolkien killed him off in that battle in LOTR. He is referred to in passing in The Hobbit novel as Azog the Goblin. The filmmakers have added “the Defiler.” Either the filmmakers thought they needed to pump up a story that already had enough action, or they for some reason did love this bit player of an Orc and let that feeling blind them to the damage he did to their plot. If by “journey” Boyens means a character arc, so far I don’t see any sign of Azog having one. I doubt he’ll reform.
Admittedly, a lot of fans of the film seem to like the Azog scenes. Many of them are probably unfamiliar with the novels and unaware of what is being left out or distorted. But I am far from alone in my opinion. Eric Wecks of Wired has written two short but perceptive commentaries, one on the trailer before he had seen the film and one after seeing the first part. He declares the Azog plotline and particularly the final battle as “wholly unnecessary.” But overall, like me, he admires the film. Many fans aren’t keen on Azog, either. TheOneRing.net has a large cache of fan reviews (1,815 last time I checked) They include one by Sirwen, who, although he or she likes the film and gives it 4.5 out of 5 “Rings,” lists several complaints. Number one is, “I understand that they wanted to have villain since Smaug is essentially MIA until much later in the story, but Azog just seemed random. I am assuming that he will turn out to be working for Sauron, because otherwise it makes no sense why he would wait a century for revenge.” I’m not assuming that Azog will turn out to be working for Sauron, though it’s possible. But Sauron is at this point in hiding, trying to regain physical form–at least, he is in the book. The Nazgûl are also in hiding. How would Sauron know about Thorin’s quest?
The Azog plotline is the only thing in the film that strikes me as truly superfluous. The screenwriters might not see it that way, but it also happens to be the only thing added to the story that has no justification in the appendices or anywhere else in Tolkien’s writing.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the notion of filling out the plot of Tolkien’s novel with other material was a mistake. So far, the importation of Radagast, the White Council, and the Dol Guldur menace work reasonably well and presumably will continue to do so. The scenes that I’ve mentioned as having been cut probably would have worked well, too. But if in the next parts Azog keeps popping up to have yet another attempt at killing Thorin, that plotline will become even more distracting, tedious, and, yes, padded.
[January 19, 2014: To find out where my speculations about the extended edition of Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, see my follow-up entry. Warning: spoilers for both Desolation and the third part, There and Back Again, plus some criticism of what I consider flaws in the film.
LeGuin remarks on the “rocking-horse gait” of Tolkien’s novels in “The Staring Eye,” included a collection of her essays, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, Susan Wood, ed. (1974; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979), p. 173.
The generalizations I’ve made here about fan and critical opinions about The Hobbit were gleaned mostly through perusing many fans’ comments on Facebook pages and the Message Boards on TheOneRing.net, and reviews, often rather ephemeral online ones. I haven’t kept track of all of these and can’t give links, as I normally would.