Thursday, January 09, 2014

What's the Matter with Hollywood in 2013, Part 5: Hollywood vs. The Hobbit

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a more extreme example of some of the trends we’ve discussed this week, especially contempt for the original source material.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel was written in 1937, and expresses the antiwar sentiments prevalent at the time, which were informed by memories of World War I. In the book, a bunch of petty and short-sighted kings want to gobble up as many resources as possible, until the moment that all of their fragile truces fall apart. At that point, our Hobbit hero nobly betrays his side to the others in the name of peace, but he’s unable to stop the oncoming war, so he hides from the pointless fighting until it’s all over, shaking his head at the folly of it all.

The novel was quite successful and highly acclaimed, but then World War II came and went, and Tolkien, along with many of his antiwar contemporaries, began to see things very differently. All of a sudden, war had been ennobled again. The world had finally met a villain powerful and evil enough to justify total war, with no regrets afterward. (In fact, after the war was over, they discovered the bad guy was even worse than they had assumed, which is not what usually happens!)

Tolkien decided that it was time for a very different follow-up story. In “The Lord of the Rings”, the rise of a huge new evil causes those squabbling kingdoms to finally unite in a righteous cause, and our Hobbits gravely shed their pacifism and march to the front.

There were other pointed contrasts: In both stories, a Hobbit joins the cause of a long-exiled king and helps restore him to his throne, but in the first, the exile lies, cheats and steals his way back to power, and our Hobbit comes to regret his role in restoring the kingdom, while in the follow-up, the exiled king retakes his throne only reluctantly, and proves to a paragon of honesty, wisdom and valor.

Not surprisingly, the two stories, with their contrasting morals, tend to attract different sets of fans, despite being two parts of one huge epic. Fans of the first find the second to be too long and dark, fans of the second find the first to be too light and frivolous.

Director Peter Jackson has never hidden the fact that he is squarely within the latter camp. While making his original screen epic, he happily skipped over the first book, and frequently spoke dismissively of it. When he had run out of later books, and the fans demanded more, he tried for years to find someone else to direct The Hobbit so that he could retreat to a producer role, but that didn’t work out.

In the end, Jackson decided that, if he had to adapt that damned book, he would do it the way it should have been done: He would turn it into another long, dark slog with pure good on one side and pure evil on the other. In other words, the opposite of what it was intended to be.

(This is the exact same thing that happened with Man of Steel: Christopher Nolan ran out of Batman movies, so he reluctantly came back around to DC’s original superhero on the condition that he could inject the bleakness and misanthropy of the latter into the former, even though that would totally betray the source material. In this case, however, he did manage to hand off the directing duties and restrict himself to producing.)
The first thing Jackson did was inject the Hitler character, Sauron, back into the original story. In addition to all of the scenes from the original, he’s added a lot of new scenes in which the Hobbit and dwarves fight a running battle against Saruon’s army of orcs, who were nowhere to be seen in the book.

Of course, as anyone who’s ever read the internet knows, the one sure-fire argument against non-violence (or de-escalation of any kind) is always: “Oh yeah? Well what about Hitler??” Hitler is the best thing that ever happened to violence fans, the trump card they always have up their sleeves to win every hand.

So what happens when you inject Sauron into The Hobbit, but still have the same people doing the same stuff? The whole thing now seems disturbingly frivolous, which is exactly Jackson’s point. “Why are you people having adventures and singing?? Don’t you know that the worst evil ever is rising??” This version of The Hobbit is an argument against the existence of “The Hobbit”.

But what really kills the story is Jackson’s determination to transform bad exile-king Thorin into a carbon copy of good exile-king Aragorn. Thorin’s quest to claim that mountain of gold has been transformed from a greedy folly into a righteous restoration, and all of the other squabbling kings who stand in his way have become monstrous villains. In this version, our Hobbit forms a deep bond with this noble dwarf-king as they share the burden of his crusade against evil.

In theory, this might have worked, but there’s just one problem: none of the events of the novel make sense in this context. In the book, the dwarves are assholes, who keep attempting to send Bilbo to his death while they keep themselves safe, and he only puts up with it because he’s being paid for his time.

In the movie, they’re treated like a band of brothers, but they still send Bilbo off alone to fight the humongous trolls and, later, the dragon! They do all this after they already fought valiantly side-by-side against Jackson’s orcs! It’s utterly bizarre. Here is how Tolkien, as omniscient narrator, describes the moment when the dwarves send Bilbo in alone to face the dragon:
  • “There it is. Dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.”
This doesn’t fit Jackson’s characters at all ...and yet he presents the scene as written.

Jackson could have solved these problems easily. If he was going to take away original motivation (greed and cowardice on the part of the dwarves, salary and a resulting desire to be a good burglar on the part of Bilbo) then he would have to rewrite those scenes only slightly…

Instead of having the dwarves send their good friend off to fight those trolls alone, Bilbo could have simply run into those Trolls accidentally. As for the dragon, by that point in the book, the dwarves know Bilbo has the ring so that’s an easy fix: send him alone because he’s the only one who can do it invisibly. How hard is that? Just fix it!

But here we run into something I call the Wikipedia problem. I’m a huge Wikipedia fan, but I’ll be the first to admit it has a big flaw. None of the writers want their stuff to be edited, and they get an instant notification every time somebody tries, so second-guessers have settled on a different method, resulting in many sentences like this one (which I made up): “In 1921 he became the first man to reach the summit except for this other man who had reached the summit the previous year except he wasn’t the first one either because someone else had done it the year before that.” Nobody tries to delete each other’s facts anymore, they just tack something on afterwards that contradicts it. That way, the original writer never gets an email notification that they’ve been edited, and they never start an edit war.

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit plays out like an extremely-contested Wikipedia page. He feels that he has no right to rewrite Tolkien’s scenes, so he just intercuts them with scenes that totally contradict them in terms of motivation, tone and theme. The result is an incoherent, unpleasant mess.

I do have some morbid interest in seeing how he handles the third movie. Will he finally switch over to the book’s point of view and portray Thorin as foolish for hording the gold and starting the war? I doubt it. After all, the orcs have now been introduced into the equation, so I suspect that the war will be seen as righteous from start to finish, which will be the ultimate slap in the face to Tolkien and his fans.

ONE YEAR LATER UPDATE: As you might have guessed from reading the above, I was pleasantly surprised by the third movie, which did mostly revert to the book’s morality, finally portraying Thorin as a greedy dick, and presenting Bilbo’s betrayal of him as totally justified. This doesn’t fix most of the problems in the previous two movies, and the third movie is still way too bloated and tonally inconsistent, but it’s definitely the best of the three and I’m glad to be proven wrong about Thorin.


Colleen said...

I'm still digesting your post, but I did want to point out that the Dwarves never found out about Bilbo's ring. That reveal doesn't really happen until LOTR. These Dwarves only knew that he was good at sneaking (though it was mostly because of the ring).

Matt Bird said...

Au contraire, my friend:


This is right after they defeat the spiders:

"There they lay for some time, puffing and panting. But very soon they began to ask questions. They had to have the whole vanishing business carefully explained, and the finding of the ring interested them so much that for a while they forgot their own troubles. Balin in particular insisted on having the Gollum story, riddles and all, told all over again, with the ring in its proper place. But after a time the light began to fail, and then other questions were asked. Where were they, and where was their path, and where was there any food, and what were they going to do next? These questions they asked over and over again, and it was from little Bilbo that they seemed to expect to get the answers. From which you can see that they had changed their opinion of Mr. Baggins very much, and had begun to have a great respect for him (as Gandalf had said they would). Indeed they really expected him to think of some wonderful plan for helping them, and were not merely grumbling. They knew only too well that they would soon all have been dead, if it had not been for the hobbit; and they thanked him many times. Some of them even got up and bowed right to the ground before him, though they fell over with the effort, and could not get on their legs again for some time. Knowing the truth about the vanishing did not lessen their opinion of Bilbo at all; for they saw that he had some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring—and all three are very useful possessions. In fact they praised him so much that Bilbo began to feel there really was something of a bold adventurer about himself after all, though he would have felt a lot bolder still, if there had been anything to eat."

Spence said...

Great post Matt. You really helped me understand why I disliked the way Jackson was portraying the dwarfs.

Your interpretation of the Hobbit as an anti-war novel is a bit problematic, however. Tolkein explained, in the forward to the LOTR, his dislike of allegory, and how it was not his intention to write an allegory, and how the bulk of his stories were conceived and completed before the second world war:


"As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit.The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels."

He goes on to explain the various problems with seeing the LOTR as an allegory for WWII, and then says he's disliked allegory for quite some time:


"But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous. It is also false, though naturally attractive, when the lives of an author and critic have overlapped, to suppose that the movements of thought or the events of times common to both were necessarily the most powerful influences. One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years."

If war was his direct inspiration for these works, you would have expected him to write something like a combination of your description of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Long, foreboding, and with no clear cut heroes.

Sorry for the long comment.

James Kennedy said...

I'm with the other commenters on this one, Matt. When you write stuff like "World War II came and went, and Tolkien, along with many of his antiwar contemporaries, began to see things very differently," or confidently assert that JJ Abrams et al have contempt for their source material, it doesn't jibe with what I already know about Tolkien and Abrams. It seems that you're writing just-so stories about the personalities and opinions of these creators in order to fit your own notions of the genesis of these stories and the distasteful drift of modern pop culture.

James Kennedy said...

I mean, you might claim to be able to unearth, through close analysis of the movies, some kind of unconscious contempt for the material, or covert motivation, on the part of the creators, but it seems to me you're too confidently assigning to Tolkien, Abrams, etc. *conscious* motivations that have little basis in anything that Tolkien, Abrams, etc. have actually said.

Parker said...

I found the first Hobbit movie to be silly and boring; I didn't like Thorin's new Aragorn-makeover or all of the orc battles. But I saw those changes as a flawed attempt to more closely link The Hobbit movies with the LOTR movies--as a way to build a new franchise on an existing one. I wouldn't have said that Jackson made these changes for any other reason (although, I admit I don't know Jackson's mind).

The Hobbit book doesn't really feel connected to the LOTR book, as you've pointed out. So if The Hobbit movies were going to build on the popularity of the LOTR movies, Jackson had to insert elements from LOTR into The Hobbit. Or anyway, he probably FELT like this was necessary. Or maybe his backers did?

But as for whether Jackson holds the Hobbit books in contempt, I couldn't say. I'm more inclined to think the changes came about as a way to make a coherent franchise. (However dumb those changes turned out to be.)

Matt Bird said...

Spense: I would actually say that everything that every writer writes is an allegory for something that has happened to them and/or their country (this is certainly true of everything I’ve written, although sometimes I didn’t realize it until years later). In some cases, the writer is doing this intentionally, in some cases unintentionally, but the end result is the same.

Nevertheless, whether it was intentional or unintentional, writers almost always hate it when readers or critics *identify* their works as allegory, and insist to their dying day that they meant no such thing. Even when it's intentional, the writer is nevertheless taking this real event and using it to say something about life in general, not about that event specifically, so the last thing he or she wants you to do is reduce their story to a one-to-one comparison to the event that may have inspired it.

I'm not at all surprised to read those comments by Tolkien. It is quite possible the allegorical readings of both The Hobbit and LotR are both entirely unintentional, but we as readers are still free to read them that way, and assume that both works were emblematic of their times (as all good writing is).

James: I would say that a reader *can't* ever know if the relations between a work and its times is *conscious* or not, even if the writer goes on record to claim one or the other. (After all, in some cases, the writer is unaware of the influence, and in other cases he or she has reason to dissemble about it, as I discussed above.)

As for Abrams, he has been vocal about his dislike for "Star Trek":


"I was, frankly, never really a fan. I never really got it. I never really cared much about it. Most of my friends who loved it were, without question, smarter than I was.

"I kept trying ... and I couldn't get it. I didn't care about it. It felt stilted. It is ironic because a lot of the tone and techniques and some of the writers as well were from 'The Twilight Zone'. When you watch it, you'd go, 'God, there is that same kind of melodramatic vibe.' A lot of the writers were the same writers.

"You'd think someone who loved 'The Twilight Zone' as much as I did would kind of find a kinship to that show and get on board. I couldn't do it."

As I say, I could have guessed from watching his movies that he felt this way, but I wasn't surprised to find this interview.

James Kennedy said...

Regarding Abrams, it's still a stretch to go from "I didn't get it; people smarter than me got into this, but I couldn't find my way in" to "I have contempt for this."

Adaddinsane said...

Hi Matt

Hm. I like a lot of what you say, and sometimes I don't. Which is fine.

But I think you must have seen a different film to me.

In the film I saw Thorin is willing to do anything to reclaim the throne, desperate in fact to the point where he will sacrifice pretty much anybody. He's not in the least Aragorn-like.

I'm not going to argue over the rights and wrongs of the changes (it's perfectly clear why they were made). Personally I am very happy with them and I know lots of people who were also happy; other people aren't (and I know some of them too). I merely shrug and move on.

El Gaith said...

Hola Matt Bird, first-time commenter here. I also strongly disliked The Hobbit: TDoS, and enjoyed this piece, but do have a few bones to pick.

First, as far as I understand it, Jackson and Co. originally envisioned The Hobbit as the first movie of a Middle-earth trilogy, with all three LotR books smushed into movies two and three, a plan scuttled by film rights complications. Not exactly evidence of contempt for Tolkien's earlier book there.

I also think James Kennedy is correct in making a much finer distinction between Abrams' disinterest in old-school Trek and contempt for it.

But back to The Hobbit - I like your Hitler comparison, but while Sauron wasn't a presence in Tolkien's original book, all that stuff with the Necromancer threat happening during the dwarves' quest was established by the Oxfordian. It therefore seems to me that Jackson is getting the spirit of the book wrong but the fictional history of Middle-earth right at the same time. I found this blog while taking a break from my first re-watch of An Unexpected Journey, and just minutes ago saw Gandalf argue that a living Smaug could really eff stuff up if Sauron were to come back to power and another war break out, which, having seen Minas Tirith almost destroyed, seems pretty hard to deny. Also, if Jackson were to view the dwarves as harshly as you say Tolkien did (I haven't read the book since childhood), this makes for a pretty striking problem, namely: if they're so bad, why the heck is Gandalf egging them on?

Again, I didn't like TDoS at all, and am not looking forward to the next film, but since, as you say, Jackson seems to be loathe to re-write Tolkien, I do think we'll see Bilbo become quite disillusioned with Thorin's lust for battle, if not the whole quest itself.