I started my Tolkien course last Thursday, and have been hip-deep in cobbling together my lectures for upcoming classes. I’m not sure how much lecture material will surface on this blog; some, certainly, but mostly what I’m thinking here is personal recollections of reading LotR and subjective reactions to my current re-reading. That being said, I’m doing a lecture this week on The Hobbit as preface to getting into LotR proper; and while I’ll spare you, gentle reader, my pedantry on how The Hobbit fits into the Tolkien mythos, I have been pecking away at a review of The Desolation of Smaug since I went to see it a few weeks ago. It is not, perhaps, how I wanted to kick off my Return to Middle-Earth posts, but it’s the one that I have done.
It possibly seems, if not counter-intuitive, then possibly a little pedantic to criticize fantasy for willfully ignoring the laws of physics. Come on, you might say: we’re talking about an alternative reality in which magic, dragons, goblins, wizards, immortal elves, and giant talking spiders exist. Surely in such a context, anything goes?
Well, no. Not at all, really … and when Thorin Oakenshield rides a wheelbarrow down a river of molten metal in the bowels of the Lonely Mountain, the fact that he was doing so to escape a fire-breathing dragon with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t prevent my hackles from going up. You see, Thorin was more or less prone in the wheelbarrow, lying on his belly, and did not seem to suffer at all from the raging heat a few inches on the other side of the vessel. Even granting the possibility that Middle-Earth’s dwarves have developed building materials with the heat-protection qualities of uber-asbestos, such close proximity to molten metal would certainly roast one’s lungs and eyeballs and raise a few blisters.
I was similarly irked by Peter Jackson’s revision of the barrel-riding sequence, in which the dwarves and Bilbo escape from the wood-elves in empty wine barrels. In the novel, they are sealed inside. In the film, they ride them as if they were little boats, plunging over waterfalls and through surging rapids, and not only do none of them get swamped or flipped or simply sunk, but apparently the barrels are stable enough for our old friend Legolas to leap into the middle of the stream and balance with each of his feet on the head of a dwarf while he shoots arrows at pursuing orcs … and then jump straight up, turn around in mid-air, and land again on the annoyed dwarves so he can shoot in the other direction.
Granted, we’re familiar with Legolas’ acrobatics in The Lord of the Rings, whether he’s riding a shield down a set of stairs or sliding down a massive elephant’s trunk (again, shooting arrows all the while). But this film takes even his nimbleness to absurd levels.
As I watched The Desolation of Smaug, I had the same thought I had with An Unexpected Journey: that Peter Jackson really needs someone on his team to say “Um, perhaps that’s a little much?” Actually, I suspect he does have people like that … perhaps he just has to listen to them. It’s sort of like when Kenneth Branagh first started making films: Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were both extremely well done, and while they approached the line between restraint and excess, they both held back … just barely, perhaps, but they held back. My theory is that Emma Thompson was his voice of reason, because after they split, he did not just cross that line but pole-vaulted it.
Peter Jackson needs an Emma Thompson.
Like Branagh, Jackson seems always to want to err on the side of excess, and he has an unfortunate tendency toward slapstick (poor Gimli). For whatever reason, he showed considerable restraint in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, I had no way of knowing he had showed restraint until I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a film in which all of his unfortunate tendencies were on display: the film was dilatory to the point of being tedious, frequently glib and silly, and … the slapstick. Oh, the slapstick. Whether it was the unfortunately expanded role of Radagast the Brown or the comic turn of the Great Goblin (voiced by Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna), there weren’t very many moments where Jackson resisted the temptation for physical humour.
Now, one protest that could be made here is that this is merely in keeping with the source material: The Hobbit is an eminently silly novel, and indeed slapstick plays a significant role in some of what might otherwise be terrifying scenes. The trolls’ working-class yob dialogue, for example, or the goblins’ hysterical reaction to Gandalf and Thorin’s swords, which ultimately reminds me of nothing other than a manic Benny Hill skit. Ditto for the encounter with the giant spiders, whose natural menace is mitigated by the fact that, like the trolls, they talk like bumbling and hapless Cockney comic villains. With this in mind, it raises the question: in making these films deliberately sillier, isn’t Peter Jackson simply being more faithful to the novel?
Well, yes and no … one of the shrewd things about the way in which J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series is the way in which the novels mature along with Harry (and, as Rowling has said, her ideal reader, who starts the series at age eleven). But in so doing she introduces comic elements in The Philosopher’s Stone—such as the wizarding world’s complete bafflement with Muggle science, technology, and fashion—that are entirely at home in a children’s novel but which become increasingly incongruous as the novels grown more expansive, more complex, and more serious. In The Philosopher’s Stone we laugh at wizards’ confusion about wearing polka dots with stripes, but by The Half-Blood Prince, it strains credulity that Arthur Weasley’s dearest wish is to learn how airplanes stay aloft (if he really is as obsessed with Muggle technology as the books make him out to be, it would not be a difficult thing to figure out—Ask Hermione! is what I always yell).
There is a similar shift in voice between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The former is a children’s novel through and through; the latter, entirely not. How does Tolkien manage this shift? Well, he cheats: as the old saying goes, The Lord of the Rings puts aside childish things (Tom Bombadil notwithstanding). The Cockney trolls of The Hobbit lose their comic accents, and indeed their voices entire, becoming little more than massive, fearsome beasts; the Benny Hill-esque goblins become terrifying orcs; and the hapless spiders of Mirkwood become Shelob, who remains one of the most terrifying creations I have encountered in fantasy fiction. The first five chapters are transitional, still evincing the general tone and voice of The Hobbit, but once they get to Bree and encounter Strider, the hobbits leave The Hobbit behind for good.
I had wondered how the Hobbit films were going to negotiate this shift in tone; two films in, the answer seems to be: unevenly. Though as I’ve hinted, this unevenness can be at least partially blamed on Jackson’s slapstick tendencies. There is nevertheless the occasional irruption of The Hobbit’s more childish nature—less on display in Smaug, but present nonetheless.
Am I perhaps being unfair? The Hobbit, you might protest, is in fact a children’s novel, and we should not be surprised when its original spirit shows though. Which, I suppose, poses the question: could a film of The Hobbit have in fact been made that was faithful to the tone and spirit of the novel? I’ve mulled this question over, and my answer has to be no—not now, not after Peter Jackson essentially defined Tolkien cinematically. The problem with these Hobbit films is precisely that they must needs provide continuity with The Lord of the Rings—which is to say, we cannot but watch The Hobbit retroactively, with all of the grand sweep of Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth in our minds. Tolkien’s novel, despite all of the distance traveled by Bilbo, provides a very narrow perspective on Middle-Earth: not just in terms of geography, but also history. The Lord of the Rings expands outwards in space and backwards in time almost exponentially. Tolkien did a lot to square up his epic with the substance of his children’s book, and vice versa: he produced a revised edition of The Hobbit in 1947 while he was midway through LotR. He also included material in his appendices to The Lord of the Rings and in Unfinished Tales that supplemented the story of The Hobbit in such a way as to fold it into the broader sweep of Middle-Earth’s history.
It was this supplementary narrative that initially made me cautiously optimistic about Jackson’s overt intention to transform the 350 page Hobbit into a cinematic epic on par with the 1000+ page Lord of the Rings—cautious optimism admittedly fueled by my Tolkien-geek desire to actually see the battle between the White Council and the Necromancer, and all the arguments leading up to it. And indeed, one of the scenes I enjoyed in Smaug was Gandalf’s “chance” meeting with Thorin in Bree, wherein he first proposes the plan to reclaim Erebor from the dragon.
But even so: there simply isn’t enough supplemental material in Tolkien’s paratexts to turn The Hobbit into three three-hour epics, and both films so far have felt excruciatingly long. Again, Jackson errs on the side of excess: the final forty-five minutes of Smaug is like every single overly-long chase scene in every movie you’ve ever seen stitched together and played end to end. Or perhaps I’m exaggerating … but honestly, that is what it felt like.
What is perhaps most frustrating is that these films could have been so good, had Jackson exhibited something resembling restraint. There are gem-like moments, many of them simply sublime shots of the New Zealand-cum-Middle Earth landscape. But the casting is also (mostly) lovely: Martin Freeman was an inspired choice for Bilbo, and he labours heroically; I will watch Ian McKellen in literally anything; and if the best part of the first film was the riddle in the dark sequence between Gollum and Bilbo, Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug is very nearly as good. Fans of Sherlock like myself will love the Cumberbatch/Freeman verbal jousting, and it was also a fantastic example of when CGI can work wonders: the entire film is practically worth the price of admission to see Smaug’s lip curl in a sneer.