Monday, December 16, 2013

Desolation of Smaug I

I went into this second installation of Peter Jackson's re-creation of The Hobbit with boundless optimism.  I am a supporter of Jackson's efforts to flesh out this book with non-cannonical, but yet non-contradictory material.  I think there is great potential there, in the hands of a skilled storyteller, and I think Peter Jackson has earned the right to make the attempt.  In the end however, I left the theater with a strange mixture of emotions.  I was both satisfied at having seen a good movie, and at the same time brimming with indignation at some of the missteps.

My summary is that Jackson made a good movie set in Tolkien's world of Middle Earth, but he didn't make the definitive translation of the Hobbit to the big screen that I was hoping to see.  His team demonstrated an understanding of the workings of Middle Earth, but fell short of conveying the essence of the great themes in the Hobbit, which ultimately left me wanting something else.

I was happy to see Beorn and have us cover a bit of new ground here.  And the idea of a band of orcs tailing them throughout their journey was novel, but not unwelcome.  It seemed a bit unnecessary, though; as if the dangers of the spiders of Mirkwood, or the dungeons of Tharanduil, or the exposed sides of Mount Doom weren't dangerous enough.  I liked the appearance of the female Silvan elf, Tauriel and did not immediately reach for my pitchfork at the thought of an additional character added to Tolkien's original cast.

This was very definitely an action movie.  Gone are Bilbo's introspective moments, and yet I loved the elves fast-paced fight scenes.  This is the stuff that we hinted at with Legolas in the Lord of the Rings, where we constantly marveled at how effective the elf was despite being out of his element.  In this film, he was very in the heart of his element.  This is the kind of realization that Peter Jackson brings to the original source work.

Where I felt the missteps, however, was in the characterizations of Bilbo and Thorin.  In the first film, Bilbo is a bit of a burden to the dwarven company, with his complaining at the lack of comforts, and hiding in the background.  In this second movie, though, Bilbo is supposed to find his feet, and prove what a resourceful and courageous companion he really was.  This is the section of the book where he singlehandedly saves the dwarves from the spiders, frees them from perpetual internment in the elven dungeons and shows more courage than any of them by facing the dragon alone.  This is where he grows in the estimation of the dwarves and they look on him with respect.


In the film, however, the shine of each of these achievements was dulled by something else.  Bilbo began attacking the spiders, but it really was the coming of the elves that drove them away.  Yes, Bilbo filched the keys from the jailer, but his part of events was largely sidelined by Tauriel's flirtation with Kili, and made nearly meaningless next to the dazzling displays of Legolas against the orcs, for which the barrel riding was a mere backdrop - a way to emphasize the impotence of the dwarves in the face of Legolas' warrior prowess.

One of the main themes of The Hobbit was the way that Bilbo developed this relationship of mutual respect with the dwarves.  This relationship is critical because it creates such a contrast later when the friendship is severed.  In the film version, their friendship is mostly marginalized.  Bilbo becomes nearly invisible throughout the strange visit to Laketown and by the time they reach the Lonely Mountain I can't tell if they regard him with admiration or bafflement when he solves the riddle of the keyhole.

To be honest, the part that bothered me most was Laketown.  What was the audience supposed to be feeling here?  Are we rooting for the dwarves, or Bard, or the Master of the town?  We really have no point of identification, because Bilbo is no where to be found.  Yes we see the heavy hand of foreshadowing the eventual rift between Bard and Thorin, but the truth is that the audience knows that Bard is right in everything that he says.  Bard has been helping them for the entire time they are in Laketown, then suddenly decides that their quest will bring ruin on everyone.  This juxtaposition of our allegiances is the single most difficult transition that this story has to make, and in the end the writers don't handle it well.

Into this mix, we toss the orcs - who have somehow gotten hold of a Morgal blade (?!) (because these now litter the countryside like daisies) and poisoned Kili and then Tauriel rides in to heal him prompting some of the most ham-handed lines in the series so far.  It's almost as if a second movie had overtaken the first and was going to play through.  For a bit, the two movies clashed with each other, as if half the cast were playing As You Like It, while the other half was reading lines from Henry V.

The worst part of this was, when the orcs ride off into the night with Legolas in chase, I wanted to follow them and leave the troublesome dwarves to their own devices. The adventure tale of purging evil and understanding love and healing your fallen comrades was, at that moment, a much cleaner tale than the befuddled business with Bard and Thorin.

It's not that I object to any of the alternative interpretations that Jackson imposes on the story, it is simply that none of them is a particular improvement on the originals. 

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