The Hobbit: There and Back Again…the Long Way Round

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Warning: This post contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers. 

Did you hear me? Spoilers. Spoilers for a book that is more than 75 years old and a movie that’s only been out for a week.

Are you sure? Okay. You may proceed.

I went to see the last chapter in Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Middle Earth yesterday, steeling my bladder and preparing my objectivity for what would surely be a trying test for each. As most of you can guess, I have been a rabid Tolkienite nearly from birth, and I look back at attending the midnight releases of each installment of the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy during my formative high school years with a fondness and sense of cinematic wonder that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

But I have been less enchanted by The Hobbit, as I have previously written. LoTR had its own set of disappointments – unfaithfulness not only to the plot but also to the character of a number of the participants – and The Hobbit has been somewhat more egregious on both those counts. While LoTR’s sins could be forgiven, for the most part, by people who haven’t obsessively memorized every line of the original text, The Hobbit includes so much bloat and so much bad, bad storytelling and so much heavy-handed nonsense amidst moments of utterly satisfying beauty and faithfulness to the book and triumph of spirit that I am having trouble organizing my many, many thoughts on the matter.

Let me start with the good things, I suppose. The casting of the key characters remains my favorite thing about the new trilogy, and some very good acting was the only thing carrying some very difficult parts of this last movie. I am enjoying Lee Pace as he establishes himself as a go-to fantasy guy. He’s got the bearing for it, and he pulls off moral ambiguity very well. It’s hard to look kingly while riding a battle moose. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Martin Freeman’s expressiveness, underlying determination, and ability to be comic and sarcastic without being silly never disappoint me. Richard Armitage continued to be fantastic as a brooding Thorin burdened by expectations and descending into madness, even if that madness was marred by stupid special effects and a really clumsily crafted climax that missed the opportunity to be truly effecting as he found his way again.

High point number two is the score. I have always admired Howard Shore’s music, and his ability to carry such recognizable themes through so many different films without being distractingly repetitive is truly a skill. I loved, loved, loved the two Dwarvish songs in the first movie, which were similar to the animated version from 1977 yet matched so well with the ongoing melodies he crafted through all six films. Well done, Howard.

But unfortunately, I think there are more bad things to discuss than good ones, and that makes me very sad. Let’s forget the fact that Smaug got shoved out of the way before the title credits to make room for the 1.5 hour CGI battle orgy. Let’s forget the fact that they got all the archery wrong. All of it. Kinda really wrong. Let’s forget that video game moment where Legolas used his Elven booster pack to defy all sense of believable physics. Let’s forget that Galadriel turned green and Sauron nearly gave everyone a seizure.

Despite the fact that much of the history was really just kind of rammed in there with all the tact and finesse of a cave troll, I was really on board with the idea of expanding the story to explain the rise of Sauron and all of that. Since it is unlikely that the studios will approve the 5,491 movies it would take for Jackson to slog through the Silmarillion, I can understand that he wanted to do as much as he could with the time that was given to him, as Gandalf once said.

And that would have been great. Except that it wasn’t, and he didn’t. The bloat won. It won especially badly in this last installment. When you’re sitting in a theater and you just want to fast forward through a whole scene because you can’t stop cringing and your neighbors start looking at you funny, you know something is amiss. That whole bit at Dol Guldur nearly made me scream. The only interesting thing about that entire affair was the comparatively subtle way that Elrond and Galadriel flashed their rings before they went all Captain Planet on the Necromancer and promptly ruined everything again.

And can we talk about Tauriel? Should we bother talking about Tauriel? After all, by the end of her strange story arc, Jackson seemed just as bored of her as I was. I like Evangeline Lilly, and I think she did the best she could with what they gave her. But she was given the short end of the stick, and that is deeply frustrating.

A “strong female character” she was not. She was barely a character at all. Throughout her role, instead of helping the Dwarves because it is the right thing to do or a good thing to do, she does it because she’s got a crush on Kili. I mean, I can see where she’s coming from. Aidan Turner was delightful, and probably well worth slaying a few orcs for. But that’s beside the point.

She had no independent compass, and barely any individual will. She let Legolas lead her around by the nose just so she could provide opportunities for his dialogue, and even the defiant actions she took against Thranduil were entirely ineffective until Legolas stepped in to back her up while she stood there looking shocked that she hadn’t thought her treason through. She needed Kili and Legolas to save her from Bolg, while she was tossed aside like a rag doll, and she wept helplessly over Kili’s body as she let a man tell her what she was feeling and how to deal with it. I assume she then meekly returned to her place under Thranduil’s command, but we don’t get see what happens after her love triangle falls apart on her. I say “love triangle,” but it was really more a vague blob shape of abortive weirdness with no substance to back it up.

If you’re going to put a token female into a male-driven story just to temper the testosterone, you should at least try to make her interesting. In fact, if you’re going to inject an additional four or five hours of filler into a children’s story in the first place, and if you have ten whole years to think about what you’re going to do if you have a chance to make The Hobbit, you damn well better come up with something a whole lot better than this.

Part of the reason that I’m so disappointed with the overall outcome is because when Jackson gets it right, he really gets it right. Thorin’s death scene was perfectly poignant. The overwhelming sense of fear and futility when cities are being destroyed and the people you love are in peril and you have to stand and fight even though you know you’re unlikely to survive it…that’s the heart of the fantasy genre, and I think that has shone through every single battle scene in all the films. The tensions between the Dwarves and the Elves, the differences in culture and style; the unstoppable rise of Men and the fading of the old ways of the world – those are things that Jackson captures well, and they are what makes his Middle Earth worth visiting even when there are so many reasons to shake my head and sigh.

I just wish he had really taken Thorin’s journey to heart and realized that when you overreach yourself and ignore your better senses, you put the things around you at risk of ruin. Jackson spent so much time gilding the lily that he acquired more than a little dragon sickness from it, and that’s unfortunate. Maybe instead of an extended version, we need someone to cut down all three movies into one cohesive work that is more in line with what Tolkien was trying to achieve. I’d certainly buy a copy.

So how do I feel now that it’s over? Relieved, in a way, that he can’t do anything else wrong. Sad that he won’t have a chance to do anything else right. It’s been a long journey, and he has certainly taken the longest possible way round. I’m glad it happened, but when it comes to The Hobbit, I think I’ll take a cue from Bilbo and stick with my armchair and my books.

Battle Moose: The real hero of the story.  Never forget.

Battle Moose: The real hero of the story. Never forget.

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The Desolation of Smaug: A Cautionary Hobbit’s Tale

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I trust that watching the newly released extended trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has already been part of your NaNoWriMo procrastination routine, right?  Go on, watch it.  I’ll wait.

Now.  Let me just say that I’m not planning to review the movie before it comes out (you can read my review of the first one here).  That would be silly.  I have no more information about the full shape of the film than you do (and probably less if you’re gone all fanboy about this on the forums), and I shall, as always, maintain hope that Jackson has done justice to the task entrusted to his Kiwi hands.  However, I have issues.  I have lots of issues that need airing, and that’s what I plan to do right now.

Radagast is back

This, it goes without saying, is a horrible thing.  If you don’t think it’s a horrible thing, then I can’t help you.  I simply can’t.  You can leave now.

Lots of random Elves are back

On the surface, this is not a horrible thing.  The history of the dwarves has always been intimately tied in with the Elves, and exploring it can in the film can help non-Tolkienites understand the reasons behind what goes down in Mirkwood, etc.  Do I have a problem with Legolas being there?  Not really.  If my memory serves, he wasn’t mentioned by name in The Hobbit, but it’s not stretching artistic license too far to give him a role – although how big of a role he gets remains to be seen.  But then there’s the girl.

Oh, yes.  The girl.  The girl is symptomatic of the disease that we all knew would plague this unnecessary trilogy from day one: story bloat.  It appears that Jackson has confused widening a story with deepening it, which is an amateur mistake he should be ashamed of.

There is more than enough backstory he could have drawn on to bring color and richness and drama to his tale without inserting a random elf chick, and that offends me both as a book-to-movie purist and a story teller.  It also offends me as a female, because it means that Jackson has once again fallen into trap number two…

The token woman is back

Jackson really likes his Elvish women.  From Arwen’s weird and drawn out quasi-death scene to Galadriel’s party crashing in An Unexpected Journey to Tauriel’s strange nearly-word-for-word repetition of what Merry said to Treebeard at Entmoot, the token female Elf is alive and well in Middle Earth.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, the Lays of Beleriand, and more of Tolkien’s works, women play a very strong and vital role in shaping events.  In The Hobbit?  Not so much.  Why?  It’s very simple.  The Hobbit is not a story about women.  It’s a story written by a father for a little boy about adventure and dwarves and dragon slaying, and women simply don’t enter into it.  It’s not misogynistic.  It’s not maliciously exclusive.  It’s just not a story where females fit into the narrative of events.

So why add them?  For me, and many others, I find it much more offensive that a filmmaker would add a token to pat on the head and wave around then it is to acknowledge that some things just don’t need our presence.  It irks me deeply on many levels to see that Jackson is continuing this disappointing pattern, even with ten years of comment and criticism under his belt.

Also back? Armitage, Freeman, McKellen, and their little dragon pal, too

There is nothing wrong with any of this.  I will happily watch Richard Armitage glower his way through anything, even if he is three feet tall.  I am not disappointed about seeing Aidan Turner again.  Sir Ian McKellan has always been flawless, and I remain pleased with Martin Freeman’s continuing cross-universe inability to control the behavior of Benedict Cumberbatch.  Carry on.

What do you think?  Are you in agreement?  Are there other things that bother you?  Is Jackson a cinematic god that can do no wrong?

Fantasy cover art: It figures…or does it?

Last week, the results of the Writer’s Digest 21st annual Self-Published Book Awards were announced.  I didn’t win.  It was a hundred bucks down the drain and a predictable bit of a blow to my pride, but that’s okay.  You win some, you lose more.  What was nice about the contest, however, was that every single entry got a judge’s commentary, and mine was actually very positive.  The judge had shortlisted The Last Death, which kind of made me feel better, and had good things to say about the plot and characters.

He or she didn’t have great things to say about my book cover, however.  Personally, I really like it.  But the judge thought it was “plain” and suggested something more exciting, like “healing wounds or a picture of a battle.”   While my first instinct was to say “ugh” and close the email, it got me to thinking.  Based on the scoring system, my “plain” cover was probably the deciding factor that led the judge to cross my name off the list.

And that got me thinking some more.  Book covers are basically advertisements, and the conventions for each genre are as clear as signposts on the highway.  The brooding hooded figure with a sword is going to lead you to a fantasy novel.  The impossibly muscular square-jawed hero who forgot his undies is going to lead a romance, and the hot woman in a popped-open button down holding a pistol is bound to be a detective story someone hopes will be described as “steamy”.

These are good things, to some degree.  You want your reader to be instantly attracted to your book, and giving them a clear signal about what’s inside can guide eyeballs to what you’ve got to offer.  But for self-publishers, these conventions can be a pretty big hurdle.  They’re expensive to get right, and the pros don’t always even manage it.  I can’t tell you how confusing it was for me as a child when the first version of The Hobbit I encountered was this familiar gem.

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Book covers are supposed to set the tone for your novel, but that Bilbo was not the same hobbit I read about when I turned to page one.  It was one artist’s interpretation, but it wasn’t mine, and I think it influenced me pretty deeply, especially when I started collecting beautiful, minimal, elegant editions like these.

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And that’s why I really dislike figurative artwork on the covers of my books, and why I don’t think “plain” is necessarily a bad thing.  I would rather have a blank white cover than a badly drawn scene or a cobbled-together photograph.  Especially as a self-publisher, because badly drawn scenes are still considered the norm for DIY authors.  I would rather have minimal design and let my reader imprint his or her own imagination on the text rather than set up expectations that are inaccurate or misleading.

I know it’s not a popular opinion, especially since the conventions I mentioned earlier are so deeply embedded in the current publishing climate.  But interesting fonts and carefully-themed colors can accomplish many of the same visual goals.  With hundreds of thousands of authors competing for the same attention spans and all trying the same things, couldn’t spare elegance jump out from the crowd?

Maybe it’s more of a hope than a reality, at least in the genre world.  Literary fiction often goes spare, but it also has very different expectations.   A book that’s well-written can gather buzz and sales no matter what it looks like, but I don’t have enough evidence to say for sure that figurative art is a must in indie fantasy.

What do you think?  Do you go minimalist, or do you prefer to have characters and scenes on your covers?

The Hobbit: An Unedited Journey

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This post contains spoilers.  Please be warned and click away accordingly.

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Dear Mr. Jackson,

Peter, you’re breaking my heart.  You know how much The Hobbit means to me.  You know how much it means to hundreds of thousands of early readers who fell in love with fantasy because of Bilbo Baggins.  You know how much time and money you poured into this, and how much everyone hoped An Unexpected Journey would be the beginning of a new record-breaking run.

So I can only ask: why?

Why load up a perfectly cohesive, easily understood story with a bunch of background stuff that Tolkien left out for a reason?  Why bog down your actors with tedious, amateur, useless, repetitive dialog? Why is Ned from Pushing Daisies making a cameo as King Thranduril? Why did you turn Radagast into Middle Earth’s Jar Jar Binks?  Sled rabbits?  Animated hedgehogs?  Seriously?

I can see what you were going for.  You’re ambitious, and I like that.  I love Middle Earth like a second home, and I’d be overjoyed to see its rich and complex history come to life.  I’d even love to see you do it.  But it doesn’t belong here, and I wish someone had told you that.

When you stick to the story, you do it brilliantly.  When you use dialogue straight from the page, my heart sings with how perfectly rendered it is.  The first twenty-five minutes were lovely, striking just the right tone and using all of the best bits of the original text.  Martin Freeman?  Perfection.  Richard Armitage?  Fantastic.  The guy who plays Kili?  Tell him to audition for the film adaptation of The Last Death.

But I beg you to take a good look at your script before you release the next two (entirely unnecessary) films.  Cut out the crap.  Half of this movie felt like the first draft of a NaNoWriMo novel, heavy on the filler and wandering where it didn’t need to go.  I’d be happy to give you some tips on editing, because that’s all I could think about, and it distracted from all of the wonderful things in the film.

Also, the 3D was kind of awful for me.  There were parts that used it to great effect, but the colors were dark and dreary through the glasses, and half of the motion was sickeningly blurry and impossible to focus on.  But that could have just been my movie theater, which is not known for being particularly great (they started the movie five minutes early, then stopped it, brought up the lights, and waited until 5:00 to roll film again from the beginning).

Is it worth seeing?  Well, yes, of course.  As I said, the good parts were very, very good.  The bad parts are tolerable, and probably better than most things you’ll see in the theater over the holiday season.  But it doesn’t leave me with very much hope for the second two movies, even though I desperately wish to be wrong.  Please prove me wrong, Peter.  Please.

Lots of love,

Jen