As I mentioned before, I think, I’ve been working from wake to sleep on Kickstarter stuff, and I needed a break. Luckily, there was a movie marathon of all three Hobbit movies yesterday, so I slipped away for an afternoon and evening to see them all in one go.
I’d deliberately decided to skip the first two movies when they were released, figuring I’d have an opportunity to see them all at once. I’m sorta glad I was right, but only sorta.
(Spoilers for the first two films)
Here’s the truth: the movies don’t work. It’s obvious they’re meant to be seen together, and while that unity helped, I can’t imagine sitting down for part one, knowing part two was a year away and part three a year after that, and being content with that endless dinner scene. I could bear it because I knew I was seeing a seven(ish)-hour movie, but wow, those scenes were slack. Really slack. And they weren’t alone.
And the dialog… Okay, the Lord of the Rings movies had plenty of shitty dialog in it, but it also had amazing dialog, too. These two examples are pasted right out of imdb:
Theoden: Simbelmyne. Ever has it grown on the tombs of my forebears. Now it shall cover the grave of my son. Alas, that these evil days should be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see that last days of my house.
Elrond: If Aragorn survives this war, you will still be parted. If Sauron is defeated and Aragorn made king and all that you hope for comes true you will still have to taste the bitterness of mortality. Whether by the sword or the slow decay of time, Aragorn will die. And there will be no comfort for you, no comfort to ease the pain of his passing. He will come to death an image of the splendor of the kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter, you will linger on in darkness and in doubt as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Here you will dwell bound to your grief under the fading trees until all the world is changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent.
Quibble with that if you want, but even if you don’t like that sort of dialog, it’s head and shoulders above “Do not think I won’t kill you, dwarf!” or “I am fire! I am… DEATH!” or
Thranduil: [to Thorin] Where does your journey end? A quest to reclaim a homeland, and slay a dragon!… I suspect something more prosaic. Attempted burglary, or something of that kind. You seek that which would bestow upon you the right to rule: the Arkenstone!
Which… ugh. Lee Pace is great in the role of Thranduil, giving him a complexity that the other characters desperately needed. And that’s the odd thing about this adaptation: So much stuff has been added to the story, and very little of it serves to make the characters interesting. (Sidenote to the woman in the row in front of me: I actually liked the love story Jackson et al added to the films).
And it’s all this added bullshit that people have hated about the films, and it’s easy to see why. The Hobbit, as a book, is a children’s story set in the same world as LOTR. It’s a prequel, too, but the tone and the language are very different.
With these movies, Jackson is trying to create a prequel trilogy that matches the tone and style of the first movies. If you were hoping for a children’s movie version of a children’s book, you’re not getting it.
So, the company of dwarves can’t be hapless regular folk who cower before every enemy, they have to be high-level PCs who plow through orc mooks. And, obviously, we need an extended scene where Thorin et al make a serious effort to defeat the dragon with his golden not-jaeger. (I swear I thought that thing was going to open its eyes, and I would have been really disappointed. I mean, even more disappointed than I already was.)
Not that this fits with the dragon’s decision to *run away* from those dwarves and burn Laketown, but the new stuff has to be shoe-horned in, right?
And the dwarves can’t just be sealed in barrels and floated away, complaining about being cramped and bruised. Instead, there has to be a running battle with orcs on the shore, with weapons flawlessly passed between them like the dishes in Bilbo’s kitchen. In other words, they have to be exceptional.
And there’s all those scenes at Dol Guldur. From overhearing other audience members, I guess they came from unfinished stories. They would have been enjoyable enough, if only they hadn’t been filled with all these Tolkien characters. Those were the parts (along with the forges and molten gold) that felt like fan fiction: characters we recognize but creative choices we don’t, as though someone wanted to play with Tolkien’s stuff and fill in all the blank spaces.
The thing is, whether or not you like Tolkien, his work was heavily informed by epic grandeur. He would never have created a conflict scene that played like a Rube Goldberg machine that so many modern movies expect us to watch. They’re like amusement park rides or video game levels: the toppling stone stairs of FELLOWSHIP have been transformed into ledges on the body of a giant in the midst of a fight. Jump here, grab this, cut this rope, swing here, now push this fucking wheelbarrow into the stream of molten gold and ride it to the waterfall, then jump onto the come on, people. Come on.
There’s an undeniably visceral excitement that comes from this shit. The music, the camera swooping past a dizzying height… one a very basic level the body responds to this stuff. But when it’s over, the feelings don’t stick with you. It’s like riding a roller coaster without even the feel of the wind on your face. It certainly doesn’t match the scenes where the people in Helm’s Deep prepare for a fight no one thinks they can win. It’s not enough for characters to bash a shitload of mo-capped cgi monsters. It has to mean something more.
Worse, the parts of the children’s book that remain unchanged (like the amazing survival rate of the dwarves) just didn’t mesh with the new tone and design. Why is it so hard to write decent dialog for a dragon? And why did they add so many extra scenes but cut a bunch of Bilbo’s riddle contest with Gollum?
The first movie was not good. The second was even worse. The last one was the best of the bunch, and I’m reasonably glad I stuck with it. Thorin’s dragon sickness was portrayed very well, and since there are a few characters who don’t survive the final war, the violence finally carries a sense of risk to it.
Plus, there’s much less Rube Goldberg bullshit.
Here’s a shocker: adding genuine mistrust within Thorin’s circle, terror and tragedy for the people of Laketown, and Thranduil’s grief-driven reluctance to lose his own people in war, actually turned the third movie into a story I cared about.
There were definitely low spots and a prequel-ish urge to fill in back story, but it mostly worked. Of course, maybe it just looks good because it came on the heels of Desolation of Smaug.
Let me just say one thing, though: On my birthday, I took a day to watch all three extended editions of LOTR, and for weeks afterward I had the urge to watch them again. For all their flaws, they’re terrific movies. I had no urge to watch the Hobbit movies again. At all.