This post is part of the Battle of the Five Blogs which connects the thoughts of five Tolkien-obsessed bloggers on the release of the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Other bloggers in this series are Sorina Higgins, Brenton Dickieson, Crystal Hurd, and Matthew Rettino. Follow the links to check out their reviews, recaps and rants. Being, I’m sure, the delinquent of this particular group, I won’t have a chance to actually see the film until this weekend. I have therefore not read any in-depth reviews, although there are vague impressions that I can’t help pick up on. Instead of posting a review, I’m just going to ramble for a bit about my relationship with Jackson’s Middle-earth movies and posit a few predictions.
There are some simple maxims which characterize my approach to film adaptations:
- No filmmaker and erase, undo, detract from, or otherwise alter an original work. If the experience of a poor adaptation or bad movie “ruins” a book for you, then I’d venture to say the problem lies with your thinking. On the contrary, a poor adaptation can often be positive PR for an original book. How often have each of us said, “Don’t bother with the movie: the book is much better”?
- Movie adaptations are additive. They are simply more of something. In a way, one of the most basic storytelling instincts is for fanfiction: The question of what if? What if this happened instead? What if the story continued over here? How else could this story be told? What happens if we change this setting? Switch this character? Alter this motivation? The Arthurian legends have been retold hundreds of times. Some are better than others. What makes Arthur endure is that he is retold. There is no higher praise for a story than that people want to revisit it.
- Adaptation is a synonym for change. Movies and books are different beasts, and must be treated as such. We can and should and will argue endlessly about where best to make the changes. But that’s the challenge of writing, and the fun of criticism. What makes a movie good and a book good are often different things.
The fact of the matter is that I came to Tolkien through Jackson. Might I have found my own way to Middle-earth on my own? I don’t know. Maybe. Nobody is ever told what would have happened. Regardless of the could-have-beens, meanwhiles and neverweres, the fact is that I owe Jackson a great deal. Whatever I or anyone thinks of his films, they introduced me and many millions like me to a story which quite literally changed my life. My Tolkien obsession clarified my love of literature which led me to study English in college. My desire to walk in his footsteps took me to a semester in Oxford (I cried when I came home, sure that my life had peaked at twenty-two). The howling void of post-graduation and the terror of my twenties was made a little less overwhelming when I discovered the Tolkien Professor podcast and met a wonderful community of like-minded weirdos. I’m studying again with these friends at the Mythgard Institute and blogging here. I rely on these studies constantly in a desperate attempt to find something interesting to say about every episode of Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on a weekly basis. I am aware of, and embrace, my own bias here. I am tremendously grateful for Peter Jackson’s films. They have positively and powerfully impacted my life.
Coming to the first Rings film unspoiled by purism as I did, I unapologetically did and do love those first three films as films. The sprawling characters were nearly uniformly well-cast (I still have reservations about John Noble’s Denethor). The use of New Zealand’s beauty captures Tolkien’s love of landscape. The advances in computer technology revolutionized the industry, especially in motion-capture performance, but Jackson made tasteful use of practical elements with his gorgeous miniatures, retaining the realism and weight of a non-genre film. Say what you will (and I’m happy to debate individual examples in the comments), but I think almost every story change was made for defensible reasons. (This is not to say that every change worked, or that better choices couldn’t have been made, but merely that things were not changed for arbitrary or indefensible reasons. Seriously, bring it). And, at the end of the day, anything I don’t like doesn’t matter, because I have the books. Creation is harder than destruction, and Jackson and company worked very hard to create something magnificent and largely achieved it.
So now, it’s ten years later and I’m ten years older, wiser, and more cynical. How do the Hobbit films compare? The evolution of Jackson’s approach to Tolkien on screen is a fascinating one. In some ways, it seems as though he’s become a more studious Tolkien fan and a less careful filmmaker. It’s that same old fanfic impulse again, both blessing and curse: What if? What if we could see the White Council’s assault on Dol Guldur? What if our knowledge of how the ring psychologically affects Bilbo could be brought forward into The Hobbit proper? What if Legolas was torn between the ideologies of his isolationist father and the radical, pro-Dwarf counter-culture, paving the way for his later friendship with Gimli? Some of these ideas bear fruit, others fall flat. But these are ways of engaging with the story, of exploring its implications and telling it again. I like some of these lines of thought and not others, but I certainly don’t begrudge Jackson for thinking about the story he’s telling and not coming to all of the same conclusions that I would. There are flashes of real insight throughout his Hobbit films. In particular, almost everything Martin Freeman does feels like a true and honest portrayal of Bilbo. His performance is stunning, and nearly single-handedly justifies the films’ existence. As I’ve said before, I feel like I know, understand, and love Bilbo better for having seen him at play.
On the other hand, there is the admitted problem of Jackson’s lack of self-reflection. I had a naive hope, when the three-movie plan was announced, that this decision would result in three tight and controlled films. Unfortunately, Jackson’s love of asking “what if” extends to his action and special effects sequences. One cannot imagine the rabbit-sled or barrel chase sequences happening in The Fellowship of the Ring, and this is the mark of a true change in Jackson’s film-making. The biggest loss, I think, was the decision to scrap the practical miniatures for CGI. The world of Middle-earth in the Hobbit films lacks the earthiness of the original trilogy. It’s a shame that the Hobbit films aren’t better movies than they are. But that doesn’t mean that we’d be better off without them.
As always, we’re left with Tolkien’s books. Loving, hating, and fighting about Jackson’s movies will always lead us back to Tolkien’s books. I look forward to visiting Middle-earth in the cinema #onelasttime, but as the reactionary hashtag has proven this is a marketing fallacy. There is no one last time – there’s every day on the page and in my imagination. Whether I love or hate the movie (or, most likely, both) I’ll understand my love of Tolkien better because of it.
Since you’ve all already probably seen it, I’ll set down my erroneous and stupid predictions for the record so you can all scoff behind my back [spoilers for non-book-readers]:
- Thorin, Fili, and Kili will all die. Maybe Tauriel, too. A few minor exceptions aside (Haldir) Jackson has been quite faithful about leaving the characters in the same place at the end of the story. Tolkien kills very few of his heroes, and Jackson won’t give up his only opportunity for a Game of Thrones-style slaughter. I don’t think any of the other main dwarves will die, though.
- Much as I’d love a tag of Gollum leaving the Misty Mountains, I don’t think we’ll get it.
- This is not a prediction but a wish: I hope we don’t get too much in the way of a culmination of the Tauriel/Kili romance. I much prefer his admiration of her to stay in the realm of hero worship, a la Gimli’s love for Galadriel. While I don’t object to the notion of dwarf/elf affection in theory, seeing it visually makes it slightly ridiculous and an easy target for mockery. This is a case of less is more.
- What the hell: Jackson kept the same final line for the LOTR movies. Why fix what ain’t broke? I predict a final scene with Bilbo, Gandalf, and Balin smoking.
In general, I predict more of the same for this final Hobbit installment: Overlong set-piece sequences punctuated with occasional moments of brilliance. If I have to sit through an extra half hour of gratuitous fighting to be granted even a few instances which make me think about Tolkien’s work in a new light, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.