Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

22 December 2014

The Third and Final Installment of The Hobbit

For the last two years, my friend Caleb and I have had conversations about Peter Jackson's film series The Hobbit and I have posted them. You can read our conversations about An Unexpected Journey and The Despolation of Smaug here. This will be the final installment.

Caleb and I know a lot about Tolkien's universe (Caleb more than I), so some of this may be super nerdy. I have tried to link to the LotR wiki when we talk about things that might need explaining.
~ ~ ~

Caleb: I'm only going to this movie so we can finish the blog series. I'm not sure that I'm excited for the film for itself. We shelled out for the IMAX 3D so I am sure that will make a difference in the writing and acting.

Me: Hahaha. Your expectations aren't very high here.

Caleb: No. They are tempered by the first two. So maybe, just maybe, I'll be surprised.

~ ~ ~

Caleb: The Hobbit: The Riding of Exotic Animals into Battle (this would have been a better title of the movie).

Me: Oh my god you are absolutely right. The first thing my sister and I did when the movie was over was talk about which moment in the movie is the funniest. My candidate for most risible moment was when Thranduil's antlered beast somehow picks up six (or was it eight?) orcs on its giant rack and then Thranduil somehow beheads them all in a single stroke (while the beast manages to remain unharmed). I mean, the movie was laughable. And not because it had so little to do with the book that JRRT wrote, but because it was completely and totally unhinged.

Caleb: The biggest issue with this film is that there is so little canonical depiction of the events in this section of the story. This last portion of the Hobbit trilogy focuses on the Battle of Five Armies which the book glosses over by conveniently having Bilbo unconscious for the most of the battle. This is a clear indication that Tolkien didn’t feel the tactical details of the battle – which make up the entirety of this movie’s insubstantial plot – were actually important to the story.

Me: And yet the film actually takes this as its title and the battle is literally an hour long.
~ ~ ~

Caleb: As the film opens I was struck by how unmemorable the score is. That’s a shame since the original trilogy’s score is so memorable and emotionally evocative. This is particularly noticeable when leitmotifs from the original score are included in this film. They provide a strong emotional tone and resonance to the scenes in contrast to the forgettable humdrum of the rest of the film.

Me: It's mostly epic choirs isn't it? I haven't the foggiest idea what they're singing about, but they sound quite doom and gloom.

Caleb: Honestly I don’t remember a single part of the score, choirs or otherwise. The only parts that are at all memorable are the nods to the LoTR themes.

Me: The odd thing is that all of this seems so not epic. I mean, The Hobbit as a book just can't support all of this seriousness – this​ is made clear by Peter Jackson's total reliance on comic bits with that sleazy Ryan Gage character who is always stealing gold and falling asleep and making old women do his work. I mean, he is nothing more than a clown figure, designed specifically for us to laugh at. And yet, he is a real focus of the movie.

Caleb: The "assistant Master of Laketown" or whatever his character title is is so unnecessary to the plot, then made so important and yet left unresolved. This is elementary storytelling. I don’t care if you’re going to make him central to the movie, but at least finish his story if you are.
~ ~ ~
 Caleb: As I was hoping, we are treated to Bard’s children shouting “Da da da” at least 137 more times in this film. Not only does that never get old or annoying, the single syllable endearment creates such an unscripted bond between the characters. At no point did it make me want to rip my ears off. And whoever thought that Bard could use his child’s neck as a sight window has clearly never shot a bow. There’s a reason that archers wear arm guards. The child’s throat is right where the nocking point will strike. This is all fine as it just sets up Bard The Negligent Parent for his super-objective in the film: Trying to find his kids in the middle of chaos. He cannot seem to hold on to them for more than a single scene.

Me: ​I found all of this just so pointless. The child's-neck-as-sight-window really set the scene for how the movie was going to continue, honestly. And I noticed this too, but I was already angry because I knew the dragon was about to die twenty minutes into the film. As for Bard running around trying to find his kids, what is all of that about? I mean, to hear him talk it's just all about the children, but then, like, keep them next to you and stop drinking elvish mead in Thranduil's tent.​

Father of the Year
Caleb: It’s bad enough that he loses the kids once in the chaos, but the second, third and maybe fourth time as an audience member I just don’t care if he finds them. Maybe if you had been less negligent, your wife would still be alive. I do like the shots of the icy water though. I had never given it any thought, but it’s actually the water that ​kills the dragon. He’s afraid of the water “knowing it is mightier than he, it would quench him before he could pass through.”

Me: Oh I hadn't thought of that. Of course! I was really sad about the dragon. The first twenty minutes of the film were its high point to my mind. The dragon is beautifully animated, and when he stares into the camera, it's just great stuff.​ Everything after that is downhill. (Except for the visit to Angmar.)

Caleb: I knew you were going to mourn the dragon and brood on that for the rest of the film. Honestly I didn’t like how he was animated. He was too fantastical with all of the spines and spires of muscly flesh which totally upstaged him as a character. PJ just overemphasized the visual at the expense of the actor and character.

Me: I think you're probably right, and my love for Smaug (and other dragons) in the books is clouding my reception of the dragon in the movie. But I am super into all of the houses on fire and the dragon flying through the sky and his attempted hex on Bard. I loved all of that stuff.
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Caleb: It’s in the depictions of Thorin’s madness where Peter Jackson’s artistic bankruptcy hits rock bottom. Rather than attempting to write compelling scenes and working with talented actors to create convincing and nuanced a depiction, PJ just goes for heavy-handed special effects that would make even George Lucas blush. The scene on the golden lake has to the be low point of the film’s artistry but the blending of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice when Thorin is speaking in "his mad voice" takes a close second. It’s a true shame to waste that ensemble of actors on cheesy CGI instead of telling a compelling story through dialog.

The Oakenshield
Me: ​It is much worse than you make it seem. Thorin's stupid "dragon-curse" dialog actually repeats. Do not speak to me. He just keeps saying that. The entire plotline of Thorin losing his way because of a love of gold rather than a love of something called "home" – and this is, in fact, the conflict of the film – is not even worth following. I mean, Jackson hasn't done a thing to dramatize the idea of the dwarves' ancestral home, the need to rebuild, the idea of becoming a great civilization again, the story of their origins – none of it. I don't sympathize with him even a little bit. PJ has always been a Manichaeist (and JRRT is mostly that as well), but there is simply no way to be on Thorin's side at any moment. Everyone else is either doing the exact right thing here (Bilbo, Kili, Legolas, Bard) or doing the exact wrong thing (Thranduil, Thorin, Azog).​

Caleb: If they had build some love for Thorin in the other films, maybe we could care that he has this sickness. As it is, he was already tedious so it’s hard to care that he has become more so.

Me: Yeah, I think Thorin is an interesting character in the book, but in the movie, he is just so serious.

Caleb: For me, the high point of the movie is the scene with The White Council in Dol Guldur. The only canonical description of this is Gandalf telling Frodo that “The White Council drove the dark power from Mirkwood”. I’m not sure how I pictured that before but not as the four of them going there in person to do it. It was excellent to see Elrond in action again. Same for Galadriel. I wish we could have seen Thráin II and his ring in this sequence though. There is another nice moment with Bilbo and the acorn which he plans on taking back to the Shire to plant which will become The Party Tree and which Samwise will later replace with the gift of Galadriel. This type of multi-generational lineage of objects, specially trees, is a key value in these works.

Me: I agree with you about all of this. And your point about Thráin II is where Jackson and company missed a real opportunity. Thorin's grandfather is one of the seven ringbearers among the "dwarf lords in their halls of stone", right? So he was corrupted in much the same way that the nine mortal men doomed to die were corrupted, but more importantly, the dwarf lords were corrupted by their love of gold. They used their rings to make treasure, to create new jewels, to amass wealth. Wouldn't it have made sense to see a juxtaposition of this corruption? Isn't the desire for power and wealth among elves, men, and dwarves – and later Saruman – what allows Sauron to become so powerful in the first place (and in the last place)?

Caleb: Ok, a quick refresher on the ring of Thrór… It was given to Durin III supposedly by Celebrimbor. It was inherited through many generations to Thrór and everyone thought it was lost when Azog killed him in Moria. That’s one of the reasons that Balin wanted to reclaim Moria after The Hobbit and before The Fellowship of the Ring. But of course Thráin II had it and was kidnapped while on the journey and died in Dol Guldur. That’s the other reason that Gandalf went there. Yes, the ring could not corrupt the dwarves like the men because Aulë created them during the time of Morgoth’s dominion so they "cannot be reduced to shades, dominated by the will of another" (I'm quoting from Durin’s Folk). The ring only "inflamed them with greed of gold and made all other things seem vain if they were deprived of it". You also thought he was talking about The Party Tree? There’s no canonical reference to Bilbo actually planting it, and it would only have about 60 years to grow but I like to think that’s what this reference is.

Me: The visit to Angmar was the moment I got truly excited about in the film. I had no image in my head for what it looked like, and I thought it looked really cool, even if we only saw it for a second.

Caleb: Even though it was a total rabbit trail, I was excited to see Gundabad and possibly Angmar. It had nothing to do with the story and there was no reason for Legolas (I’m pretending that the girl doesn’t exist) to be hanging out there, but I’m still sorry it didn’t happen and we only saw the outside.

Me: While we're visiting locations, can I just say that I don't understand spatial arrangements in this series. I didn't really get them in PJ's Lord of the Rings so much either, but here I find the locations a little mindbending. How far, exactly is the kingdom inside Erebor from Dale? And how come Thorin and his three pals need to ride up a mountain on Ibexes (!) (Ibices? Goats?) but Bilbo can walk up there super quickly in time to warn everyone that there is a trap before the trap is actually sprung. And how come Legolas got up to Gundabad so quickly but then took an eternity to get back to the mountain?

Caleb: No, there is no continuity of time for travel or space. Legolas just rides around the whole country in a matter of hours. The whole standoff with Thorin only takes a few days and Legolas rides there and back and has time to "wait until nightfall" all before it ends.
I also feel that there could have been a nice moment between Thranduil and the girl (I’m breaking my own rule here I know) about love and loss near the end of the movie. It didn’t happen though. Just some washed-out tropes. But as far as I know, that story about losing his wife is non-canonical though similar to Celebrían’s story. But she wasn’t killed, only wounded and never fully healed.

Sweet ride, bro.
Me: ​All of the stuff with Thranduil creeped me out. Lee Pace's performance was too weird for me to drop into that in any way. And as for having any feelings about his dead wife, there is a single mention of the wife up at Gundabad and then another single mention of her at the end of the film. Who knew Legolas was worried that his mother didn't love him?

Caleb: Legolas doesn’t really care about his mom. PJ just threw that in at the end because he needed at least one more parting shot.

Me: Yeah, but it didn't work at all.

Caleb: New question. What happened to the Arkenstone in this movie? It just disappears after the parley. Although he skips over all of the unimportant details of how Thorin receives his mortal wounds or who kills Fili and Kili, Tolkien takes time to tell us all about Thorin’s burial with the gem and his elf-made blade Orcrist. PJ takes the opposite approach and spends hours on the action and skips the story. It’s just another example of PJ wanting to focus the film on action-packed sword fights at the expense of any story or emotion.

Me: This is actually the thing that I remember most clearly from The Hobbit itself: the Arkenstone being buried with Thorin. ​I was waiting for this because it seems really important to me in terms of closure for a) the way that treasure is divvied up, b) the way greed is – at least temporarily laid to rest in the text. The Arkenstone is Thorin's and he gets it in the end. This is important. It's totally crazy that he cut this from the script.

Caleb: And the whole "the stone glows when enemies approach" seems to have been lost. While we’re on the subject of action-packed sword fights… This whole battle seems to be have fought by mainly disorganized amateurs. The elves seem like professional soldiers and Dáin Ironfoot’s army seemed well disciplined (they are veterans of Azanulbizar), but everyone else seems to be running in half cocked. Thorin and company initially get armored up for battle but leave their armor behind when they make their charge. No helmets. Same for Bard and his people. Flowing locks don’t stop arrows. It’s amazing that any of them walked away from the battle given their lackadaisical approach to equipment. But speaking of armor, even those wearing it seem to derive little benefit. I mean, if you have access to all of this mithril-forged armor, it seems like a few of the characters might have survived a few stabs. I also felt the dwarves beat the orcs mainly because of their superior weapons and armor. As it says in Durin’s Folk: “But the Dwarves had the victory through their strength, and their matchless weapons, and the fire of their anger, as they hunted for Azog in every den under mountain.”

Me: ​It's impossible to take it seriously, though. Dáin was hitting orcs who were wearing armored helmets with his ​own head and he was somehow knocking them unconscious. It is here where the intended audience for the Hobbit films is the most colorable. Fans of professional wrestling? Twelve-year-old boys? I don't object to this in principle, but it's sort of fascinating because the Lord of the Rings movies didn't feel like this to me. The entirety of The Hobbit series seems to me intended for a much, much younger audience.

Caleb: Yeah, "fans of professional wrestling" are the target market for this film. 100%. It was nice to see Dáin Ironfoot with his famous hammer. But riding a sow and with a tusk-shaped beard? Enough with the riding weird animals. Then they ride sheep. I give up. The moose and pigs were bad enough. Not even counting the rabbit sled or warg riders from the other movies. Side note: What’s up with homophobia? His use of sod off [you] buggers? I understand these are common contemporary expressions in British English but out of place in both Middle Earth and 2014.

Me: So many anachronistic expressions! Sod off took me by especial surprise, though, even with all of the other ones in the film.​

Caleb: Well, it’s not quite as bad as the Gandalf saying “We must force his hand” in the second film. Analogies from poker? Really? As a final note on the battles, what’s up with the unnecessarily dangerous locations final battles? A frozen river? A collapsed tower over a canyon? I mean do even the action sequences need more action for you PJ?

The White Council
Me: ​But as you point out, this is the entire movie, right? So if battle sequences are going to be the mainstay of the film, one has to make them as inventive as possible in order to keep them interesting. Stranger weapons and more precarious locations (and apparent nods to the Prince of Persia – who knew Legolas could somehow step on falling rocks and jump out of a ravine!) actually do make the battle sequences more intriguing.​ Otherwise it really is just watching orcs and elves run at one another.

Caleb: No. No, I don’t buy that. It’s like PJ saying “would you like some more action on top of your action in this scene?” Like an epic battle isn’t enough. How about they fight on a bed of lava like Star Wars? You know he wanted to do that. It’s just terrible when even your action sequences have added action just to distract you from the fact that even the action isn’t enough.

Me: While we are on fight sequences, there is very very little in the way of acknowledging the huge death tolls involved in battles like this. And I know we are in fantasy land, but the books spend a great deal of time mourning the losses of the dead. Here, they are apostrophized.

Caleb: Yeah, in the book this isn’t even a large battle. The dwarves only field 500 guys and the elves only 1000. So its a battle of less than 5k combatants. The film has about 68,983 not counting the trolls. And I can’t even get started on the orc semaphore. I have an issue with the over-technologizing of these movies. The orcs are hardly innovators. Grond is about the height of their ideas for super weapons.

Me: Frankly, though, there weren't a lot of technologies in this movie. No trebuchets, and the only catapults were lashed to the backs of those war beasts. Hahaha. It was so dumb. 

Caleb: The only thing in the battle sequences that made me happy was seeing Bilbo throwing rocks. It harkens back to the line in Concerning Hobbits about them being deadly with thrown stones. We also see this in The Two Towers film where Merry and Pippin throw stones at orcs in Isengard while Treebeard holds them. I actually thought this was a well thought out move.

Me: No. I sort of thought this was silly. I mean, he has a sword in his hand and he's throwing rocks. But it might have been colored by the entire sequence before in which Dráin is using his own (apparently very hard) head as a weapon.
 ~ ~ ~

Caleb: And what happens to Bard, the Bardings, the dividing of the treasure, the Woodland Elves, or really any plot line at the end of the film? Nothing. None of those stories is resolved.

Me: Oh yeah. This is the craziest part of the movie – the film, which introduced a million subplots, is finally reduced only to two plots: the supposed friendship between Thorin and Bilbo and the question of whether Kili and the elf-girl will ever get to make out. What about all of the other characters??? It's weird because I didn't care about any of these plotlines that are extraneous to the book, and as it turns out neither does PJ. After a 90-minute interval of subplots, the film reverts back to the book and the book's focus (minus the Arkenstone).

Caleb: There are a few nice detailed thrown in the last scenes which help me feel more love towards the film. The moment with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins taking Bilbo’s silver spoons is particularly nice since he later leaves her the remaining spoons in the set in his will as he believes that she never returned all of them after the auction. I would liked to have seen Old Holman who would have been the gardener at this time or even Hamfast Gamgee who later tells those gathered at the Ivy Bush that he was helping to keep people from trampling the garden during the sale. And not to nitpick, but the Gaffer also mentions that Bilbo has a pony with “some mighty big bags and a couple of chests” unlike the one chest and bag in the film. It only matters because it helps to explain why Bilbo and Frodo are both hobbits of leisure, living off the wealth that Bilbo is carrying in that scene. Also makes no sense to walk "from the border of the shire" since Hobbiton is at least two days ride from the Brandywine Bridge. But let’s not get too detailed. At least things end on a high note with Billy Boyd's voice.

Me: ​If you say so. I thought that song was terrible.

Caleb: Yeah, it’s not awesome but it’s Billy Boyd. In a way, it’s like it's part of the family of the saga, and lineage is so important to this series.

Me: But I will say that I loved the bit about the spoons. It is one of the most memorable things in the book.

Caleb: Yes, that was my favorite moment. And also the mention of Fatty (Fredegar) Bolger who gets sadly stiffed in the films. Though this must be a reference to some relative since he would not be born yet. His father was named Odovacar, not ‘Fatty’ so I’m not sure who the reference is to.

Me: The Fatty Bolger reference was a cheap shot. Fatty Bolger was Merry and Pippin and Frodo's friend. He is clearly not alive yet.

Caleb: I’ve been rethinking my criticism of the animation of Smaug. I stand by it in the main, that it puts too much emphasis on the visuals and hides the performance and character of the dragon. But I do like how his head is more snake-like than traditional dragons. Most dragons have more head above the jaw than below it. But this Smaug had little above the jawline which gave him a more reptilian look. I only like that because it harkens back to their beginnings as giant cold drakes, flightless and snake-like. Glaurung most certainly had a snake head more than a traditional dragon head.

Me: Glaurung. That's my boy.

Caleb: You love all of the characters I hate.

Me: I know. Well, I for one am glad all of this is done.​

Caleb: I give it 2 out of 5 Mallorn leaves.

Me: Hahahaha. 

Caleb: And I don't care what you say I have Billy Boyd's song on repeat right now.

Me: Ok, ok. So sensitive!