Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Heath and Mike Return to Middle Earth

Mike and Heath step out of The Shire and embark on their own quest to discover what exactly makes them love Lord of the Rings and the world of Tolkien so much.

Heath: You and I both love The Lord of the Rings, and I think those movies have eclipsed the Star Wars saga for both of us. That's really saying something. What do you think it is about the series that makes it so meaningful to you?

Mike: Wow, that's hard to say. LotR has meant different things to me at different times in my life. When I saw them theatrically, what excited me most about them was the actual filmmaking involved. It pushed every right button with me, from the music to the dialogue. The cast is fantastic, the special effects top-notch and the photography beautiful. Peter Jackson directed the hell out of those movies. I love when I can watch something and cannot wrap my head around how something was put together. The Helm's Deep sequence in The Two Towers, for example. If you were Peter Jackson, WHERE THE HELL DO YOU BEGIN? It's breathtaking.
As I got older, I found my fondness for the series grow in different ways. I've mentioned it before on the podcast that since having my children, my tastes have changed a bit. While I'll forever be thrilled by the filmmaking side of it, now I find myself responding to the story and themes more than ever. I love that it's a story about friendship and family and faith and overcoming impossible odds. It's pro-environment and teaches us to never judge a book by its cover.

While that might sound corny, they're all things that are important to me, and most of all they are lessons I want to share with my kids. I could go on and on, but I figure that's a brief, but accurate depiction of what LotR means to me. How about you? Were you a fan of the books before seeing the movies?

Heath: I was definitely a fan of the books from high school onward, but it wasn't until the movies that I really went crazy with it. Do you remember that first trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring? It was a teaser that showed the fellowship coming up over the crest of mountain in slow motion with snowy peaks in the background. After I saw that, I devoted myself to re-reading all of the books. I wanted to make sure that I was familiar with the world when I saw the films.

Like you, I feel like the story has aged with me over time and taken on new meanings. A decade ago I loved them for the same reasons you did. But living with them over the years revealed new meanings for me, just like it did for you. They speak about the importance of nature and the importance of balance. They teach the dangers of power and the complicated world of politics.

And I agree that they ultimately are about friendship and sacrifice. Star Wars is about all of those things too, but it feels broad, whereas LotR feels almost biblical to me. There's just so much in there that can be unpacked and thought about. There really is no end to what can be taken from it. It's remarkable that one man, J. R. R. Tolkien, was able to create such a universe, but it's also a miracle that Peter Jackson was able to translate that world from the page to the screen, arguably without losing what makes it so amazing. He realized the world so perfectly, and it feels so lived-in and accessible.

Do you feel like he's succeeding in doing the same thing with The Hobbit?
Mike: The first teaser and the trailers that followed had a huge impact on me. I didn't read the books before seeing the movies, and I wasn't a big fantasy fan, so I was shocked with how much I wanted to see Fellowship before it came out. I was so excited and it was 100% because of the advertising. For a month before Fellowship even hit theaters, I would constantly say to my wife (then my girlfriend) in my best Frodo impression, "Do they? Do they, Gandalf?" It's amazing she married me.

As far as whether or not I feel Jackson is pulling off the same thing with The Hobbit, I'm not sure yet. The thing is, I really like The Hobbit. I saw it a couple of times in the theater and have watched it a handful more times since then, and I think I enjoy it a little more each time.

But the truth is, I don't love it. That's not to say it's lacking in the themes or messages that LotR brought us, it is still Tolkien after all, it's just that failed to capture me the way Fellowship did right off of the bat. I think there are a handful of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that I just don't connect with the dwarves the way I did with the Fellowship. Gimli, while I like him, was always my least favorite of the nine. The Hobbit is filled with Gimlis. I just don't care or connect with them the same way. I still love Gandalf, and I think Martin Freeman's Bilbo is fantastic, but the dwarves leave me a bit cold. Does that mean he's not succeeding with The Hobbit? For me, not as much.

I know you're a big fan of The Hobbit, and you've covered this in a great piece you wrote last year. But now that you've spent more time with it, has your enthusiasm waned at all? Has it grown?

Heath: I totally love your Elijah Wood quote. We still quote the movies in our house regularly. For instance, every single time we cook potatoes, I can't help saying "po-ta-toes? Boil em, mash, put 'em in a stew?" Then there's "Is it secret? Is it safe?" It works for more than you'd think. We also frequently mention Elijah Wood's "I've Been Stabbed" face, which he gets to use alarmingly often in the movies. He opens his mouth, furrows his brow, and goes "unhhhhhhhhhhhh!", so when we're watching something else where someone gets stabbed, we will sometimes say "oh, they should have brought in Elijah Wood to do his stabbed face."
And now my seven year old has seen The Hobbit and the extended editions of the original trilogy (because I'm a bad parent) and loves them, so she's always walking around the house talking about her precious. Anything can be her precious. A Barbie, a book, a Happy Meal toy, it doesn't seem to matter. We're always quoting them.

Thanks for the mention of my column on the first Hobbit movie. That was just like we rehearsed, and your check is in the mail. To answer you, I do still love An Unexpected Journey, but not as much as I love the other films before it. There aren't a lot of things that bother me about those first three LotR movies, but I find myself making a lot of excuses for what I've seen so far in this new trilogy. Even that -- the fact that it's a trilogy -- really bothers me.

But then as soon as I admit that, I feel really terrible, because I love the world so much. I'd take it over anything else. As soon as the familiar music starts, I feel like I'm home. The first time we watched An Unexpected Journey, my wife fell asleep. She said it wasn't because she was bored, but because she felt so at peace being back in Middle Earth. The stakes in The Hobbit aren't for the entire world, they're much more character-based, so it feels a little safer. But having said that…the trilogy aspect feels very forced and artificial. So neither of us are quite as crazy about The Hobbit as we are about Lord of the Rings, even though we both like it.  Is that because we've had so long to live with the original three movies, or is it due to shortcomings in the movie? Aside from dwarves (who never did anything to hurt you, I might add), can you point to anything else that doesn't quite work? Either in The Lord of the Rings or in The Hobbit? Maybe something that rhymes with Smadagast?

Mike: While my love of the LotR  movies has increased as time has gone by, my affection for them was strong from the very beginning. They actually made me want to read the books, Heath! THEY MADE ME WANT TO READ! I hope that as time goes by I hope to like The Hobbit more and more (that's already started), but I have a long way to go before I would want to throw in An Unexpected Journey before any of the LotR movies. Besides the dwarves, there are a number of things that don't work for me as much. First and foremost is the lack of practical effects.
While the CGI at times is great (Azog looks awesome and I'm still not convinced Gollum isn't real), there's enough CGI that it often draws attention to itself. It's hard to explain, but it's more aesthetically pleasing to me to gaze upon the costumes and design and makeup that go into, for example, the Orcs in the LotR movies. The practical effects made them feel dirtier and grimier. As for Radagast, I'm not the biggest fan. I won't go so far as to call him the Jar Jar Binks of Middle-Earth like some have, but he stuck out like a sore thumb to me. I have a feeling that Radagast will kick some ass in the next movie or two (wishful thinking?), but his "comic relief" in An Unexpected Journey was meant for a different movie. How about you?

As someone that read the books, do you feel the movies did the books justice? Do you like the changes that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens made to the story?

Heath: I just don't know, Mike. It depends on the day, you know? As I'm writing this, I'm watching part of the nine hours of appendices on the Unexpected Journey extended edition Blu-ray, and I'm thinking that the everything about the movie is perfect. When they're talking about all the decisions behind the movie, they make perfect sense. Peter Jackson says that The Hobbit was far more difficult to adapt because of the number of characters and the nuances of the story. And I'm watching this and I'm thinking, "Yeah! There are thirteen dwarves, and each needs a completely different personality. And of course each one of the three movies needs distinct acts and closure before we can go on to the next one." Then, later, I'll be somewhere else, thinking about the book and how simple it is, and I get kind of upset, because it has so little of those things. Only a few of the dwarves are fleshed out with any personality. The plot is short, simple, and straightforward. All these new elements in the movie about the rise of Sauron and the return of ancient evil have been manufactured specifically for these movies because they come after a famous film trilogy and must reference what has come before. And I don't like that at all.

But Peter Jackson is such an amazing filmmaker that he makes me forget about my convictions when I'm watching these movies. In fact, it's not just Peter Jackson -- it's the entire team. Watching the special features, it appears that Andy Serkis directed hours of these movies as the second unit director, and there is a SECOND second unit director who shot a bunch of stuff, too. But it all feels like a whole, and it all has the exact same feel.
Plus, opposite to you, I love the dwarves. They serve as scenery in the book, but I love the personalities that they were given for these movies. They're so individual and fully fleshed out that I feel like I could follow each of them on their own solo adventure, but maybe those are my Dungeons & Dragons tendencies showing through. And I think maybe Peter Jackson has made improvements over the books by giving these characters the personalities that he did. I've read The Hobbit multiple times and I've never had a mental picture of what, say, Bifur looked like. But now I have distinct identities to attach to each one. And that's a really good thing.

So I'm being totally hypocritical about a lot of this because I'm really torn. I like some of what Peter Jackson has added, and I don't like other things. I don't like Azog as a through-line. I don't like Radagast being used for comic relief. That's completely manufactured. Radagast is spoken of in the books only in passing. Now we have a goofy character who rides a sled drawn by bunny rabbits? WTF?!

And I REALLY don't like that they're bringing back Legolas for the next movie. It's like you fellas talked about over and over on the podcast when you talked about the Star Wars prequels. When you explain EVERYTHING, you shrink the universe. By bringing in so many characters that we already know, they're shrinking the universe. And Middle Earth doesn't need to be smaller, because it's HUGE. That's all just for people to come to the movies and go "I know that guy!" Which is no reason to throw characters in where they don't belong. I'm actually quite worried about the next two chapters of these movies, the third more than the second. There's just not that much story, and there seems to be a lot of manufacturing going on here. Tolkien wrote THOUSANDS of pages of the history of Middle Earth. There's a twelve-volume book set that's just a fictional history of it. So there's NO NEED to make your own story up.

I've written a TON, and now I've gotten myself a little worked up, too. Can you steer us into happier territory? Did you know that the original Lord of the Rings trilogy played a huge part in my becoming a pipe enthusiast?  Or that the ladies call me Wormtongue? That's a lie.

Mike: You've left me no room to add anything. YOU'VE USED ALL THE WORDS. All I can say now is that while I didn't love An Unexpected Journey, I loved being back in Middle-Earth, and I'm still looking forward to the sequels. My hope is that the next two will be so good that they'll actually enhance my enjoyment of the first. Of course I said the same thing about my hope for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith...


  1. Wonderful article Heath and Mike!

    So many words above that I wholeheartedly agree with.

    Here's what it comes down to me. While The Lord of the Rings was conceived as one novel, but then broken down into three shorter novels, the films reflect that with each movie having its own beginning, middle and end.

    While I love many things about The Hobbit, so far it's not as successful because it's one small story being stretched out to three epic movies. That means, whatever peril Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves in, like falling over cliffs, taking spills, nothing happens to them--not even a scratch because those sections weren't meant to be stretched out that long.

    Every development in Lord of the Rings feels nuanced and tense because each book was turned into its own film. It's not like each book was turned into three separate films too. Imagine that.

    The worst thing about the Hobbit to me, while brief, really annoys me. It's that Bilbo starts writing his book on the day that Gandalf arrives for his birthday celebration. Even going to far to have Frodo make a statement that he's going to wait for the wise wizard.

    The Hobbit, while in retrospect is a prequel, wasn't written that way. Can't we just tell the earlier story without tying it in to the exact moment that LOTR begins?

    Bilbo must be one hell of a writer since he was able to write his whole story in one afternoon. I always imaged that it was a book he was working on since the moment he returned to the Shire.

    1. I see all the Hobbit film LoTR tie-ins (Frodo etc) as fan service. They really are not necessary. The audience know Gandalf and Bilbo and get to meet new characters without the need for Frodo et all as well.

      I absolutely love LoTR, and I like The Hobbit a lot, but it does feel less polished and unnecessarily stretched out. I agree with your thoughts about the film very much.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly with the same things that are bothering you. As much fun as the world is and as great as all of these characters are (and as much as I forgot all my niggles and quibbles when I'm watching it), The Hobbit was never intended to be what they've made it into.

      I just wish one day we'd get a real answer as to why we're getting a trilogy. Was it the studio? Was it Peter Jackson? According to all the bonus features, PJ didn't even want to direct The Hobbit. he didn't want the headaches and the stress that it put on his life again after ten years away from it, so I can't imagine it was HIS decision to make three movies out of it. It has to be the studio, right? They wanted two films to ease their financial commitment, then decided three would make even more money? We'll maybe never know for sure, but I have my theories.

    3. And as much as I love Peter Jackson and his version of Middle-Earth, I have to admit I wish we could've seen what Guillermo del Toro would have done with THE HOBBIT.

  2. Heath and Mike,

    I loved this article, a great read. I too am an unapologetic fan of Tolkien and the Jackson films. I first read the books when I was about 10 years old, so I was loaded with the world Tolkien created when the LoTR films finally came out. Happily, I was blown away by them. (Many years in between of watching the Ralph Bakshi and Rankin/Bass cartoons)

    1. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Rankin Bass version of the Hobbit. Crazy to say, but it may be more faithful to the spirit of the book than Peter Jackson's version. I don't like the other Rankin Bass cartoons nearly as much, but The Hobbit and those really saccharine songs still have a place for me.

    2. I rewatched The Hobbit cartoon after seeing the first film in The Hobbit trilogy. It's funny how the first film stops at the 40 minute mark of the cartoon, which is only a 75 minute production. That means two more films encompass 35 minutes of material.

      Are the next two films 3 hours as well?

    3. Scuttlebutt is the next/second Hobbit film will complete the Hobbit story while the third film will bridge the Hobbit and LotR with stuff from Tolkien's other works. That's just the rumor mill though.

    4. Heath,

      I have the soundtrack to the Rankin Bass Hobbit cartoon on my MP3 player. Should I feel shame?

      Frodo Lives!

    5. Have you guys seen the Ralph Bakshi animated version of LotR? I have it, but haven't cracked it open yet...

    6. Tom, no you should NOT feel ashamed! Those songs are awesome. I mean, technically, they aren't awesome, but when you have a connection with the movie, they circle back around to awesome again. I actually think they're great. I'm wishing you could send me a digital copy.

      Mike, I saw the Bakshi version a long time ago, but I didn't like it at all. This was perhaps 15 years ago, though, so I don't know if I would be kinder to it now.

    7. Oh, also, regarding Tom's comments about the scuttlebutt on the next two chapters. That theory seems to lend itself to credibility, considering there are moments in the trailer that take place at the end of book. All that's conspicuously absent from the trailer is the Battle of Five Armies. I hope that Jackson isn't going to give us a third movie with heavy histories and battles but no character stuff. I'm not interested in the battles unless they affect these characters in a dramatic way that I get to see.

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Your mutual enthusiasm makes me want to watch The Hobbit again (and of course I'll see the sequel). I really like LOTR but The Hobbit was tough for me to get through. It sounds dumb but as someone who is moody at times, the fact that the dwarves just barged into Bilbo's and messing with his sh*t was unforgivable to me. I would have blown a gasket.

    1. While my wife (not a Tolkien fan) will watch LOTR with enthusiasm she finds it hard to sit through The Hobbit. It seems that when I meet someone that really enjoys The Hobbit they are also a fan of the books and Tolkien in general.

      Heath and Mike speak about the joy being back in Middle Earth, I think that is a big part of enjoying Hobbit and not getting mired in pacing issues and other shortfalls.

    2. Adam, I think we're supposed to be really upset by the Dwarves barging into Bilbo's house. Tolkien was moody like we are, and I think that was representative of an unforgivable offense to him. Not saying that this justifies anything, but I think it's supposed to be really upsetting for a certain kind of person (us).

    3. If that's the case, mission accomplished! Happy Thanksgiving Mr. Holland :-)

  4. I have to say one of my quibbles with the new Hobbit film is the depiction of the dwarves as bad-asses. In the book they are kinda bumbling and have grown soft from living in human cities during their exile. They have also grown old. Like a bunch of 60 year old men hitting the road. The dwarves talk and act tough but they are really inept and ill prepared. (in the book it is noted that they did not take weapons on the adventure, not until they find the goblin hoard do they arm themselves.)

    Which overall is a theme in the Hobbit book I really like. That is, Bilbo sees himself as unfit for an adventure and totally out of his element, while the dwarves see themselves as great adventures. In actuality they are really as useless or more useless than Bilbo. As the story unfolds we find that Bilbo is not as unfit at adventuring as he thought and the dwarfs sort of realize how unprepared they may have been.

  5. Great conversation guys - I think a lot of fans of this particular universe probably had the same sweet and sour reaction to "The Hobbit" being made into three movies, the first thought being, "Christ, he's really milking it!"; the second thought being, "But dammit, Hobbit milk is delicious!" I love these stories, I love the wonderful job Peter Jackson has done bringing them to life, why complain about too much of a good thing? Admittedly The Hobbit trilogy thus far has not quite grabbed me the way The Lord of the Rings did, but it's not far off (and my appreciation has only grown after three viewings). I'm really looking forward to this next installment and I'm glad it's not the last. Unlike some creators of epic trilogies who I won't name (hint: rhymes with "mucous"), Jackson has given me every reason to trust his loving hands with this one.

  6. Love the LOTR conversation, guys. I've loved the books since middle school, and I've often ended up reading the books (including the Silmarillion) at least once a year.

    I think my biggest quibbles with AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was the addition of some characters, and I'm worried about Evangeline Lilly's role in the upcoming movie. I understand that the continuity of movies requires something different than the books, but I'm not sure how well the additions worked in AUJ, so I'm skeptical about the other ones.

    About the dwarves: I liked the dwarves from the books, but Jackson seems to have pushed them into comic relief, like they're all John Rhys-Davies (which I didn't always enjoy). Also, anybody else know why Thorin looks so much less "dwarfish" than the other dwarves?

    Also, is it dwarves or dwarfs? I'm having problems.

    Great article, again, guys.

    1. Tolkien's version are called "dwarves." But in Disney, there were seven "dwarfs." Hope that helps.

      What I have gathered from watching those hours and hours of appendices from Unexpected Journey is that Thorin doesn't look as dwarvish as the other dwarves because he needed to be "sexy." Direct quote, I kid you not. Also, in the book he has a forked beard that he tucks into his belt. In the movie, Armitage has a really short beard that's all his. Long beards tucked into belts just aren't sexy, it seems. Armitage's justification of this is that when the dwarves fled their home, their beards were singed. So the king under the mountain wears his beard short in tribute to his people until he has reclaimed their homeland from Smaug. I mean, that KIND of works as an in-universe explanation, but I reject the whole notion of needing him to be sexy. Just like the Evangeline Lilly/Orlando Bloom storyline from the upcoming film seems to be fan service to have a bit of romance. Because, you know, The Hobbit is boring without sexy dwarves and romance.

    2. Mark,

      You are a better man than I. I have made several attempts to read the Silmarillion and have never finished it.

      And to add problems to dwarfs vs dwarves conundrum there is also elfin/elfish vs elvish/elven. I think Tolkien uses the "f".

  7. If you guys are looking for additional information on Tolkien I recommend checking out Dr. Corey Olsen. He teaches undergrad and graduate courses in medieval literature and Tolkien at Washington College in Maryland. He has a website with podcasts about Tolkien's works as well as the syllabi and complete audio recordings of lectures for the courses he teaches. He is quite entertaining and amazingly knowledgeable on the subject. I followed his guided reading of The Hobbit series last winter and loved it.
    Just google "The Tolkien Professor" and you will find his site.

    1. I'm a big supporter of Corey Olson. I don't get much into Riddles In The Dark, but I like his book and I've listened to a few dozen of his lectures.

    2. Heath

      Sweet, I am a huge fan of Dr Olson, glad to see others are enjoying him.

      As per your "Thanksgiving wish" a few posts up, check your upholstery email account.

    3. Corey Olson is fantastic, and a true renegade. You can practically feel the academic societies rejecting him because he is taking his research directly to the public. He's an outlaw of an entirely different sort. Also Michael Drout is an excellent lecturer and professor of medieval literature and Tolkien's work. He gives a lecture on Beowulf that is pretty engaging.

    4. Cool. I will have to check out Michael Drout, sounds interesting.

  8. Heat: "I just wish one day we'd get a real answer as to why we're getting a trilogy. Was it the studio? Was it Peter Jackson?"

    For one thing, Warner Brothers only has the rights to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books, not the rights to Middle-earth as a fictional environment, and Christopher Tolkien will never allow more movies to sully his father's legacy, as he sees it. So unless they decide to remake LotR (ha!), these movies will be it for Middle-earth. If anyone is wondering why that Warcraft movie was finally greenlit this year and not earlier, there's your answer.

    As for the trilogy thing, this video essay by one Movie Bob argues that the Battle of Five Armies would be an awkward epilogue to the big Smaug confrontation, narratively speaking. Sure, they could just leave it out, as they did the Scouring of the Shire, but fitting everything into one three-hour movie would make for a very packed flick, so the original plan to do two movies seemed sensible. From there, the decision to do a third movie lets Smaug dominate a movie climax, and tie up the place-setting elements for the eventual War of the Ring. Again, seems plausible to me so far. Of course, it does mean that Gandalf pretty much sits on his ass for sixty years before finally realizing just which ring Bilbo found in that cave, but hey, you bake with the flour you have, I suppose.