Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Heath Holland On...There and Back Again with The Hobbit

by Heath Holland
I wish was saying goodbye to Bilbo and his friends on slightly better terms.

It wasn’t until after the closing credits had rolled on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies that I understood how much I had invested in these movies. Oh, I knew I was way into them and that I have defended them over the last couple of years, but I don’t think I realized just how deeply I had drunk of Peter Jackson’s Kool-Aid. Seriously, I haven’t been this caught up in a big-budget mainstream series since the Star Wars prequels…and those actually worked out better for me. So I thought it would be fun (read: cathartic) to take one last look at not only the franchise that WingNut Films produced, but also the old Rankin/Bass animated film, which I’ve been planning on tackling for a while, and see how it all holds up. Today I say my last about Bilbo’s journey to The Lonely Mountain.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s original 1937 novel The Hobbit contains the following couple of lines: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it’s not always quite the something you were after.” Well, as it turns out, between the old cartoon and the new trilogy, we have lots and lots to look for. Let’s see what we find.

A decade before Peter Jackson made a quirky little splatter flick called Bad Taste, we had the Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit, which was produced as a television movie for American audiences in 1977. Using production designs created by Arthur Rankin Jr., the actual animation was done by a Japanese studio called Topcraft. Interestingly, Topcraft went bankrupt in the mid-‘80s and was purchased by Hayao Miyazaki and two other men, who renamed it Studio Ghibli, and went on to create some of the most praised anime ever. The Japanese hand shows in the animation, which has depth and fluidity that most American animation didn’t during that time. Created for an estimated $3 million, the Rankin/Bass film was ambitious and unique. The film is 78 minutes long.

Then we have Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo. The New Line Cinema/MGM production returns viewers to the realm of Middle Earth that Jackson first unveiled in 2001 and reportedly cost 
$745 million, not including the promotional budget or reshoots for each film. The theatrical versions of the three movies total 474 minutes—roughly 8 hours.
Those of you who have been following what I’ve written about these movies will be aware of the struggle I’ve had with them. Two years ago I wrote a lengthy defense of An Unexpected Journey, fired by what I perceived to be a bunch of negative hyperbole that I was seeing in the media. Actress Elizabeth Banks went as far as to say that Peter Jackson had tricked his audience into seeing the movie and that people were unprepared for how long it was. I can only assume Elizabeth Banks wasn’t aware of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy or the fact that all three of those films were well over two hours each. Nevertheless, I was starting to feel pretty tricked myself by the time the second movie, The Desolation of Smaug came out; scenes that were a couple of paragraphs in the book were stretched out to thirty minutes of film, often filled with battles that never existed in print in an effort to boost a bleak, hollow story and give the audience something—anything—to latch onto. The extended edition Blu-ray wowed me with new material integrated into the film that provided a lot of what I missed from the theatrical version, and the behind-the-scenes footage brought me into the production and made me care about the filmmakers just as much (or probably more) than the movie characters. 

Now part three, The Battle of the Five Armies, has come and gone and I’m left feeling completely befuddled. Perhaps when the extended edition of the film comes to DVD toward the end of 2015, I’ll have a bit more closure. For all intents and purposes, those extended versions sure do seem to function as the “complete” cuts of the movies and have all the stuff that movie fans love like character development and, you know, talking and stuff. I hope that the longer (dear lord) version of The Battle of the Five Armies will do the same.

After I watched TBOTFA, I was eager to revisit the animated film. I’d been holding off on a re-watch until Peter Jackson’s story was complete, and I had fond memories of the cartoon and the simplicity with which it approached Middle Earth. Surely the Rankin/Bass version would be the “definitive” screen version of the story, short and to the point! After all, at under and hour and twenty minutes, it was as breezy and fun as the book that it’s based on.

Well, it’s really not. Sure, a lot of the Rankin/Bass movie works really well. It captures the whimsy of the book as well as the eerie, mystical quality of the story: Gandalf is ethereal, not unlike the wind itself, appearing and disappearing like smoke in a breeze. This version understands that very old things are often also very dangerous, which is something that runs throughout Tolkien’s stories. The animated cartoon captures the creepy feeling being far from home in a vast, foreign wilderness much more than the live action movies do. Furthermore, it has an indefinable “English-ness” to it.

Also, the Bilbo of the animated movie feels a lot like the Bilbo in the book. This is going to be controversial, but I think Martin Freeman was miscast. I think he’s very good at doing a certain thing, but that thing is not expressing humility and weakness, it’s being a prickly everyman with an undercurrent of quiet anger. His method of “look away-look back-look away-look back, then lower head” wore thin somewhere during the first movie for me. Not that I don’t think he has moments where he shines, because he does; there are scenes in all three movies where he blows me away. Please understand, I’m not anti-Martin Freeman. I’ve enjoyed his work for a long time, I just don’t see him as Bilbo, nor do I buy him as the younger incarnation of the character Ian Holm did a really good job bringing to life.

There are things that I absolutely love about the films Peter Jackson has made. I’ve never been much of a Gollum fan, but the scene in An Unexpected Journey where Bilbo encounters the poor creature is absolutely incredible. Andy Serkis, underneath all that motion capture equipment, is an amazing performer and actor, and I hope he doesn’t spend the rest of his career having his work only realized as digital creations. I also like what Jackson’s movies have to say about the lust for power and gold, because that’s something that never changes and never will. Those themes are in the original book, but are easily missed. I think Jackson did a really good thing by focusing on Thorin’s madness and his quest for power/honor. And no one—I mean NO ONE—can film Middle Earth like Jackson did using New Zealand as his canvas.
Yet, for all that it contains, I think that the story made by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, misunderstands the book that they’ve made such a huge story from. STAY WITH ME and allow me to explain that I in no way feel like movies should be a slave to source material. Comic book movies have to play to the strength of film, and I don’t want to see movies replicating comic books panel by panel. You want to read the BEST adventures of Spider-Man, Batman, or the girls from Ghost World? Then you should go read the comic books that all those movies are based on. You’re not going to find a purer experience than the source material. When movies choose to adapt something from an outside source, they rarely surpass the experience that original source material offers. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try; it’s a well-loved story for a reason.

With a book like The Hobbit, which has enjoyed a massive cult following for generations, I think it’s especially important to retain the spirit and the heart of that material and use that to fuel your screenplay. An example: Tolkien abhorred violence, and when he used it in his stories it was usually with little description and certainly no glorification. The New Line/MGM movies seem to take great delight in bloodshed, ESPECIALLY in the extended editions which didn’t hit theaters. Heads fly straight at the camera, and each action scene seems to be doing its best to one-up the previous one in terms of creative violence and unforgettable kills. I’m not squeamish, and I LOVE horror movies. Hey, I love Peter Jackson’s horror movies! But maybe this isn’t the place. By the time the credits rolled on The Battle of Five Armies, I felt like I’d just sat through Saving Private Ryan. This is not in keeping with the spirit of what is, let’s not forget, a book for children.

It’s also worth pointing out, or repeating (I can’t remember if I’ve said this before) that after Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he didn’t feel like The Hobbit really worked anymore. He was a little bit embarrassed of the simple tone and the lack of geographical complexity within the world he had created some twenty years before he penned Frodo’s fate. He attempted to re-write The Hobbit as what we could now consider an adult novel, using the same tone as The Lord of the Rings and reframing his original, kid-friendly story as a much grittier narrative, but didn’t make it very far before he abandoned the project, realizing that The Hobbit was the sum total of its parts and could not be reformed or re-written. It was what it was, for better or worse. I think that fact has suddenly become incredibly relevant again.

There is probably a way to make The Hobbit into a single short, powerful movie, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. If it ever does, it’s not going to be in a studio system that hikes budgets through the roof; seriously, after all the marketing and international promotion, the cost for these films is rumored to be hovering around the BILLION dollar budget range when all is said and done. They’ve currently made double that number back in profits, but I don’t see that as much justification. I wonder at what point budgets become too high? When is it irresponsible to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a couple of hours of entertainment? But then, that opens the door for a whole new conversation, and no one can or should stand in the doorway to police what art does and does not get made. A little responsibility and moderation would be nice, though.
Ultimately I feel like The Hobbit movies failed to connect with the critical audience (the commercial audience feedback has been really positive) not because the story wasn’t good enough but because it’s bloated and stretched to far past the breaking point. You don’t care about the dwarves? I’d argue that it’s not about the dwarves, especially not Thorin; it’s about Bilbo and his character arc. In the book, Bilbo is unconscious for most of the battle that closes the story. The battle is not the point, and the reader gets only brief insight into the event itself. So why in the name of Gandalf’s gonads does the entire third movie feel like one long fight?

Peter Jackson took the original Lord of the Rings books, which had been deemed un-filmable for decades, and made an outstanding series of movies that will outlast us all. He deviated from the written word, but the movies were so much better for it. I can only speculate as to why he couldn’t do it a second time (and speculation gets us nowhere here), but I don’t blame the source material. I could blame circumstances, and the fact that he didn’t get to make The Hobbit a couple of decades ago when he wanted to, before we’d seen all Middle Earth had to offer. I could blame it on the passing of time and the changing of what audiences want from their movies. I could blame it on Quentin Tarantino’s theory that directors lose their touch as they get older. This certainly seems like a textbook example of that to me.

Maybe one day a young, independent director will take a group of people out into the English countryside and make the ultimate version of the story, retaining all the quirky charm and sweetness that millions of readers have connected with. In the meantime, there’s a lot to like about both the Rankin/Bass cartoon and the Peter Jackson trilogy. They’re noble efforts that all have something to offer audiences, and they’ve made a lot of people really happy. I’m sure that after some distance I’ll end up revisiting them a lot, and I stand by my comments about how the extended editions have really impressed me with their additions and elaborations. But additions and elaborations do not excuse mediocre movies, and these could have -- should have -- been so much better.

And so I bid Middle Earth a fond farewell, at least for now. I’ve got to be moving on, but I’m sure I’ll be back eventually…probably in November, when the extended edition comes out. Until then, I’m not mad at ya, Hobbit trilogy; I just wish it could have worked out better, that’s all. I expected more, but don’t think twice, it’s alright. In the meantime, maybe I should dust off the novelization and give it a read. After all, I hear it’s pretty different from the movies.


  1. Spoilers ahead (?) Great Column Heath. I'm with you in feeling the sting of disappointment, especially for the third movie. I was a big apologist for Desolation of Smaug because enough of it worked for me, and I was sure that Jackson and Co had a grand plan for tying up lose ends. But when I found out that the third movie's title had been changed from There and Back Again to Battle of the Five Armies I knew I was sunk. I almost feel like 70% of BOTFA could act as newsreel footage of a famous battle in Middle Earth without any knowledge of what transpired before it. The fights in it are cool, but they fly in the face of any sort of character development you've mined from the trilogy. I didn't even notice until the third movie how little Bilbo is in the trilogy that is titled The Hobbit. What's up with that? The way the filmmakers have tried to shift back in forth in tone and themes whilst tying these two trilogies together has frsutrated me from the beginning, and now that it's over I can see no real master plan to make it worth all the hype and bloat. I know I'm probably blowing smoke and infuriating people who are well versed in Tolkien lore, but a lot of this trilogy seemed so inconsequential, like it was set up only to give us all manner of cool decapitations and give us chills when they don't name drop Aragorn at the end. I was happy to be along for the ride, but I'm nervous to jump back in knowing that everything is funneling us into seeing how awesome Legolas can be. I already knew that.

    1. That title change from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies said SO MUCH.

  2. Very nice article, Heath.

    I very much enjoyed the Hobbit movies for what they were -- visually stunning action adventure movies set in Middle Earth and suggested by JRR Tolkein's children's book of the same name. I think the tone of the movies -- the overall "epicness," I suppose -- probably highlights why Jackson didn't want to make The Hobbit in the first place: It's hard to go back to the relatively simple prequel when we've already seen Lord of the Rings. The book is so charming and fun, but so very different than what follows.

    Here's an example: In The Hobbit (novel version), the dwarves are all basically goofball morons and clumsy cowards. They're walking gags, which certainly don't fit the image of dwarves like LOTR's Gimli. But if you change the way the dwarves behave to make the movie version of them more in line with LOTR, you have to come up with all kinds of reasons why they don't help out more. I mean, that thing Smaug at the end of the second movie definitely goes on forever, but it's hard for me to imagine Thorin as presented in the movie would be so cowardly as to not at least try to confront Smaug. It's just not fitting with the stubborn, battle-loving version of dwarves that were to come.

    I think Jackson was, in the end, happy to revisit Middle Earth, but I'm pretty sure even he knew he couldn't work the same magic twice. Unlike a lot of critics, though, I don't view this prequel series -- or the number of movies in it -- as a blatant cash grab on Jackson's part. Jackson obviously loves Tolkien and his world and certainly loves playing around in it. Anyone who's watched any of the extensive and excellent production diaries couldn't argue otherwise.

    I, too, am amazed at how much of an improvement actually lengthening the already-long Desolation of Smaug made the movie. All of those little character beats really made a difference.

    Again, thanks for the passionate essay, Heath.

    1. Something I meant to add, but forgot because I'm becoming stupider the older I get: I wonder how much material had to be cut from BOTFA. Rumor has it, the studio really came down hard on Jackson to cut the run time. If true, it shows. And not in a good way. People complained about Return of the King's quote-unquote multiple endings, but BOTFA didn't seem to have enough. There are so many loose ends in this thing, it might as well have been footage of a nude beach.

    2. I love Return of the King's multiple endings. There was so much to wrap up, and it was really important to show the consequences of all that had occurred over the story. Maybe we'll get a half-hour of endings in the extended edition. *sigh*

  3. Excellent article, Heath. I have no idea how I feel about these movies.

    I have a lot invested in Tolkien. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are my absolute favorite books, possibly my favorite overall art thing in general. I love the LotR films, especially the extended cuts, so you can tell I was excited for the Hobnit films. An
    Unexpected Journey comes out and it's fantastic. Then The Desolation of Smaug is released and leaves me cold. It's such a bitter film, and does an awful job at capturing the adventurous spirit of the novel and the first film. Then the extended cut comes out and pulls me back in. And now, with The Battle of the Five Armies, we can look at this as an almost complete work. How does it fair?

    There's too much padding. I really wish they stuck with the two film version of this series, as the added scenes are very apparent, mainly the majority of Laketown and Alfrid's entire character. Fuck Alfrid. These scenes were included at the expense of pacing and more important scenes, such as multiple extended cut additions, as well as Thorin's funeral and the Bard's crowning.

    Not to mention the shocking amount of extreme violence and a diminishing focus on Bilbo, and you have a series that has a lot to love and a lot to hate. I can only hope some fan editor out there tries to recreate the hypothetical two-film version.

    1. Fuck Alfrid indeed! I don't understand why that character can be allowed to be so blatantly comical while most of the whimsical elements of the story (that actually matter to the story) have been dipped in battery acid and are taken way too seriously.

      I'd even be on board with a fan editing all three of these things down to one three-hour movie, just for experimental purposes. There's a lot of bloat in these movies, especially the second and third ones.

  4. Great read, Heath.

    I don't enjoy going down this road, but what seems to be at the heart of what doesn't work about this trilogy is Peter Jackson.

    I think the most sensible criticism against this trilogy that I've heard isn't that Jackson went too far in his adaptation. He, Walsh, Boyens, et al. are actually quite faithful to the text of the narrative, if not always the spirit. Like you were saying, I think it's fine that movie makers change and adapt things, but always in the interest of telling a good story. That is where I feel like he falls short; I don't feel like these movies are good stories, period. I would have forgiven Jackson going far off-book to create a good story, but that's unfortunately not what ends up happening.

    As for why the story ends up not being very good, I would have to say that Jackson has gone full-Lucas and lost his bearings a little bit. I feel like the further we went into Middle Earth, starting with Fellowship of the Ring all the way to Battle of the Five Armies, the films have gotten more "Jackson-ish," as if he can't get out of his own way. More tone-deaf notes of humor (dwarves acting like buffoons, Alfrid, drinking games). More cavorting in directionless violence. More weightless visual effects (slow-mo, again). More shortcuts in character development. And all of these choices could be fine, except they don't end up telling a good story. Or even worse, they only tell a good story if you watch the extended edition, which really is an indicator of a filmmaker failing to tell the story he wanted. And that makes me sad.

    I really want Peter Jackson to take a well-deserved break, and make more movies that don't have to be tied to already existing material. Go find something that is really his own, and have fun again. Just listening to the commentaries and watching the featurettes, it felt like Jackson was really stretched and not enjoying himself

    1. Excellent points, Mark. I wish he'd stayed closer to the tone and structure of the source material (I believe The Hobbit should no more be divorced from its source material than something like Alice in Wonderland, which millions have read and loved), but not felt like a slave to every single plot point. It's so weird, because he DID stick close to the source material in many places, yet deviated wildly in an effort to stretch that source material out to make NINE HOURS of Hobbit movies. I think that padding is specifically what lets these films down because it feels directionless and completely hollow. I'm thinking most specifically of the last 45 minutes of Desolation of Smaug, the liquid gold, and the extended dragon fight. It's just mind-numbing and has no real point other than to look cool. The story completely stops for lengthy action pieces driven by nothing. It's a symptom of the whole thing. Think of the barrel chase: it's a connective scene in the book, designed to get the dwarves from captivity and into the next important phase of the story; yet the movie feels no urgency to get to the next part of the story and spends 15-20 minutes getting from point A to point B. Nothing that happens in that scene actually matters.

      I never equated Peter Jackson with candy bar filmmaking (visually appealing confections that leave you temporarily satisfied, but don't actually contain any substance), but that's how I see him now. He has more money than anyone could possibly want, so I agree with you: he needs to take an extended vacation, if not walk away from mainstream cinema altogether until he's good and ready to come back. I'd rather he make violent little schlock flicks that he's passionate about and put them out himself. He's got tons of famous friends who would love to get chased around New Zealand. He doesn't have to work in the studio system anymore.

      I heard that Fran Walsh has made a couple of appearances where she explains what we were SUPPOSED to get from the story, which feels to me like an admission that the screenplay didn't tell the tale that they intended.

    2. Mark, I think you really hit the nail on the head. Though I am a fan of the Hobbit series all the flaws I find in the films probably do fall on Jackson being a little too Jackson'y' at times. It's interesting that the Rings trilogy seemed to avoid those thing.

      Also, am I the only Tolkien knucklehead that got a little broken-up during this film? Specifically when..... *SPOILER?*

      ....Thorin died. (I found that very touching with Bilbo at his side and the arrival of the eagles) As well as when the credits rolled, the song "Last Goodbye" and seeing the faces of Ian McKellen and the rest of the cast got me. A little misty I was.
      I think that second one is a little more related to me feeling as though I am leaving Middle-earth for a little while now. I spent 2014 re-reading all of Tolkien's works; even the minor ones such as the Histories (Lays of Beleriand etc.)

    3. Heath, it makes me sad that Walsh had to give those sorts of interviews. I don't think Jackson's team is like this, because they sincerely do love the material, but a more cynical observer would say that this is to drive more sales for the extended cut. Either way, it still means the story that they wanted to tell didn't get told; I don't know if that's on the filmmakers or the studio.

      Also, I love the term "candy bar" filmmaking.

      Tom, I would agree the LOTR trilogy has less "Jackson-y-ness" to it, but there was definitely more as that series went along. I think it's why FOTR is my favorite of those films, really. I think Jackson really did well getting the gritter tone of the LOTR books, but was really uneven on the lighter tone of The Hobbit. My hope was that Guillermo del Toro might have done better in introducing a lighter tone, but who knows.

    4. Sorry, I forgot to add about Thorin (SPOILER)..............................

      I thought the Thorin scene fell flat; he was consistently super unlikable, way more than I was led to believe from the original source material. I get making him grouchy, but I felt like the filmmaker were trying to make him too much of an Aragorn clone/avatar. He doesn't earn the respect from the audience that the dwarves seem to have for him, so when his death came, I wasn't sad. But, that is just me, and I am sincerely happy that it worked for you Tom. I wish I could have gotten to that place too.

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    6. Tom, I completely agree about the ending. It felt like a chunk of my movie life had gone, completely finished.

      We still have an extended cut though! It's not over, goddammit!!