The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Hobbit- The Battle of Five ArmiesThe Hobbit movies all fail but this is the best of the three. (The first was awful, the second left me indifferent.)

Jackson’s early films were funny and were clearly works of enthusiasm and joy. The Lord of the Rings changed that register but their stretch matched the breadth of the material and the results were genuinely compelling cinema.

I may be imagining things, but in this last instalment of The Hobbit series, I felt like Jackson was fed up with the machine he’s built and even maybe wanting to laugh a bit despite the epic pretentiousness. It was subtle and maybe I was just projecting, but by the end, I found myself hoping that, finally free, he would go off and make something as brilliantly oddball and offensive as Meet the Feebles or Dead Alive.

Orcs and Fourteen-year Olds: At Last the Source

Paul Krugman finally drops the source for the line he often cites about J.R.R. Tolkien and Ayn Rand!

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

My question for Kung Fu Monkey is, What is a “serial hobbyist”? It sounds awesome and fun.

The Hobbit

I saw The Hobbit with my brother the Friday it opened. We saw it in 48 fps XD digital. My expectations were sky-high and rock-bottom at the same time. So I was worried. But it was a great time and there were lots of things I liked about the movie. If that seems hesitant, it is because there was a lot I didn’t like about the movie too, but nothing damning. I’m eager to see (and to like) the next two films. Until I do, I’m not really sure I can make much of a judgement.

Two things for now though…

First, the story shifts the tone of the book substantially and in a way I’m not sure I like. As is, if the arc isn’t going to show the fall of Thorin as he becomes an evil-esque character I’m going to be disappointed. My favourite parts involved rabbits. All the pipes around dinner were great too.

Second, the tech is troubling. I’m not sure there are any brakes on the HD train and that is too bad. This film is too clear and often feels lifeless because of it. When classical Hollywood filmmakers wanted to make their stars transcendently beautiful they would soften the focus of the close-ups. The slight fuzziness of the image gave room for magic and imagination and made Garbo and Dietrich and Crawford icons. The symbolists of the late nineteenth century did something similar in their poetry. The HD fanatics have forgotten this trick.

Lord of the Rings (1978)

LotR 1978The Lord of the Rings

Watched this out of curiosity and liked it actually. This adaptation faces the same challenges as Jackson’s. The main one is length. This version makes many of the same exclusions as Jackson’s adaptation, no Bombidil, a large focus on Moria. But is different in that it stops with The Two Towers.

Jackson has taken visual cues from this version. This is obvious in the characters’ dress and the landscape, but it is also clear in the framing and blocking of specific scenes, e.g. the ringwraith sniffing out the hobbits on the road and the ringwraiths ritually killing the hobbits in beds they discover are empty. There is no other visual reference for these moments. So the duplication must come from here.

A few comments I typed up while I was watching it:

  • This tells the story of the original rather than adapts it. It is not looking for naturalism or immersion in the action. I think this is a smart choice that is closer to the novel’s structure as a tale of men telling stories to each other.
  • This version is also more interested in presenting the storytelling of the original in the film, e.g. Aragorn telling a story by the fire, the celebration when the hobbits arrive at Rivendale.
  • The discursive quality makes the mythic seem mythic. Myths are retooled to the moment. They imply a scene of storytelling.
  • The translation of Aragorn, “the man of the West” as an Indian makes this very British myth-making oddly American. The effect is very odd and very interesting, even if it is left undeveloped.
  • The multi-media stuff is great. It feels inventive and crafty (in both the literal and “off” senses of the word), and I really loved it.

Interesting detail: the random elf on the road at the end of the first book is changed in both adaptations in telling ways. In 1978, the change compresses the narrative by introducing Legolas and eliminating an unnecessary character. In 2000, it introduces a love interest absent from the original and necessary for the Hollywood production both because of narrative conventions of the new form and for the marketing demands (i.e. female movie stars to broaden the demographic appeal).

The Lord of the Rings, Book I

 The Lord of the RingsI decided to reread this book during the last week of winter break. I saw no need to rush though, so I’m going to read it book-by-book.

The first book breaks in half with Bree as the center point. The earlier bit is the dangers at home and is less interesting. As in the end of The Hobbit, I have the sense of Tolkien writing himself into bigger material. (But if it’s a working toward material why keep it in? My experience of it reading is that it allows me to move toward the larger, more complicated material as well. A useful strategy.)

After Bree, the book hits the tone that I remember defining the novel the last time I read it: lonely men telling stories to each other about a lost world they are trying to remember.

Two thoughts:

1. this is not a coming of age story. it is a coming to middle-age story. These are old men (50, 80, older even), who are confronted with a world that is less than they dreamed it might be and having to choose lives that are different from what they’d hoped for. However glorious when seen from the end, when seen from the moment of choosing, this life seems a lesser and more unpleasant destiny. In other words, this is not primarily a book about learning and discovering the world. It is a book about accepting the world and living through the mismatch of an inescapable reality and equally inescapable dreams.

2. The reader inhabits the same relation to the book as these characters inhabit vis-à-vis their world. Both the reader and the characters mourn the loss of a world that was more magical, more wonderful, more full of life and love than the one they live in. What they have are stories, and what they do in sharing them is to build relationships with people and try to figure out what is left for them to do. What is coming–but they don’t (and can’t) know–is glory.

To be continued…

The Hobbit

The HobbitI hadn’t read this book since I was a child. Rereading it now, my response repeats near exactly my reaction a few years ago when I reread The Lord of the Rings while I was in Paris. I was surprised at how good they are and how melancholy (The Hobbit less so). Tolkien’s talents as a writer are immense although–and I hate saying this–they are undermined by his subject. There’s no getting away from the fact that Middle Earth and all the rest, treated this carefully and this well, seem silly and more than a little embarrassing. Which is ridiculous, because I honestly love these books. But reading them, I can’t get away from wondering how a grown man (like me) could sit down and write this seriously about these things without chickening out. Which raises immediately the question: would Tolkien have written better or not at all if he had tried to write something else?

Reading this time, I was conscious of the shift of action off-stage and onto non-major characters in the last chapters of the book. Reading as a child, this shift always threw me. In fact, I was surprised how much of the book takes place after the Mirkwood. When I was younger, Bilbo’s adventures as he’s trying to keep up and keep it together attracted me. When (I now see) he begins to manage events that are larger than him and center on others, I dropped out of the story. Reading now, I see how important this shift is to what came after. It is as if Tolkien, like Bilbo, is inching his way out of the atmospheric but non-dramatic shire and discovering what might be possible elsewhere, and at what scale.

I was also caught off guard by the length of chapters. These are tightly narrated units that, especially early on, progress with the benefit of only a few line breaks to separate and organize action.

Finally, the illustrations were new to me. No other edition I read had them. Seeing them here, I was struck by how much the visual art interacted with and supported the literary art. Wikipedia has a nice run down of their history here.