Saturday, May 10, 2014

Sometimes, the Dragon Wins

My wife and I finally got around to watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug last night. It's a wonderful, spectacular movie - if you completely forget that there was ever a masterful children's novel by the same name, and view any lines from Tolkien's book that appear within as mere happy coincidences.

I am sure people far more talented and picky than I have dissected and analyzed the movie, so any faults I mention here should not be taken as a complete list, and could definitely be regarded as spoilers, so if you want to be surprised, stop reading now.

To provide a buffer before the spoilers and a bit of background, I've been semi-boycotting the Peter Jackson version of The Hobbit, a move sparked when I heard that he intended to turn what was a single children's novel into a three part epic,
apparently, in my opinion, for the love of money. When he produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I enthusiastically attended the premier of each movie, and soon began buying the DVDs when they appeared, only to find that he was also minting an extended version of each movie, which appeared only when the sequel hit the theatres...again, for the love of money. I eventually bought a boxed set of the extended cut of the entire trilogy, which my family has enjoyed greatly.

But I vowed not to fall into that financial trap again. In my lonely protest, I have refused to see the movies at the full price theaters when they appeared. I have not purchased a single DVD. I saw the first installment at our local dollar theatre, and rented the second one on Redbox. So, as I was watching the trailer for the DVD last night, my prophecies concerning the mercenary known as Peter Jackson were confirmed - there was an advertisement for the extended cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey included in the trailer, as well as one for a Lego Hobbit (Lego Bilbo?) video game, and a Hobbit MMORPG Desolation of Smaug expansion pack. It's all about the benjamins for these gold-grubbing dwarves.

And now, to arms!

As I mention above, Tolkien wrote the book for a young audience, and the entire tale as related by Peter Jackson takes on a far darker aspect. Gone is Bilbo's comic baiting of the spiders of Mirkwood, replaced by a fierce battle with creatures of nightmare. Gandalf's clever method of getting the reclusive Beorn to grant hospitality to a troupe of dwarves is forgotten, and Beorn aids them only because he hates dwarves slightly less than he hates goblins.

When Jackson introduced us to Arwen with a much enhanced role in LoTR, I could understand his reasoning that American audiences needed to have a love interest to keep their attention, and to understand what motivated Aragorn to take the throne, but when he introduces a new elf warrior-ess named Thuriel here, I'm stumped. She's the elf commoner whom Legolas (Legolas??) is half in love with. When Thranduil tells her she will never be allowed to marry his son, she overcompensates by falling in love with Kili, the dwarf captive.

Something that occurred to me for the first time in forty or so years...why in the world did the wood elves have so many jail cells? Is this the first thing that occurs to you when you're building a beautiful elven hall in the woods? We have to build a really big dungeon, you never know who might happen by.

There is, as Thorin's gang are escaping in their floating barrels, a truly spectacular battle with the orcs, led by Bolg (a throwaway name of the goblin leader in the novel, but a major player here, much like Radagast, also mentioned only twice in LoTR, but who is now a major player). My comment to my wife was that Legolas must have been slipping in his old age, if this type of fighting was what he was capable of back in the day. Just Wow.,

When I fully realized that Jackson has slipped his gears was when Gandalf the Grey is lured into a trap at Dol Guldur and captured by The Necromancer. Oh, did I mention that said villain has put a price on Thorin's head? Or that he is in command of all of the goblins? He also seems to suffer from the curious quirk of Bond villains in that he has to capture the hero, so as to lecture him, I suppose, instead of rapidly killing him.

Our merry band arrives battered on the shores of Long Lake, where they encounter a bargeman named Bard, played by an actor who reminds me strongly of Inigo Montoya. They bribe him to smuggle them into Lake town, which is a slum truly worthy of Dickens, and ruled by a darkly comic version of Stalin, complete with the ever snooping secret police. After being captured attempting to steal weapons from the armory, Thorin makes a rousing speech on the courthouse steps, and wins the support of the Master of the town and the common people, and they are rapidly equipped for their journey to the Lonely Mountain.

In a strange and mysterious side plot, Kili was wounded with a poisoned orc arrow in their escape from Mirkwood, and is slowly slipping into pain and delirium, in a manner reminiscent of Frodo's wounding by a Morgul knife. Elf maiden Thuriel has pursued him all the way to Lake Town, and she and Legolas show up just in the nick of time to thwart an attack on him and the other two dwarves left behind there (What!?) when Thorin and the rest of the party headed for the mountain. When Legolas goes out to battle with Bolg and his buddies all on his lonesome, Thuriel uses athelas to make a poultice and draw the poison from his wound, and Kili is definitely lovestruck, or elfshot, or perhaps simply raving in madness, who knows?

I know that these Jackson epics tend to be rather long movies, but gone is any sense of time passing, and entire sections of the book have been deleted to speed things up. The dwarves, for example, arrive at the exact spot on the Lonely Mountain where the door is concealed just at sunset on Durin's Day. No waiting around whatsoever, just the whole band except Bilbo giving up in disgust when they don't find the keyhole by the dyingt rays of the sun, and our intrepid hobbit figuring out, or maybe dumbly stumbling across the fact that it's the first beams of the moon that reveals the spot.

Gone are the multiple trips down the passage to bandy riddles with an awakened dragon, the slow hauling back of loot to delight the dwarves. Bilbo wakes Smaug (who is truly magnificent and brilliantly voiced) with his clumsiness on his first trip down, engages in terrified conversation to stall him, finds the Arkenstone, and triggers the dragon's rage in one easy lesson. The dwarves rush to the heart of the mountain to rescue him, and what follows is the most confusing dragon vs. dwarves game of hide and seek you'll ever experience. What the heck was up with that giant golden dwarf king idol, anyway, Pete?

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