The Hobbit: The Desecration of Tolkien

So we went and saw The Hobbit, Desolation of Smu-ogg (as apparently it’s pronounced, though I’ve always (in my mind) pronounced it with one syllable — smaug or smog).

I used to read The Hobbit — along with The Lord of The Rings trilogy — every other year at Christmas time, so for me the books feel like winter and Christmas trees, fireplaces and sugar cookies.

Here’s a thought: The best part about J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were never the battle scenes we all suffered through in the movies. The battle scenes only lasted a page or two; and were secondary to what Tolkien did best: Describe the magic and wonder of traveling and companionship.

The finest moments of Tolkien’s writings are watching the characters get from one place to the next. His books are literary versions of cinematic road-trip buddy films, where the best parts always happen in that time between when the characters leave and when they arrive.

Anyway.

So we’re sitting in the dark at a crowded Aksarben Theater auditorium watching as elves Legolas and Taurial slice through a clutch of orcs, lopping off one ugly CGI head after another, and I lean over and whisper to Teresa: “Not in the book.”

She nods. She’s read the book, too; many many moons ago.

As Fili (or Kili, I can’t remember which), writhes in pain, dying from an arrow in his leg, I turn once again and whisper, “Not in the book.

As the band of dwarves ducks arrows and flying hatchets, their heads sticking out of large wooden barrels (rather than being sealed inside), again I note, not in the book.

As Gandalf confronts the giant fiery eye that is Sauron and is taken prisoner: Not in the book.

As Bilbo scans the massive vault of gold looking for the Arkenstone, then desperately chases it down piles of gold in full view of the dragon: Not in the book.

And on and on and on.

As we’re leaving the theater I mumble, “It’s all a money grab.” After ruining The Lord of the Rings with endless boring battle scenes but making a zillion dollars in the process, director Peter Jackson reread The Hobbit and thought, “Hmmm, not much of a book, but I think we can stretch this into a trilogy, too,” and set about rewriting, assuming a few things:

1.  Not too many people read the book and/or care if I rewrite it, and the ones that did, well, f**k ‘em.

2. The fans love Orlando Bloom.

3. A movie isn’t a book. A director can take creative liberty with the source material if it enhances the story as told in this very different medium.

4. Why make one Christmas box-office smash when you can make three?

5. Action = $$$

Look, the changes Jackson made have been well-documented by much smarter nerds than myself. But what’s surprising is how little outcry there’s been to the Desecration of Tolkien. In fact, in what can only be considered a prescient move The Wall Street Journal blog published a counter-point to any and all nerd-whining by uber nerd Corey Olson, a Tolkien scholar and “President of the Mythgard Institute.”

Olson explains away Jackson’s perceived greed by stating: “The mere fact that Jackson’s film includes characters, elements, or events that are ‘not in the book’ … doesn’t prove that the films are unfaithful to Tolkien’s vision. The film trilogy is not attempting to retell the early, standalone children’s story, but to adapt into one sweeping narrative the Hobbit story as Tolkien expanded it later in his career." 

In other words, Jackson rewrote the The Hobbit to better fit not only his own personal cinematic vision of The Lord of the Rings saga, but also what he perceived to be Tolkien’s vision, which simply didn’t exist in Tolkien’s head at the time he wrote The Hobbit. It had nothing to do with money, you cynical twits.

Maybe so, maybe so. But something tells me Olson is one of those guys who loves drawn-out battle scenes and skips over the “boring stuff” from Tolkien books. Stuff like Chapter VII: Queer Lodgings, a portion of the book that charmingly describes the adventurers’ time spent at Beorn’s lodge shortly after being saved by the great eagles, where it is slowly revealed that Beorn is actually a frickin' skin-changing bear.

In Tolkien’s world, Beorn is this great, jolly, lovable, curious creature, the complete opposite of the terrifying, angry, blood-thirsty bear-man in Jackson’s world who is still mourning the death of his race of people, of which he is the last.

And that's the heart of the problem.

More troubling than adding new characters, situations and unnecessary love-story subplots, is the exclusion of the small, charming, quiet moments that fill the spaces between perils.

Jackson stripped away all the wonder and magic of Tolkien’s books (Who remembers Tom Bombadil?) and replaced them with hate, fear and dollops of bloody head-chopping death.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. The rule in Hollywood has always been give the people -- or in this case, the ticket-buyers -- what they want. If last weekend's tallies are any indication ($73.6 million domestic) Jackson did exactly that, and will be hailed once again as a box-office hero, while somewhere in Oxford Tolkien spins frantically in his grave. At least he will always have his pages, where the real magic truly lies.


Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 09:19 am
on Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

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