Tuesday, December 31

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Directed by Peter Jackson

Well, here I am for the second Hobbit movie, as late or later seeing it than I was the first last year [link]. December is just an intrinsically busy time of year what with end-of-semester duties, holiday preparations, and so forth. Plus I had a very bad cold on top of a pile of essays to read over the opening weekend. Long and short, as much as I was looking forward to it, I seem to be the last person I know who wanted to see it who has seen it!

Also, whereas last year the delay in seeing it meant that my only option was 3D, a format I generally do not prefer, this year my only option was 2D. Frankly, I did not miss the 3D, although I may well have opted for it if I had a choice, based on the recommendation of a couple of friends. Oh well. I don't think my enjoyment of the movie suffered in the least.

And enjoy it I did. I've long said that I like Peter Jackson's overall vision of Middle-earth, imperfect though it might be, with certain details inevitably wrong – or if not wrong then certainly different than my imagination – enough that I value the chance once again to visit it for a couple of hours. It's certainly the closest “live-action” portrayl of what I imagine Tolkien envisioned that I'll ever live to see. There in the darkness of the theatre, before the big screen (with or without 3D), with decent stereo, it's easy to immerse oneself in that wonderful, magical world and feel as comfortable as in my easy chair at home, in a well-worn robe with a fine wine and a good book, and lose myself for a while. Really, Peter Jackson could make a movie with these characters just sitting around a table in the tavern in Bree, relating tales and legends from the long history of Middle-earth, and I'd be there watching.

(Say, that sounds like a very good way to frame what would objectively be an insane undertaking, crafting a third trilogy of movies out of what I consider to be J. R. R. Tolkien's very best if least-read work, The Silmarillion. If any director could make that work, it would be Peter Jackson! I might be the only person who would go see it, but oh how I would love the chance to do so....)

As to the specifics of this movie, just as in part one the expansions to Tolkien's narrative generally worked for me, given the task the latter-day creators have set for themselves, that of creating a comparably epic trilogy of movies out of a single shorter novel as they accomplished a decade ago from a much longer “trilogy” of novels. (I put that latter in quotation marks because, properly and as intended by Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings is not a “trilogy” at all, but one long story.) The interpolations were generally well-written, generally maintaining the tone of Tolkien's own work as interpreted through Jackson's lens. Once again there was an attempt to interject a minor bit of sexually suggestive humor, but this example I did not find as glaringly forced as in the first movie. And once again there were times when I felt individual scenes were carried just a bit too long in their compulsion to wring out as much screen time and “epicness” as possible. Luckily not any single example seemed excessively out-of-line with any other, but the additive effect was noticeable. I can imagine a viewer not so enraptured by the Jackson-Tolkien world starting to squirm in their seat by the time this movie ends so abruptly, uncharacteristically not reaching a natural break in the story. (My own squirming in the last few minutes had nothing to do with being ready for the movie to be over....) In contrast, just the day before I saw this my niece had wanted to watch The Lord of the Rings and we made it through both Fellowship and Two Towers (original theatrical versions) with no such sense of dragging at any point. Once again, I just have to maintain that The Hobbit is not on the same level. But it's better than just about anything else that's appeared this or any other year. And I look forward to the appearance of the third Hobbit film next December – has a subtitle been announced? – Hopefully I can make my way to the theatre closer to the debut!

Here are just a few random comments and questions that I thought about....
  • Was that Peter Jackson walking out of a door in Bree, the very first face you see (fleetingly) on screen?
  • What would Tolkien have thought about a budding romance between a dwarf and an elf? And could it go anywhere? … The whole subplot of Kili and the totally new character Tauriel is an addition to the story, of course, created of whole cloth, but even as I was watching it and thinking that it was playing out quite well in terms of the movie, those thoughts crossed my mind. I don't think there's an easy answer. Yes, Tolkien does include several vitally important examples of “mixed marriages” in his works. The only two I can come up with off the top of my head are Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings and Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion – were there others? But if I recall correctly those are only between the two “races” created directly by God Himself (Whom the elves call Iluvatar), the Firstborn elves and the Secondborn men. – Oh, yeah, there is at least a third example, the elf-lord Elu Thingol and Melian, the latter being a Maia, a lower-ranking angel of the same order (the Maiar) as (interestingly enough) would be the five wizards (Gandalf, et al.) as well as Sauron himself. Which means that Thingol and Melian's daughter Luthien was literally half-angelic! … – In any case, the dwarves were, in Tolkien's mythology, of a lower order of creation, crafted by Aule, a Vala (higher-ranking angel – plural Valar) given charge of the making of the earth itself. Because Aule had not presumptuously crafted the dwarves out of pride but rather from an imperfect knowledge of Iluvatar's plan and a desire to share experience of the world he was crafting at Iluvatar's behest, Iluvatar had graced Aule's creatures with life. But they were not counted among the Children of Iluvatar. These are the kinds of great things you can learn reading just the earliest parts of The Silmarillion.... Anyway, I'm not sure Tolkien ever envisioned such miscegenation outside the ranks of the Children of Iluvatar – the infatuation which struck Gimli upon meeting Galadriel notwithstanding.
  • Do we have an example of multicultural inclusiveness run amuck in this movie? Among the typical northern European faces that populated the crowd in Laketown – and if you know the geography of Middle-earth and the cultural heritage out of which Tolkien built his mythology, you know that's very appropriate – there were, rather jarringly for me, several black faces as well. I know that Tolkien has been accused of perpetuating racist stereotypes in his books, a charge I consider to be unfair beyond the prejudices that were simply part and parcel of his time and place, but I don't think that matters to this question.  On further reflection I don't know that the inclusion of those obviously other racial types was necessarily out of place in any case – in the particular context of Laketown. If there would be any place in the areas of Tolkien's world that would be cosmopolitan enough to have such a mixed population, would it not be Laketown given its stated status as a center of widespread trade?  Such commercial nexuses have historically attracted both people and goods from widely divergent regions, as well as historically being centers for admixture of "progressive" ideas such as seem to be developing among the people here with their talk of "elections."
  • I have no idea if the implicit link was in any way intentional – or even realized on the part of the creators of this movie – but was had a big, silly grin on my face at the coolness and significance of the bees that kept buzzing around Beorn's place. Follow me here: Beorn is called a “skinchanger,” a concept at least partially playing out of old Viking tales of berserkers, warriors who were imagined to take on the character and power of a bear when they donned a bear-skin, but I want to go a different direction. A better word for Beorn might be a “were-bear” (sorry for the rhyme! – it always makes me think of Care Bears!) (like a werewolf, but without all the legend associated with the idea of a man who can transform into a wolf – were simply comes from an old Germanic word for “man,” cognate with Latin vir). The name Beorn itself comes from an old Germanic word that could mean either “man” (Old English) or “bear” (Old Norse). Which is all cool enough, but one of Tolkien's major areas of study was the Old English poem Beowulf, whose eponymous main character's interesting name is in fact a kenning, and Old English poetic-descriptive phrase – “bee-wolf” – “one who ravages bees” as a bear does for their honey! I've seen it speculated that “Beowulf” was in fact a warrior named Beorn. To give such prominence to the giant bees buzzing along around tells me at least that somebody involved in production was aware of the connections. And I thought that was cool. Yeah, us academics geek out over the strangest things....
  • And to end with a final, snarky comment – I guess we learned in this movie that elves age backwards just like wizards (like Merlin in The Once and Future King)! Sorry, Orlando, you are definitely showing your years.
Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!

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