Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Tone of The Hobbit

Over the last five or so years, my mom asked me many times, “Do you think Peter Jackson will do The Hobbit?”

And for the last four, I always said, “No way!”

“Why not?” she’d ask.

“It’s not like The Lord of the Rings,” I’d say, sagely. “It’s a children’s book. There are fifteen primary characters with nearly indistinguishable names. It has talking trolls named William and Tom. The elves sing ‘tra-la-lally.’ Need I say more?”

I am now eating crow, for my mother’s hopes were right. But the crow, to use a weathered phrase, tastes like chicken. I was delighted when I found out that PJ was, in fact, doing The Hobbit. Doubtful, but delighted. It was quickly confirmed, and I could give full rein to my excitement.

Soon enough, however, the cynicism crept in again. The Cast? Who’s Bilbo? Have they got Ian McKellen? TWO movies? Will the trolls talk? Tra-la-lally?

The cast was near-perfect, Bilbo certainly was, there are now three movies, and yes, the trolls talk. No news on the tra-la-lally, yet. Over the months, if I’ve been bored, I can drum up a bit of Hobbit excitement on Now, the Day is almost here, but my traitorous brain is still trying to find reasons that PJ and the crew will go wrong.

It won’t be like the book. It’ll have a lot of corny humor. It’ll be (horror of horrors) politically correct. It’ll be a Ready-Made Blockbuster. Tolkien will be blasphemed.

But over the last few days, some really interesting things have popped to my attention, most of which were Phillipa Boyens’s comments.

Will it be politically correct?

Evangeline Lilly, to play Tauriel
When I first heard that they were adding a female kick-butt elf, Tauriel, I cringed. Tolkien definitely wasn’t sexist, but his books were decidedly old-fashioned. Eowyn is really the only female character to get an enormous amount of “page-time.” The insertion of a token female felt like it would do more harm than good, and they’d try to make her too modern for the world of Middle-Earth.

When, during the Comic-Con panel in San Diego, a girl asked Phillipa Boyens about this, I was pleasantly surprised by her answer. In an interview, she said much the same:

 This is a decision where you move away from being a Tolkien fan and you have to be a fan of film. [Oh boy, I thought. Here it comes.] It was a fairly easy decision as well because it just gets a little much – the weight of this masculine energy. It is pretty unrelenting. It’s in a good way and it’s wonderful, the dwarfs remind me of a really good rugby team. They are very staunch, hard dwarfs.
We could have introduced a female human character. But we decided on an elf. There was a little story thread in Lord of the Rings that we wanted to pick up on and develop and it involved a very feminine energy, so we decided to use it and the character of Tauriel came into being.
Masculine energy. Feminine energy. It’s almost as if females are more, you know, feminine, than males. As if there’s a difference between us. That’s not politically correct. Don’t get me wrong, there are tough girls out there, but as a rule, we’re more inclined to a more emotional, sympathetic, compassionate aura than guys. In my book, that’s a good thing. Admitting that difference, and also affirming that a little “feminine energy”, i.e. softer and un-kick-butt energy, is a good thing, is tremendously encouraging. Women will be women, and men be men. The decision was made because they wanted a lighter touch, and not just to be politically correct. In Tolkien, the women are very strong characters, but it’s a different type of strength from the men (except, perhaps in Eowyn’s case).

Will it be true to the book, or just a copy of The Lord of the Rings? Will it be stylistically dissimilar?

As Boyens said, the dwarves are not elves. Aidan Turner might look like him, but he’s not Orlando Bloom, and it seems like he won’t be acting like him either. Thus, the dwarves will not be as serious, noble, or grown-up as characters in The Lord of the Rings; they’ll be much more true to the funny, child-friendly atmosphere of The Hobbit book. That means Peter Jackson is creating something darker than the book, but not as dark as The Lord of the Rings, something rather brave on his part. Boyens reassures us : 
Even though Professor Tolkien did write it for children, it was always set against a larger whole. There are very strong elements that lead you into the wider mythology embedded in The Hobbit. But we wanted very much to keep its unique tone, that’s part of its charm! So we worked very hard at that, especially in this first film, which is your introduction to it all. The Dwarves, for instance, are very different to a bunch of posh Elves on a quest – they’re much more like a rugby team!
Andy Serkis's comments were similar:

 We saw our version of The Hobbit as an extension or prequel, so it can be thought of as six films. But it has just tons of humour in it! The characters are very vivid, especially the Dwarves – they’re individual and exciting and fun. There are characters and sub-plots which give it this texture and depth like Rings, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t have a brighter tone.
Will the film’s non-Christian writers stay true to Tolkien’s Catholic roots?

Rather weird, but to me this is one of the most important elements of Lord of the Rings’ success. There are three important themes in the books, which were singled out and given precedence by Boyens, Jackson and Walsh. Namely: hope, humility, and heaven.

Hope, and a determination to keep going against the greatest odds. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” This is sort of the motto of the first movie. Also, in the second, the realization that “there is some good in this world” fights despair, the opposite of hope. In the third, the story of Denethor illustrates what happens when despair overcomes all reason. And there’s more, but you get the picture.

Humility. “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.” The heroes of the movies are four-foot-tall people with pointy ears. The underdog wins.

Heaven. “White shores, and beyond, a far green country, under a swift sunrise.” And, of course, the Grey Havens scene.

This is all very orthodox. But what about The Hobbit? Since PJ and Boyens will be filling in a lot more background information, they’ll rely on their own imagination in many cases. Since at least Peter is an atheist (though he professes belief in some sort of “fate,” so agnostic might be more appropriate), this is slightly worrying. Some scenes (notably the Osgiliath soliloquy) were pitch-perfect, but I wonder how ideologically consistent they will be with Tolkien’s religious mindset in The Hobbit. The examples above give me some optimism, and I hope that they’ll keep those in mind while working out the major themes.

Will they get the character arcs right?

I really have no doubt about this one, but I felt it worth mentioning because I love the character development in The Hobbit. When I read it a few months ago (for the second time, the first being when I was five years old), I was immediately struck by the intriguing changes in two of the main characters.

The most prominent character arcs in The Hobbit are Bilbo’s and Thorin’s. Bilbo changes from a laidback, rather dull homebody into a tough, quick-witted, courageous and capable explorer. He also finds that his adventurous (Tookish) side is aroused by his escapades with the dwarves. Thus, it can be summarized that Bilbo’s major changes are from follower to leader, and from couch potato to go-getter. Ian McKellan’s remarks earlier this week reveal that he, at least, has got the right idea about the adventure, and I’m pretty sure that they’ll get Bilbo right.

Thorin starts out as an arrogant, greedy prig, and eventually morphs into a fallen, humbled, and repentant character. This could be a very powerful story, though I guess they’ll wait for the third film, There and Back Again, to focus on Thorin (like ROTK focused heavily on Aragorn – by extension, I think AUJ’s hero will be Bilbo, and TDOS’s hero will be Bard.) I really look forward to seeing how this works out, and the clash between Bilbo (newly born into a tough leader role) and Thorin (unwilling to see anyone else’s opinion) when Bilbo betrays him, will be wonderfully dramatic. I hope that they don’t try and make some sort of social commentary about greed (i.e. Smaug, The Master of Lake-Town and the dwarves are the 1%, Bard leads up the Occupy Erebor movement), and take a greater look at redemption and the forgiveness that Bilbo extends to his friend.

Will this be more Harry Potter-esque than The Lord of the Rings?

As someone who’s had to argue about the relative amounts of magic in fantasy, I’m really hoping that this doesn’t become a magic-focused movie. What magic there is in the books is almost unnoticeable, except for the undeniable power of Sauron. There is the occasional exploding pine cone, supernaturally locked door, and shattered staff, but there’s never any explanation as to how it’s done, and main characters don’t take part in it. (For more on that, see this excellent article.)

However, The Hobbit films are going to flesh out a new storyline, which is intended to explain what happens while Gandalf leaves the dwarves in Mirkwood. What happens is, Gandalf hooks up with The White Council (who are like the UN, but cooler), which includes magic bigwigs: Saruman, Galadriel, Elrond, and Radagast the Brown. Together, they lead an assault on the Necromancer’s stronghold in Southern Mirkwood, Dol Guldor (note: The Necromancer is later revealed to be Sauron). This battle is mentioned, but never described, in the Tolkien canon. That means Peter Jackson will be fleshing it out, and I worry very much that it’ll be a big use-the-Force, bright-flashes-of-light, dramatic-spell-casting battle.

This is not Tolkien style. The atmosphere of his battles (and those of LotR, accurately depicted) was much more like Henry V or Braveheart (minus the graphic violence) than the magical Harry Potter. It was very real. If Peter Jackson has a battle that is fought mainly by the wizards, he could try and fill in the blanks, which I think would be majorly incongruent with the feel of the other battles. I’d rather there not be a repeat of the Saruman vs. Gandalf Wizard Smackdown in Fellowship. But if there is, I hope it sticks to that general idea, i.e. point your staff and he flies across the room, and not complex-Elvish-spell-contact-the-spirits mumbo-jumbo.

Will PJ succumb to the magic mania? I hope not, but I doubt we’ll know until the second movie, when, I assume, the battle for Dol Guldor will take place. On the other hand, this comment from Jackson was reassuring:

[M]y entire career I’ve tried to make my stuff real in the context of what it is. Whether it’s zombies or whether it’s Middle-earth or a gorilla, whatever it is, I’ve always tried to make it as real as I possibly can. Like, just down to the texture of the world and the costumes and the languages they speak and the performances of the actors to be authentic, I mean, real is what I’m after and if I can use a 48 frames whatever technology there is to make it more real, that’s fine by me. I don’t subscribe at all to the idea where it’s fantasy so it can't be real. The best fantasy is real.

I hope he sticks to that and doesn’t try and make it more fantastical than it should be.

So, those are some thoughts. In two weeks, I’ll find out if I’m right. There will probably be a review, if I can bring myself to take notes in the theater.


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