Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Desolation of Tolkien

Yesterday afternoon I sat through The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second instalment of Peter Jackson's elaborate adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. This Composer's Notebook post isn't about Howard Shore's score and I say sat through because the film, like the book, is episodic and I had no idea how much of the story I would be treated to before it ended.

This was complicated by additions to the plot (whether originating with the creative team or inferred from other Tolkien works I can't say) which postponed the inevitable destruction of Laketown by Smaug, the Dragon, until this time next year.

I'm not crazy about the book. I read the LOTR in my late teens and have re-read it a couple of times. But I first read the Hobbit aloud to a class of 11 year olds. I subsequently read it aloud to children perhaps a half dozen times. It's not an ideal Read-Aloud novel. It's overly long and wordy. But, because most of the characters are male, because it is a fantasy adventure and because it is so easy for boys to identify with the protagonist, it engages them in a way that most other books can't. It has mature world view, and literary and artistic merit. Reading such a book aloud to children was a way to share these values with my students.

Many of the criticisms of the first film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were made precisely because the movie was much like the first part of the book. The book is a short epic and a picaresque adventure besides. It goes on for 365 pages of small type in paperback. Both film and book take some time to get going, even drag a bit. But the first part of the book is only the set-up and was never intended (as critics thought the film was) to stand on its own.

I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug less than the first movie because it's so unlike the novel. Characters are added like Tauriel, a female elf warrior, for example, who, armed with a bow, reminded me of the publicity shots of The Hunger Games.

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

There are orc battles, reminiscent of the LOTR movies. At one point, as Legolas bounced across a raging river, slaying orcs as he went, the viewer might easily be watching a video game. Legolas, incidentally, isn't a character in Tolkien's The Hobbit. He's introduced in the LOTR.

Orlando Bloom as Legolas

This time, Jackson has turned The Hobbit into another fantasy-action film, much like any other fantasy-action film.

It's one thing to write an original story, with an original setting and characters, as James Cameron did with Avatar, and quite another to take an established literary classic like The Hobbit and alter it so much that it hardly resembles its source beyond the broad plot outline.

It's what happened to the James Bond novels after the first two films. By the end of the sixties only the books' titles and Bond himself remained in the films.

Sir Thomas Sean Connery as James Bond

In the case of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, it's my opinion that it's really too bad, but I will go back and see the end of the story at this time next year, as will millions of other paying customers. This film is, after all, commercial art.

1 comment:

  1. Ah! I haven't seen TDOS yet, but it sounds as if the worst tendencies marring Jackson's previous Tolkien treatments are only getting more out of hand with time.