The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

You have no power here

hobbit3By the mercy of the Valar, Peter Jackson’s (hopefully) final Tolkien adaptation is leaner and more concise than the previous two, yet highlights the exact problems with creating three films out of a shorter-than-most-novellas-and-many-poetry-collections novel for children.  Remember PJEs from last time?  As sad as I am to see them go, I am not sad to see them go.

The Battle of the Five Armies, previously entitled There and Back Again, begins with what should have been the final ten minutes of The Desolation of Smaug in place of the mindless “kill the dragon with the stuff he literally sleeps under” fandango: Bard (Luke Evans), temporarily incarcerated by the Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry), breaks out of his flimsy cage and kills Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch collecting his easiest paycheck yet) by firing the arrow we’ve heard all about into the hole in Smaug’s hide that we’ve heard all about, in the process using his young son as a stabilizer for his bolt – since this is mostly invention anyway, a way to create actual stakes would have been to have Bard’s son perish as the lifeless dragon plummets into the burning Dale, but then our Boring Hero would not have been quite so boring, and we can’t have that.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is now stuck inside the reclaimed Erebor with Scrooge – er, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and company, previously tricked by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) into becoming the company’s “burglar.”  Thorin has become obsessed with protecting his own gold, and refuses to aid the people of Lake Town in rebuilding, taking back his promise to fulfill their claim of Erebor’s treasure in the process.  The Mirkwood Elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and including Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) also have a claim – some of their ancestors’ MacGuffins lie inside Erebor – and wait things out with Bard, but to no avail.  Bilbo, having had enough of Thorin’s crap, hands over the Arkenstone (one of the three main MacGuffins in Tolkien’s legendarium, after the One Ring and the Silmarils) to the allied Men and Elves, hoping that a ransom will do the trick.  But Thorin has to deal with his issues on his own, and while everyone argues, a massive army of CGI Orcs marches upon Erebor (their mischief quota for the decade has not yet been met, and now they can wipe out all of the do-gooders at once).

Unlike the second installment, this film actually feels finished.  It’s certainly not the “defining chapter,” but similar to An Unexpected Journey, the adapted parts turn out pretty well, specifically the expunging of Sauron (in animated GIF form) from Dol Guldur by the White Council, composed of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and the not-yet-corrupted Saruman (Christopher Lee).  Galadriel is given the task of banishing Sauron with her incredible power, while the others hold off the Nazgul (!), and what could have been a disastrous repeat of the Dol Guldur battle in the second film accomplishes quite a bit: Galadriel, one of the only two women among the film’s roughly thirty speaking roles, is given an important task to do while keeping in step with the mythology.  Her standoff, in “blue” form, with Sauron (which would be truly tense if not for the fact that we know she defeats him because we’ve already seen the “sequels”) illustrates exactly why she is so terrified of being offered the One Ring later.  Cate Blanchett slips back into the role as easily as if they’d filmed this in conjunction with The Fellowship of the Ring, and I almost high-fived the stranger next to me in the theatre when Galadriel casually strutted barefoot into the Orc-infested pits of Dol Guldur and began destroying enemies with the wave of a hand.

The film also highlights Thorin’s greed (albeit spinning its tires to the point of near-baldness to do so).  His decision to break his oath is worse than anything done by the film’s Orc villains, Azog and Bolg (calling them one-note would be an insult to stock characters).  This section, though, is one of the most egregious examples of how this film, 144 minutes, should have been even leaner.  Nearly every shot in the film is too long.  Every integral character has multiple closeups with serious looks on their faces whilst their hair blows in slow motion.  Conversations that already went on for too long are repeated in other characters’ heads later.  One of the film’s opening shots is a closeup of Tauriel that lasts for so long that one can almost hear the filmmakers saying, “Look! We got a woman to agree to be in this!”  Countless scenes are comprised of cliche’ non-Tolkien dialogue, including a dozen versions of this: That army was bred for one purpose. / What purpose? / (pause) War.  There are more villain-slowly-raises-weapon-to-kill-hero-leaving-just-enough-time-for-another-hero-to-stop-him scenarios than in every LotR film combined.  The eponymous battle looks like it’s about to end countless times, only for something to go wrong or another horde to show up.  The central fights in the battle (Thorin vs. Azog; Legolas/Tauriel vs. Bolg) start out well enough, tense enough, engaging enough, but employ misleads and “you only thought he was dead” moments ad nauseum.  The protracting of these scenes only highlights the series’s ongoing CG issues (cartoonish elf stunts, characters blipping across the screen, video-gamey movements, mounts appearing as blobs of color, etc.) and storytelling problems: after so much focus on the Erebor quest, why don’t we find out what happens to it and the Arkenstone after the battle’s end (in the novel, Dain, Thorin’s cousin, played here by Billy Connolly as a belligerent Irishman, takes over)?  Why is so much tension given to whether a battle will break out, when the title of the movie already gives that away?  Why isn’t Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the funniest and most important supporting characters in the book, not to mention completely unique compared to the dwarf/elf/human/orc archetypes that constitute the main cast, featured more?  Why does Tauriel care about Kili (Aidan Turner)?  What does she decide to do after deciding that love is nothing but pain?  In what ways is this almost-relationship meant to be a revelation (i.e. Thranduil knows about Beren/lLuthien and Aragorn/Arwen, yo!)?  Why isn’t Tauriel allowed to kill Bolg, when they’re both essentially inventions for this film, and when she’s the only one who has any real motivation to do so (besides just winning the battle)? Why do we see Legolas mourning a comrade’s death when The Fellowship of the Ring makes clear that he’s never had to deal with death before?  Why does he have to go hang out with Aragorn now?  Why does Bard’s son get involved in the fighting, but his daughters just make scared faces?  Why don’t we see the women (i.e. wives and daughters of the Lake Men) fight in the battle after they decide to fight? Why drag out the existence of made-up character Alfrid (Ryan Gage) and not have him do anything?  Maybe his scenes are misplaced attempts at humor, but his final sendoff, in which Bard essentially calls him a coward by calling him a girl, is in pretty poor taste.

The most important issue is one that bears repeating: you cannot create tension or stakes in a prequel by introducing material that has already been resolved in the originals.  If you drink a single milligram of arsenic every time this film focuses on a contrived lead-in to something that happens in the LotR trilogy, you will be dead before the credits.

The titular hobbit does a bit more this time around, and the film ends (as it should/must/etc.) with him.  The final scene takes a moment to reflect upon all we’ve been through with the movie versions of the hobbits, and then reminds us exactly where we began.  This is one of maybe two scenes that evoke any real emotion in the film, mostly because none of the characters have actually been characterized or deepened.  The other scene is Bilbo’s tearful farewell to dying Thorin, who apologizes profusely for his selfish actions earlier.  The scene works because Freeman and Armitage are adept actors who have spent a lot of time playing opposite one another; however, it falls slightly short because it mirrors the scene between Aragorn and Boromir in Fellowship, and the core issue is that it’s the same moment.

Many of the issues are with Tolkien, including the continuous exclusion of women (none appear in The Hobbit; none are a part of the Fellowship of nine, few do anything of importance in The Silmarillion besides die), but most of it is with the filmmakers.  The story could have been more succinct with one movie or even two, but three installments that all breach 2.5 hours actually lampshades the absence of character growth.  The most complete piece of the Hobbit film trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies puts forth an (mostly) honest effort, and is, for the foreseeable future, the last one I’ll get a chance to look at.  Y’know, unless New Line greenlights an Azog n’ Friends spinoff.

Read my writeup of The Desolation of Smaug here, and An Unexpected Journey here.

Check out a Tolkien-based film I worked on here and here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014); based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; screenplay by Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, and Evangeline Lilly.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

What have we done?

la_ca_1016_the_hobbitI don’t know who’s paying reviewers to say that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is leaps and bounds better than the mediocre first film, but as they say, the money-hose runs long (actually, I just made that up).  I wrote a bit about narrative payoff in the newest Disney film, which seemed all well and validated until last night.  The Desolation of Smaug makes Frozen look like Pulp Fiction.

We joked all throughout the aughts about Peter Jackson’s love for All Things Orc, and when he shoehorned Orcs into the first Hobbit film (for the laymen: Orcs do not appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit novel), even that seemed somewhat okay, since yes, the novel did have an army of Goblins (later referred to as a type of Orc in The Lord of the Rings) led by Bolg, the sworn enemy of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage in the films), son of Azog, the sworn enemy of Thorin’s ancestors, and as we all know, the Boring Hero of a fantasy film must have an appropriate foil.  But in the first film, it wasn’t Bolg; it was Azog, who in Tolkien’s mythology is dead a century before the novel begins.  Alright, I thought.  Maybe PJ liked Azog’s name better.  Bolg didn’t do much other than get squished by Beorn off-page, so no harm done.  But then I remembered how many Orcs and Uruk-Hai received their own scenes in the first trilogy of films.  I recalled lines like “We ain’t had nothin’ but maggoty bread for three stinkin’ days!” Okay, okay, I thought.  This is all because they’re making a trilogy, and need to have a bad guy to knock off in a duel at the end, so let’s stick it out until Azog bites it and Bolg takes over the army in the next one.  And then Azog did not die, and what’s worse, I hadn’t brought anything to throw at the screen.

The new film is All Orcs All the Time (actually a better title than the one it has).  The wonder and magic are gone, as are all attempts to adapt the novel.  Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the most interesting and important characters in the novel, and also the subject of one of the novel’s funniest and most involving scenes, receives two or three minutes onscreen, wherein he says and does nothing that makes any difference or sense, before being shoved aside for scenes of computer-generated Orcs saying corny bad guy crap to one another.  Remember Barrels Out of Bond?  That’s included, but it’s extended to about twenty minutes so that a thousand Orcs can be killed trying to stop the barrels from floating down the river while simultaneously battling other characters who are not in the novel, such as Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whose makeup so heavily tries to hide how much older and differently built than he was in the LotR films that his face might as well be animatronic – in fact, most of his fighting is done by a CG version of him, and it’s some of the most embarrassingly bad CG that I’ve ever seen onscreen.  Even the dwarves in the barrels appear as blobs of CG color.  Did they dump the entire animation budget into Smaug, spitball this stuff together, and just say “Fuck it; the Ringers won’t notice or care”?  If there’s a chase scene, there are Orcs involved.  If there’s a narrow or dark passage, an Orc is lurking somewhere.  If a new set is introduced, you can bet the Orcs will want to visit it.  If someone is eating a cake, an Orc will pop out.

The overt “prophecy” stuff about the dwarves takes a front seat.  Thorin is supposed to retake Erebor and become King Under the Mountain.  He believes and pursues this without question, even referring to people who might be sacrificed in the wake of this pursuit by their races instead of their names, absolving himself of all blame for their deaths.  He has a scene wherein he becomes not unlike Sean Bean’s Boromir in a fumbling attempt to snatch the Arkenstone.  Here’s the problem: no one in the theatre – and more importantly, not even the lens of the film itself – seems to realize that Thorin is the villain.  He’s the one making all of these bad things happen.  His adventure is putting everyone in danger and bringing back to life a dragon so steadfastly evil that he actually utters the phrase “I am death” – and not even to intimidate anyone; he says it to himself!  Thorin will not succeed in the end, of course, but none of Tolkien’s (nor Jackson’s) narrative remotely suggests that he gets what’s coming to him.

There’s an unbelievable amount of focus on material meant to raise the stakes, but the film falls victim to an ancient blunder: you cannot raise the stakes in a prequel by introducing stuff that has already been resolved in the originals.  Gandalf (Ian McKellan) goes head to head with the Necromancer (Sauron) before getting captured at the end.  Is anyone truly afraid for him?  Similarly, when the One Ring rolls away, is anyone afraid that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) will not retrieve it?  In further distractions, even the barely-relevant Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry, basically playing himself) has his own scenes with yet another Jackson-invented character, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who essentially fills the “Wormtongue Lite” role.  Furthermore, an excruciating amount of screentime is devoted to Kili (Aidan Turner), who falls for the flawless Tauriel in much the same way that Gimli becomes infatuated with Galadriel.  But it’s different this time because none of this, including Tauriel, is in the book, and readers know that any nuance or depth concerning Kili’s character doesn’t matter much at the end of the next film anyway.

You’ll notice that I have barely mentioned Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit.  That’s because his role, the essential narrative voice of the novel (albeit told in vintage Tolkien third-person) is relegated to cameo status here.  There were times that the film lingered so long on Orcs and dwarves that I actually forgot about Martin Freeman’s involvement.  He saves the dwarves’ lives more than once, but the profoundness of these feats is never mentioned by anyone (Gandalf at one point chalks everything up to Bilbo not being “the same Hobbit who left the Shire,” and we’re left to accept him as a generic warrior character to go with the other thirteen).

If you’ve made it this far, I’ll say this: Bilbo’s scene with the Mirkwood spiders is very good, and even includes the twisted speech of the spiders, and the horrifying revelation (to those who pay attention) that Bilbo’s desire to keep the ring is more than fairly similar to the spiders’ blind desire to feast on living flesh.  But it’s soon punctuated by yet another unwelcome and noncanon arrival of the Elves, whom Jackson shoved into Helm’s Deep (where they did not belong), and now has them rescue our gang from spiders and Orcs using painfully choreographed bull-shitsu, most of which is animated and not performed by the actors or stuntmen.  The involvement of Gandalf is well done, despite the fact that his trek to Dol Guldur is not shown in the novel, because it’s simple: he wants to check out a suspicious magician whom he (correctly) presumes to be Sauron.  So he joins Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, still covered in bird shit) and heads to the center of the problem.  It’s straightforward and mostly relevant.  Take a guess at whether he fights Orcs, though.

And then there’s Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a creature so painstakingly created that he took the entire title of the film for himself.  The scene with Smaug is great in the novel not because we see a cool dragon or a battle, but because we see a genuine bit of characterization on the part of Bilbo: due to the Ring’s influence, he begins arrogantly taunting Smaug without even thinking about it.  In the film, he still refers to himself as Riddle Maker and Barrel Rider, but he does it all jittery-like, and both characters react to the other exactly as you’d expect characters in a fantasy movie, and not from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, to react.  The wordplay soon moves aside in favor of a film-invented battle with the dwarves, whom, again, readers know will not succeed in melting Smaug’s indestructible hide with molten gold (although it takes us a half hour to get there before the film abruptly drops us).  Wherever there arises the opportunity for a cliffhanger, there will be one.  Even Legolas’s lakeside duel with Bolg ends in a stalemate.  Smaug, though, is expertly animated and acted, albeit at the expense of the filmmakers’ one true love: the Orcs.  Evangeline Lilly’s involvement is also a welcome breath, adding a feminine energy and voice that the story desperately needs.

The biggest chip I carry is that ever since the original Rings films, I have continuously suspected that Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, reread as they might, have no idea what Tolkien’s books were actually about, and this was Tolkien’s biggest fear and pet peeve when it came to adaptations of his work.  It’s so easy for someone with the money and fanbase of New Line to say that a certain addition is “in the spirit of Tolkien,” when in fact, there was a reason he did not write penis jokes, ten-page battles with Orcs, and a wrestling match atop Mount Doom.  Tolkien’s cultural insensitivity aside, he knew the workings of his own universe.

All things considered, I can say with genuine honesty that I think the final chapter (which should have been this one, considering the amount of taffy-style narrative stretching seen here) will be better in all ways, if we can find our way back to even a single facet of what makes the story resonate – the smallness of it all, the deliberate and unique narrative, the characterization of Bilbo.  Is it an “enjoyable” film?  Yeah, sure.  But as I’ve said, spectacle and entertainment do not make quality art.  Leave the enjoyment to the Wargs.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013); based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lilly, and Richard Armitage.

Treasure Island

Them that die’ll be the lucky ones

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) is the novel that propagated virtually every popular misconception about Caribbean pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy: parrots on shoulders, “arr matey” dialect, the Black Spot, one-legged seamen, schooners, buried treasure, deserted tropical islands, and maps marked with an “X” – that’s right, none of it is real.  The main themes of the novel, namely friendship, a boy’s coming-of-age, and the ambiguity of morality (and thus masculinity) were rare for the time (and to an extent still are), but are reflected incredibly well through each of the novel’s chapters; this, along with the story’s atmosphere, action, and sense of adventure, have resulted in Treasure Island being one of the most adapted (and ripped-off) pieces of long literature in the history of the English canon.

You’d think, then, a fairly accurate adaptation would be pretty easy to do in 2012.  After all, the novel was written with young boys as a target audience, so the narrative never becomes twisted, confusing, or laced with literary devices that might pass over an unseasoned reader’s head.  With the technology available to big-budget filmmakers, new adaptations of books could be masterful pieces of art, despite being a medium far inferior to the written work, and generate some new interest in canonized diamonds of literature.  But there is an obsessive need in the film world (and not just Hollywood) to make a piece one’s own, and while you can do that with stylistic direction, editing, and set design, you are not allowed to change the fundamentals of the original in order to make it your own story; at that point, you’re just plagiarizing.  When I did my adaptation of two stories from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (Wings Over Arda: The First Age), I kept in mind that I was doing this in part as a writing/film project, but also out of love for the original material.  The only gaps I had to fill in were dialogue gaps, as Tolkien’s piece was written as mythology (i.e. heavy summary is involved).  As a result, folks thrice my age who were reading Tolkien before my parents even met have expressed joy at my “accurate” adaptation, and this was accomplished with one camera and one local bank account.  Canadian author Douglas Glover called the project “an amazing adventure” and said, “What’s most exciting is that this isn’t some big budget extravaganza, no Hollywood packaging deal; this is real people who haven’t waited for the money gods to touch them or for their degrees from USC film school, people just following their passion and making art.”  Perhaps the key is that I don’t want to be a filmmaker; I just wanted to do a film project that focused on writing, or, more likely, that I realized that this piece of writing is someone else’s – I love the original story; why would I want to change it?  What gives me the RIGHT to?  I consider the screenplay and final film my own work, but the story certainly doesn’t belong to me.  During production, I kept a film diary, which was published and can be seen in Numero Cinq Magazine if you’re interested in how this came about.

So how does director Steve Barron deal with his film’s source material?  Let’s take a look.  For those who may not be familiar with Stevenson’s work, Treasure Island is narrated by Jim Hawkins (played here by young British actor Toby Regbo), the son of the owners of the Admiral Benbow Inn, Black Hill Cove, in the mid-18th century.  In the novel, a mysterious wayward seaman who asks to be identified only as “The Captain” pays a generous sum for an extended stay at the inn, and he becomes something of a local treasure because the locals love his tales of seafaring and buccaneering.  One day, however, his former shipmates – ne’er-do-well pirates – violently attack the Benbow in search of a treasure map the Captain holds (his name is also revealed as Billy Bones, now one of the most famous pirate characters in literature).  Jim escapes with the map, having rifled through Bones’ sea chest in search of the money he owed the inn, and meets with Dr. Livesy (Daniel Mays), and along with Squire Trelawney (Rupert Penry-Jones), determines that the “X” on the map marks the location of a fabulous treasure (worth roughly 700,000 British pounds) long-ago buried by the infamous Captain Flint, for whom Bones worked as first mate.  The trio plan a voyage to the island where the treasure lies, hiring a crew that includes sea cook Long John Silver (played in this adaptation by the adept Eddie Izzard), who brings several of his mates onboard.  Barron’s film handles these early scenes relatively well as far as pacing goes, aside from the inexplicable (yet inspired) choice to portray Bones (David Harewood) as Jamaican, but the atmosphere and classic seagoing intrigue of the novels is subverted by a somewhat indulgent decision to place a prologue at the front of the film, depicting Captain Flint (Donald Sutherland) burying the treasure and mistreating/murdering some of his crew.  This not only eliminates any mystery surrounding the original voyage, but also spoils the fact that Silver and the crewmates he brought along were, along with Bones, members of Flint’s original crew, who believe the treasure is rightfully theirs.  This prologue reeks of studio intervention – a direct order to immediately and obligatorily establish the fact that Donald Sutherland, Eddie Izzard, and Elijah Wood are in this film – as well as falling into an action-movie trap.  Additionally, a short scene before the final raid on the Benbow gives away the fact that Silver is the one sending pirates to retrieve the map from Bones, spoiling Bones’ wonderfully cryptic warnings in the novel about a one-legged man:

He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my “weathereye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” 

Even Muppet Treasure Island got that right.  Why the shameless exposition?  Why eliminate any and all mystery surrounding the voyage?  No matter, the plot structure remains generally the same, with Jim and the crew meeting Silver at the docks of Bristol.  Once the ship reaches the island, Silver leads a mutiny, planning to murder those who don’t acknowledge him as captain and help him obtain the treasure.  Up to this point, Jim and Silver develop something of a father-son relationship, and even after the iconic (and endlessly copied) scene in which Jim overhears the pirates’ dastardly scheme while hiding in an apple barrel, we still want to like Long John.  Why?  Because of his gift of language and his kind disposition throughout the entire voyage:

All the crew respected and even obeyed [Long John Silver]. He had a way of talking to each and doing everybody some particular service. To me he was unweariedly kind, and always glad to see me in the galley, which he kept as clean as a new pin, the dishes hanging up burnished and his parrot in a cage in one corner.   

Considering Silver’s plan, it’s in his best interest to get everyone to like him, but this hardly changes the fact that he’s making the ship a better place by being so kind and cheerful.  Despite his true feelings for the ship’s officers, this makes him a more likeable character (and thus one we continually want to trust) than pirates like Israel Hands (played by Geoff Bell and named after the real-life Blackbeard’s first mate), who is so hateful he can’t even pretend to be a decent human being.  Much of this is preserved in the film, but is delivered mostly through exposition in the interest of furthering the action.  As the voyage begins, Izzard’s Long John tells Jim flat-out that the two of them will become close on this voyage.  The problem in the film is that we already know Silver is a bad guy and are simply awaiting his betrayal, whereas in the novel there blooms a declamatory heartbreak when Jim hears Silver recruiting other crewmates to his cause by using the same flattery he used on Jim.

I get the sense that the filmmakers wanted to preserve Silver’s nebulous morality, but were unable to translate Stevenson’s narrative ingenuity to the screen, so they decided that the only solution was to introduce someone even worse.  This duty falls on Trelawney, who in the novel is one of the four major heroes, somewhat of a pompous buffoon at the outset, but described as the “most liberal of men.”  In the film, however, he is viciously transformed into a secondary antagonist, appearing from the get-go as a self-absorbed fop who cares nothing for human life and is interested in the voyage only to obtain the treasure.  At the film’s end, Jim decides to toss the treasure overboard, to the chagrin of Trelawney, who attacks Jim and is stopped by Silver.  He later drowns trying to retrieve the sunken gold.  This is not only a gross and somewhat irresponsible transmogrification of a character and a stretch to prove Silver’s fondness for Jim, but it also jumbles the themes of the novel: the story now becomes less about ambiguous morality and more about the dangers of greed vs. basic human righteousness.  This would be fine if Barron’s film were an original pirate story, but the tropes involving a villain killed by his own greed and a former villain redeeming himself in a moment of epiphany, while as archetypical as some of Stevenson’s material seems now, have been done countless times before, and not by Stevenson, which not only render them cliche’, but serve more to remind a viewer of other movies they’ve seen.  This is wrong to me on many levels, namely the fact that new viewers may take these events as the events of the novel, dismissing the story as stock adventure fluff and not the mystifying piece of work it is (never underestimate stupidity – I’ve heard from more than one person who thought The Lord of the Rings novels were based upon Peter Jackson’s films).

The theme of morality is further stripped down in another near-ending scene, in which the remaining mutineers (people so bad they’ve even mutinied against Silver after being unable to find the treasure) are disposed of by Livesy and Captain Smollet (Philip Glenister).  In the novel, the evillest of pirates are not killed, but marooned on the island:

The three fellows must have been watching us closer than we thought for, as we soon had proved. For coming through the narrows, we had to lie very near the southern point, and there we saw all three of them kneeling together on a spit of sand, with their arms raised in supplication. It went to all our hearts, I think, to leave them in that wretched state; but we could not risk another mutiny; and to take them home for the gibbet would have been a cruel sort of kindness. The doctor hailed them and told them of the stores we had left, and where they were to find them. But they continued to call us by name and appeal to us, for God’s sake, to be merciful and not leave them to die in such a place.

Stevenson very deliberately includes the lines about calling the crew by name and appealing to them “for God’s sake, to be merciful.” This is a clear commentary about our responsibility to our fellow human beings: no matter how bad these pirates were, do they deserve this fate?  This theme is finalized by the fact that Stevenson leaves the reader to form her/his own conclusions about the crew’s decision, as well as the fact that Long John is allowed to escape with some of the treasure and probably, as Jim muses, “met his [wife], and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and [his parrot].  It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.”  Stevenson’s adroitness is swept away by the filmmakers in favor of an action-movie climax and a happy/morally sound ending.  Instead of being released by the fearful Ben Gunn (Elijah Wood in this adaptation) and stealing some gold for himself, Silver is set free by Jim, who willingly hands the former a bag of treasure and promises to seek him out should he ever want more adventure.  The moral implications here are dubious at best, and provide way too clean an ending to a story built upon a foundation of ambiguity.

There are also needless sideplots involving Silver’s wife (Nina Sosanya) and Jim’s mother (Shirley Henderson), which would be great if they got us anywhere, as well as Ben Gunn, a maroon who served as a primary ally in the novel but provides little more than a distraction here.  Here’s an idea: you have three hours to tell this story.  Why not concentrate on getting the major characters and plot events nailed down instead of throwing stuff in?  You know I’m gung-ho about the female presence in stories and film, but when we’re reminded every two seconds that these women may be forced into prostitution should the voyage not succeed (reminders which include onscreen abuse by men), any pretense of allowing female characters to subvert their surroundings is obliterated.  The new Moby-Dick film, which also breached three hours, hit some good notes, but had the same thematic issues, as well as anachronistic dialogue and distracting side-stories invented by the filmmakers.

It all seems a waste because Izzard’s performance is so good.  This would have been much better as a derivative-but-new pirate story; the filmmakers even shy away from some of the story’s highlights that have become tradition, including the “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” song (a made-up sea chanty written by Stevenson for the novel) and the cleverness of Silver naming his parrot Captain Flint in mockery of his former leader – both of these were ripped off by the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but these filmmakers, while briefly alluding to these things, seem afraid to make them prime surface material lest viewers think they ripped off the Disney movies.  This is a dangerous example of our techno-phile society in which film and TV and pop nonsense are suddenly the apparent roots of all culture.  And we wonder why adaptations of classic novels have been reduced to TV miniseries?

I am thankful, however, that this adaptation slipped under the radar, and a film like Jane Eyre received a theatrical release.  There’s still hope (only if you pick up a book, though).

Treasure Island (2012); written Stewart Harcourt; adapted from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; directed by Steve Barron; starring Toby Regbo, Eddie Izzard, and Shirley Henderson.