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.

Game of Thrones vs. Camelot

Winter is coming…for television

I know what you think this is going to be.  The same thing I thought it was going to be: me scribbling away while two over-budgeted, derivative fantasy epics beat each other into the ground in a debate over whose sword is broader.  In reality, it has become a handicap match: HBO and Starz vs. me and my patience.

I know this comes as a shock, but I’m not a fan of fantasy epics, neither in literature nor film.  You could counterpoint that by reminding me that I made Wings Over Arda, an adaptation of the early works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but the stories I adapted are based upon and written in the form of mythology, not high fantasy (it’s in the writing style, certainly not the content, I’ll give you that).  My prose (narrative fiction), prize-winning and otherwise, is, for the most part, contemporary.  Wings was a venture I did with friends (for fun) and something I’d wanted to get out of my system for a long time.

Let me begin by saying two things: yes, they’re both engaging shows, and yes, I’m going to spoil what happens in order to illustrate a few points.

Camelot currently has more episodes on the table, and these episodes are packed with gifted headline actors (Joseph Fiennes, Eva Green, Jamie Campbell Bower) and an inspired supporting cast (James Purefoy, Liam Cunningham, Clive Standen, Chipo Chung).  The story follows a 21st-century retelling of the King Arthur mythology, and refreshingly begins with a young Arthur taking the throne.  There are no Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Mordred or any of that baloney here; we’re knee-deep in the good stuff right at the outset.  Eva Green plays Morgan (based upon the legendary Morgana le Fay, a sorceress who serves as an antagonist in most versions of the story) as a powerful woman with an agenda.  Sure, she’s harboring dark powers inside her, she refuses to cooperate with her half-brother, and she’s planning to capture the throne of Camelot through devious and contemptible means, but her character is more than Arthur’s antagonist.  Expansive sections of each episode are devoted to Morgan’s story, focusing on her personal struggles – hatred for her mother, gathering allies she doesn’t want for the sake of her eventual goals, and coexisting with her two advisers, Vivian (Chipo Chung) and Sybil (Sinéad Cusack).  Yep, a court of powerful women with real concerns and aspirations.  Call me crazy, but don’t Morgan’s claims to the throne seem… well, warranted?  This is the first real roadblock the show hits, and I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Rounding out the principal cast is Joseph Fiennes, who remains likable no matter what role he takes on.  Here, he plays one of the show’s three central characters, Merlin, portrayed as a godless sorcerer who considers his magic an addiction and a curse, not a glorious gift worthy of celebration.  His motives are murky from the start – why is he in such a hurry to shove Arthur onto the throne?  Merlin’s political agenda isn’t secreted, thankfully, so a certain tension is built between the young king and his most trusted adviser right from the first episode.

Here’s where I get tripped up.  Arthur is played as a weasel from his first scene, in which he’s sleeping with his brother’s girlfriend.  He falls for Guinevere (Tamsen Egerton), the betrothed of his champion knight, and despite some weak resistance from the latter, Arthur steals her.  He whines and defies Merlin’s wisdom throughout the story, which is acceptable for the sake of a conflict, but we have no real reason to root for Arthur’s side over Morgan’s other than the fact that the narrative dictates it.  Arthur and Guinevere are both naive and dishonest.  Morgan’s a pretty straightforward lady, and I dare you to argue that she uses and usurps any more than Arthur and Merlin do.  I know I can’t hope for a profound revelation concerning the respective honor of Team Arthur over Team Morgan, but I shouldn’t have to force myself to root for the good guys.

Let’s shift gears before we get to the column process.  Game of Thrones, the other show in question, is a serial epic currently airing on HBO, based all-too-closely on the works of George R.R. Martin, who claims not to be ripping off J.R.R Tolkien, but uses the same middle initials and names numerous characters after Tolkien’s.  Derivative?  Yeah, sure.  But surely having Mark Addy and Sean Bean in the starring roles of the series will create a legacy for these bloated novels, right?

Unfortunately, HBO is deceiving us.  This series spans several gigantic books, and Ned Stark (Sean Bean’s character) doesn’t make it past the first one.  Sorry; he’s just a hook to get fans of The Lord of the Rings to watch, and it worked, because the show was picked up for a second season before the first episode even finished premiering.

At least the show is better than George R.R. Martin’s literary nightmare, with its grammar errors, unimaginative sentences, laconic phrasing, tons of dialogue, vague statements, ellipses and italics everywhere.  Par for the course in genre fiction, I know, but your average ambitious tenth-grader can write this stuff.

If you have no attachment to the actors, there’s a lot to like in GoT.  As with Camelot, we’re in a medieval setting, although this one has monsters running around and indiscriminately slaughtering people.  The series begins with some of this footage, followed by Ned Stark beheading a deserter with the largest phallic symbol you’ve ever seen on television.  From there, the story grows.  A war is brewing due to tension between Lords and houses, in large part because of a secret romance between Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his sister, Cersei (Lena Headey).  Ned’s daughter, Sansa (Sophie Turner), an adorable redhead, is soon to be betrothed to the son of the King (Mark Addy), the bratty Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).  Why isn’t he attracted to Sansa?  I couldn’t tell you.  On the other side of the story, we’ve got Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who has been sold off as a trophy bride for the sake of an alliance between her brother and Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), the leader of a vicious horde of barbaric, stereotypical foreign warriors who dance around fires, walk around naked, and babble in a gibberish language no one else in the universe feels like learning.  Perhaps the most impressive and inspired piece of casting comes in the form of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, the trouble-making brother of Jaime.  Dinklage gets to play a serious role here, which is a refreshing (and much deserved) change.  Despite the fact that he constantly reminds the audience and other characters of his dwarfism, he has a surprisingly generous load of dialogue and plot activity (note: “activity” does not equal “profound relevance to important events”).  His character has a long tenure in the series, so expect to see a lot of him, particularly alongside Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), the story’s Boring Hero.

Neither show hides its intended audience.  The first episode of both shows involves numerous fully nude women, including the lead actresses, and often in explicit sex scenes.  Eva Green drops her entire ensemble in the finale of Camelot‘s second episode for absolutely no reason, and one can tell she doesn’t know why she’s doing it.  Clarke is unnecessarily stripped down and groped in GoT’s first episode, as well as being brutally raped in the episode’s ending.  On that same note, the rape by Khal Drogo continues in the following episode, and after seeking sex advice from one of her handmaids (because in this world, all women are apparently masters of seduction), she learns how to please Drogo by her own will, and is thenceforth proud to be his wife and to be carrying his child.  Let me get this straight: she was forced into a marriage, traded as an object as casually as you might trade a bag of marbles for a pack of gum, was repeatedly (and graphically) raped, and now she’s totally fine with this because her dominant husband let her be on top for a night?  I see what they’re trying to do: she’s gradually earning the favor of Drogo’s people over her brother, learning to be the queen of the Horde and so on, but do not be fooled: Daenerys is not a “strong female character.”  She represents female complacence in the guise of strength and independence.  We’re supposed to believe she not only forgot/forgave her rape and abuse, but embraced one of the most egregious offenders, simply because she was able to slide into a position of minor power.  Any self-respecting woman would have arranged the deaths of both of these abusive miscreants by the second episode.

You’re not off the hook, Camelot.  The court of women is good to have, but Morgan frequently bickers with Sybil, her mother figure, herself a corrupt nun who burned a nunnery to the ground and supports the dastardly overthrow of King Arthur.  Morgan relies on alliances with men, namely King Lot (James Purefoy), which are gained purely through sexual seduction.  If the respective psychologies of both shows are to be followed, then all women are seductive experts who gain no pleasure from sex unless they’re cheating, are adept at using sex for personal gain, and are sexually cooperative if it suits them.  On an unrelated note, Purefoy plays a perfect villain, but is unceremoniously dumped from the cast when he dies in the second episode during a contrived fight scene.

The gore and gratuity are there, too.  GoT is a bit more violent, frequently showing gruesome decapitations and tossing the F word around as though the producers are trying to lure Sam Jackson in.  Camelot is graphic in other ways, showing realistic aftermaths of sexual encounters and some violence against animals (including a preposterous scene in which Guinevere siphons blood from the neck of a long-dead deer as if it’s the gas tank of a minivan), and often spares us seeing the exact process by which the heads actually come off.

Storywise, Camelot is creative and often surprising in its retelling of the Arthur tales.  The telling of the Sword of Gods and the Lady of the Lake are very well-done, as is the character progression – namely Merlin and Morgan, and to lesser extents, Gawain and Sybil.  Arthur and Guinevere are still boring and unsympathetic, although Arthur did wear cool armor in one episode, which I’m guessing is supposed to substitute for personality.  Fiennes remains the emphatic savior of the show, and if it gets a second season, it will be because of him and Green.

GoT‘s storytelling is not exactly plodding, but it’s slow.  If you’re not interested in one of the three main groups of characters, you’ll be pausing the DVR to run to the kitchen and dig for stimulants.  That said, the actors approach their roles with enthusiasm and dedication, and if nothing else, this series should get some young faces recognized and should bolster the more seasoned ones.

As far as picking a winner, I won’t (if you read the intro, you knew I wasn’t going to).  My conclusion, however, is that there must be one extreme or the other with these shows: if you watch one, there’s no reason not to watch the other.  They’re engaging, enjoyable, and more thoughtful than the lion’s share of network brain-junk.  They both do dramatic dialogue scenes well, particularly GoT, where there is fiery tension even when characters discuss what they want for breakfast.  They’re almost companion pieces to each other, with their rich worlds, glorified battles and near-unwavering misogyny.  Camelot, as some have noted, is not as grand a production as GoT, but is likely to remain art long after GoT has devolved into a franchise (which is, sadly, what people want now).

I’m not made of stone.  I know these stories are set in the middle-ages, but we, the viewers, are not.  If you’re claiming that these are “modern” adaptations, I want to see why.  Here’s a hint: I’m not talking about impressive special effects.