Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Christmas Hobbit, part 4

     In my previous posts we saw that while the 1951 A Christmas Carol diverged from the original book in some places, and made some fairly sizable additions, the changes did not fundamentally alter the course of the plot.  More importantly, they did not alter the sub-story by changing the character or personality of the major players or the moral universe which undergirds the story.  I next looked at the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, which likewise did not alter the surface story in a really significant way (although too much for my taste), but did show a disturbing tendency to misread at least some of the characters, and seemed blind to the moral dimensions of the universe author J.R.R. Tolkien had created.  One had the impression that Jackson and his crew just didn’t understand what Tolkien was about.
     Which brings us to Jackson’s current project, his Hobbit series, the first of which my family and I watched over the Christmas holiday.  On the plus side, the sets look good, the scenery is magnificent and the fellow who plays Bilbo does a very nice job. There are also a couple very well-done (if all too brief) segments, especially the riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum. The flaws in the Lord of the Ring films, however, are back, on steroids, and in a full-throttle ‘roid rage.  There are more additions this time around, many of which are intended to add background information found elsewhere in Tolkien’s writings, or at least hinted at in the text. There is also a character not found in the book (although not strictly speaking a “gopher” because he is mentioned in other places by Tolkien, playing a much smaller role than he does here): this is the so-called “Pale Orc” Azog, who  is trying to destroy Thorin, the leader of the dwarves whose company Bilbo joins.
      While some of these changes are irritating, they aren’t enough to ruin the movie, and some do make cinematic sense.  Many changes, on the other hand, seem to have been made solely for the purpose of ramping up the action, to such a degree that large parts of the movie look like a video game: hundreds of orcs, seemingly, are slaughtered without ever doing serious harm to the  main characters, who themselves fall hundreds of feet down a mineshaft with a wooden bridge and the body of a 300 pound Goblin king landing on top of them, after which they walk away unharmed.  The cartoonishness of these action sequences undermines the believability that still must be present, even in a fantasy world, if the story is to be taken seriously.  In other words, we are now encroaching on the sub-story, where a careless film-maker can disfigure a book beyond recognition.
     There are countless other instances of gross distortion of the background story, the
characters, or the way things work in Middle Earth: when the elf-king Thranduil is shown giving homage to the Dwarf-king (“No! No!” I scream at the television screen); when the dwarves at the Unexpected Party engage in a belching contest (“H@*& no!”); when the powerful wizard Gandalf is almost obsequious to Thorin (at this point I’m at a loss words).  I could go on, but you get the idea.  Jackson and company really don’t understand Tolkien, and the result is a story that the author would barely recognize.
     In the next and final post on this topic, we’ll look at one final detail from The Hobbit, one that seems ridiculously small but which completely overturns the entire moral structure not just of The Hobbit, but of The Lord of the Rings as well.