Structure and Imagination
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was mostly a triumph of restructuring and knowing what to do with a story once it’s been written. Tolkien followed a dream when he began inventing a world in between stints in the trenches of WWI, and it was one that was continually reshaped over his entire life and now the life of his son. And when he began he had mostly little idea where it was going and which bits were significant and which wouldn’t be later. He regarded The Hobbit and LoTR as side projects to his real work of Middle Earth’s mythology and there were decades between them. LoTR especially was not what the publisher demanded or expected after The Hobbit.
As I’ve said previously the films are not the book. Mostly this is a good thing. I know it is a kind of blasphemy, but there is no way purists would’ve watched/liked the film/s if they had followed the novel. Because it wasn’t meant for funky post-modern you, or for film. Film can’t convey the nuance, history and spirituality of the books and myths behind the stories. Tolkien knew this. And he sold the film rights anyway (for reasons).
I got mostly what I wanted from the film. Each of the Dwarves became individuated in ways that never did happen in the book. I’m so happy Bombur didn’t become the fool of the wood…that was left to Bofur in Laketown. The narration is still absent (yay). Events progressed more evenly, with more immediacy and the Necromancer was revealed for who he was, with Radagast getting more of a showing.
I missed the talking birds and it felt like there wasn’t enough time in Mirkwood or with Beorn or even with Gandalf because this was actually more of a chase sequence film, rather than a meandering quest. While more Beorn would’ve been good I’m ok with his introduction being different. The relationship between the Orcs and Sauron was more obvious, while the relationship of Bilbo to the ring was made more taut and more risky, but he lost a lot of the dialogue (mostly the nonsense poetry which is ok) and while he saved the Dwarves repeatedly Bilbo never quite felt central until talking to the Dragon. Bits of the story problematic for modern audiences were abandoned and the history was made a little clearer with the reset in Bree (yes I spotted you in that scene Peter Jackson).
I do appreciate that what Jackson and the other screen writers gave the Hobbit was a structure with echoes and clearer relationships to LoTR and The Silmarillion. This structure was necessarily different to the one Tolkien had. Because he was writing before the second wave of feminism, before he knew exactly how his mythology would develop and even before he envisaged sequels.
Jackson et al had the luxury of accessing all Tolkien’s stories, his vision, and the vision of Alan Lee and John Howe. And a bucketload of money and technology, combined with a contemporary sensibility. So they always knew the destination, and could create a structure to suit it, as well as the filmic medium and modern expectations about pacing, narration and ahem, women. Speaking of which, I liked that Bard had a family (including daughters, even though they spent a lot of time screaming). I liked that Kili had a mother (referred to but absent but still) and finally…
Tauriel (wasn’t useless!)
The film-makers are using the (probably 100% peak) familiarity with LoTR by setting up relationships to mirror/speak to the later ones (that were conveniently filmed earlier). Aiden Turner steals more than one heart with the sad eyes, the grin and enthusiasm. It’s so deliberate, formulaic even, and so new to the story, but somehow it works. Amid the action and arguing Kili is the contemplative and relational centre of the expedition and Fili is his backup. For the Elves, Tauriel performs the same function. She too is an actioneer, and like Kili, also subject to obligations to her kin.
However, Tauriel is enmeshed in a world that has her king not consider her good enough for his son, because she is a Sylvan elf, even though she is his equal as a warrior, hunter and diplomat. As seemingly matched as Legolas and Tauriel are though, it’s good that his attention was spurned. Legolas may bolster her pride, after her Tauriel was stung by Thranduil, but she’ wasn’t into him. While Legolas is the son of a king and all, she has the power here.
So I desperately didn’t want Tauriel to be just a ‘love interest’ in the film. And while she fulfils some aspects of this role, she is more than that. She is outspoken, with a responsible job and furthermore is an important catalyst for change in the insular Greenwood, just as the arrival of Thorin and Co are. Tauriel is also the one who sees the bigger picture. She argues that the world they defend is larger than their bit of the forest. She brings the fight from the Elves to the evil outside their world and she is awesome at it.
What I hated and I mean HATED was that Tauriel was called a ‘she-Elf’. No, no, no. I understand it was meant as an insult from the Orc/Goblin and her people didn’t go around saying ‘she-Elf’…but being female is not an insult. And shouldn’t ever be construed as one. We know better. I don’t care if it’s coming from an ostensibly ‘evil’ being. Tolkien himself conveyed that kind of evil better – with LoTR’s Wormtongue who played on constructs of femininity without ever resorting to calling Eowyn a ‘she-Rohirrim’.
Such an insult construes femaleness as outside ‘normal’ identity. It means in this world, Elf means male. And it therefore leaves much of the audience outside as well. I am suddenly wondering if I’m a ‘she-Watcher’ or a ‘she-Reader’. And I don’t want to woken from the dream in the middle of the effing film. I want to be inside it and until this moment I was inside it.
It also means that there’s a chance kids who sat behind me in the cinema will go out and when they want to insult a person, it will be “you’re nothing but a ‘she-physicist'”, or a ‘she-Italian’ or something else just as ridiculous as it is misogynist.
Yet I also loved the idea that while the story mirrored something of Luthien/Beren and Aragorn/Arwen, it was not love between human and elf, but elf and dwarf that was hinted at. This was never in any of the stories I’m aware of, but I think it is a kind of evolution of thought about seeing ‘same’ where once individuals and groups only saw ‘other’. It also gives more impetus to Legolas’ development regarding Dwarves and his later relationship with Gimli more interesting. And I imagine, in the next instalment, it will make events even more bitter-sweet.
However, I wanted more incidental female characters. Again, given all the changes, how about the more than one or two occasional background characters being female, say in Bree or in the Greenwood or Laketown? I mean any society should be about 50% female right, even if they aren’t crucial to any particular story happening in it? Maybe this will be ameliorated in the final instalment?
So that was the film. It was good enough that I want to see it again at the cinema. And good enough for me to want the next instalment to be a further improvement.