Thursday, 7 February 2013

I'm going on an adventure!

In a blog on the internet there lived a dinosaur (not a spaceship). Not a nasty, erm... well, actually I've been meaning to spruce up my blog a bit for, what, a year now? And I can't really be bothered with the difficulties of trying to adapt the entire opening paragraph of The Hobbit to be about my blog. YOU GET THE POINT AND I GUESS IN RETROSPECT IT WASN'T THAT FUNNY AN IDEA ANYWAY.

So. On new year's eve I went to the cinema to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And inevitably I had opinions about it. Opinions I will now share with whatever portion of the internet happens to be reading this blog.

But first, a warning:
Spoiler alert.
I generally prefer to minimise spoilers, but it's a lot easier to talk about things if I include some at least, and The Hobbit is such a well-known story anyway, so...
In this post I will not mention any events which occur later in the book than the end of the film. However I will talk about the events of the film, and of the book up to that point in order to acknowledge the differences between them. This may include details of moments in the film I particularly enjoyed, which personally I would prefer to avoid until after I had seen it, because I feel it's better to experience such things for the first time freshly in their medium, not knowing that they're coming. But that's a personal preference and I imagine numerous people don't care anything like as much. Regardless.
You have been warned.

I don't have any kind of fancy structure in mind for sequence of talking point in this post; I'm just going to go through my experience of the film chronologically. Which means starting with the trailers.

Trailer one

OK, so the thoughts that trailer provoked from me... Bilbo talking to Frodo works well as a framing device for the story, puts it in context with LotR, so that's a thing. Much of this trailer is focused (as much of the film is) on Bilbo being somewhat out of his depth. "I'm a Baggins, of Bag End." "I cannot guarantee his safety... nor will I be responsible for his fate." The other big element of that trailer is the song. And I love that song. It's something of an earworm, and I personally feel it serves its purpose very well. Its purpose being to set the some of the tone. While when the orchestral version coems in we can easily see the connection between Hobbit and LotR, the song itself also fits with the difference - LotR is a story about epic battles, wars, and world-shaking events. Hobbit is about a hobbit going on an adventure with some dwarves and seeing one thing after another that he has never seen before and doesn't fully understand. The song's slow pace and air of mystery really sets up that magical feeling.
And of course towards the end of the trailer we have one of my two favourite moments of Bilbo in the film.
"Can you promise that I will come back?"
"No... And if you do, you will not be the same..."
Which is a fairly simple summation of Bilbo's character arc - and those of the four hobbits in LotR, but they didn't  get the end of theirs because the scouring of the Shire was cut. But I digress. Maybe I'll write a blog post or posts about Lord of the Rings at some point and talk about it then.
And of course Gollum is always good. Even without knowledge of the significance of the Ring, everyone loves Riddles in the Dark.

Trailer two

Now, this trailer I would say is more focused on the grand adventure of it - although there are still some clips of Bilbo being uncertain, I feel it is significant that while the first had my favourite moment of Bilbo being nervous and vulnerable, this one has my other favourite moment of him in the form of the line for which I titled this blog post. It also has more shots of fighting, bits of Gandalf and Radagast investigating the evil things, and of course a bit more of Thorin with his speech about loyalty.
Also contains a wonderfully humanising moment for Gandalf, which I feel is important since they're inserting more of the story of him dealing with the Necromancer. Not to mention it answers a question to which there isn't an entirely sensible explanation in the book - why did he choose Bilbo? The real reason, of course, is because it made a good story to have Bilbo there as the everyman character through whose eyes the audience see the world, because he is just as unfamiliar with the fantasical elements as they are. But it's better to have an in-universe explanation as well, and the one given in this trailer works very well for me.

On to the film itself. Before I get into the writing of the adaptation and how well the events worked for me, if I think they had the right feel, etc, etc, (which will probably be the bulk of the post), let's quickly go over the casting.

Sir Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving
Reprising their roles from LotR, all these guys are still good.

Sylvester McCoy - Radagast the Brown
I've heard mixed opinions about Radagast. Some people loved him, some felt he was too weird, too... I guess 'kooky' is a decent word? Maybe too much there to appeal to the children of the audience. I can see both points of view. I like all elements of him, but feel maybe the balance between the different sides was a little off? But this is a thing I'll talk about more once I get into the film itself. As far as the acting goes, Sylvester McCoy did a great job in my opinion, portraying both the crazy old hermit and the wizard in Radagast very nicely.

Richard Armitage - Thorin Oakenshield
Thorin is really the main character who keeps things serious in this film. Obviously the dwarves' concerns are serious, but he's the one who really gives it that grounding, who doesn't lighten up, but is always stern. That's potentially difficult, because such a character can come across like they're just being nasty to the others, and all "THIS QUEST IS SRS BSNS NO JOKES ALLOWED EVER." On the other hand, his character arc through the film of coming round to appreciating Bilbo is very compelling, and even prio to that his positive qualities are well portrayed. I think Richard Armitage did his job very well.

And the big one,
Martin Freeman - Bilbo Baggins
Martin Freeman has done very well out of playing everyman characters. Arthur Dent (Say what you will about that film, teh casting was good), John Watson, and now Bilbo Baggins. He's good at being relatable. People empathise with him as the ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances, which is exactly the character Bilbo is. Excellent casting.

Right. Now the film itself. Beginning at the beginning and working my way through.
So, we begin with the voice-over from Old Bilbo, as heard in one of the trailers, and he goes on to explain the root of the matter - the wealth of the King Under the Mountain, and the attack by Smaug. Followed up by a little scene basically taken from the beginning of LotR - Bilbo hiding valuables in preparation for the arrival of the Sackville-Bagginses, Frodo heading off to meet Gandalf, as seen at the start of the film of Fellowship. And then Bilbo begins the tale proper.
Well. The initial explanation, in principle, I agree with. It shows the big adventure the story is building towards, so the audience has a sense of it from the start. Especially important since the beginning of the actual story involves a lot of people standing or sitting around and talking - and I feel that section is important as well. So for those who might get bored in the talky section, you give the promise of excitement and adventure up-front, so they know they have something worth waiting for.
In detail, however, the history was too long. In particular, the section describing the Arkenstone was entirely superfluous, as it won't be relevant until one of the subsequent films. We don't need to be told about it now, and doubtless it will be described again by Thorin once they arrive at the Lonely Mountain. So if one wants to cut down the length of the backstory before the beginning of the story proper (Which one should), that's the bit which definitely has to go.
Next! The 'beginning of LotR' scene with Frodo. Utterly pointless. Yes, it's nice to see, but it's irrelevant to the story we're in the cinema to see, which by this point I was impatient to see the start of. I also have some issues with the idea that Bilbo wrote the entire thing in the time it took for Frodo to wander down to wherever it was and come back with Gandalf, but that's a minor issue compared to the delay of the story. I can understand the desire for a break at that point, but it could have been a shorter one.

Now, we begin, with the iconic line "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." And, I feel it should have been left at that - that's the famous opening line, people get the point and don't need the elaboration about how nice a hole it was, which also doesn't make sense if this is supposedly being written for Frodo, who lives in Bag End himself and knows full well how nice hobbit holes are. Minor point.
Now we reach things which I liked. The opening. Gandalf looking for someone to share in an adventure. Bilbo reluctant. As I recall he  then appears to hide inside and look suspiciously out the windows, where I might prefer if he simply walked further in to put the matter out of his mind and had no idea Gandalf was possibly doing anything outside his front door. Minor point again. And then the dwarves arrive in the evening. Amusing, though one can't help but feel for Bilbo, being simply not forceful enough a personality to tackle the fact that everyone seems to be expecting this party except for him. And then Thorin arrives and we go through what is to be the plot of the film and are thus introduced to the characters. And that, regardless of how lengthy the talky non-action sequence might be, is why this whole section is so important, and to me, so compelling. We have our introduction to the dwarves, Thorin in particular, and our real introduction to Bilbo. From the prim and proper upright character who worries about his knives being blunted, to showing perhaps a sign or two of interest in adventure after all, to the vulnerability and fear of one of my two favourite moments from the trailers. The Hobbit is the story of an unlikely hero in Bilbo Baggins, and this whole section in his house is essential to show how unlikely a hero he is, to show him wavering, and through Thorin's speech to Balin, what he needs to and will become through the course of the film. "I would take each and every one of these dwarves over the mightiest army from the Iron Hills, because they came when I called. Loyalty. Honour. A willing heart. I can ask no more than that." In addition to showing Thorin's values as a leader, these qualities he lists are the things he believes Bilbo lacks, and that conflict between the two central characters drives the film and their character arcs, culminating in Bilbo proving himself to Thorin at the end.
Oh, and the song. I already talked about the song because it was in the trailer. I liked it even more in full in the film. Though afterwards I realised - it's really freaking low. The starting note is a bottom D. Now I do know people who can sing that under normal circumstances, but I think even they would have to be warmed up and it'd be around the bottom of their ranges.

OK, time for my first "They changed it from the book" quibble. Bilbo gets up in the morning to find the dwarves all gone, and perhaps thinks the whole of the previous night might have been a dream until he sees the contract on his table. Now the thing is, in the film (And I think the book) of Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf says to Frodo "If you're referring to the incident with the dragon, I was barely involved. All I did was give your uncle a little nudge out the door." And so it is in the book. Gandalf is there, tells Bilbo the dwarves left early and he will have to hurry to catch them, and firmly pushes him out the door. I've always  really liked that mental image, and given that line was in Fellowship, you'd think they would have made it internally consistent. Plus it always made more sense to me that Bilbo was a bit flustered by Gandalf pushing him out and so didn't really think about going on the adventure rather than him just deciding without any present outside influence that actually yes he would like to risk his life for a bunch of dwarves he only met last night when they ate all his food. Though I admit I was amused by the idea that they'd been betting on whether or not he'd turn up.

OK, now I might get a bit out of sequence but whatever. Backstory re: Thorin/Azog is explained and this seems a pretty good point for me to discuss how Thorin is different in the film as opposed to the book. In the book Thorin is very much in the old-fashioned British mould: Unwaveringly courteous and polite; the kind of character who might be expected to use the phrase "jolly good show" without sarcasm. I don't think it actually describes him starting to think of Bilbo as a rather decent chap after all or any such, but that's the sort of idiom in which I feel he operates. And the thing is, I like characters like that. But in this context, the film version makes more sense to me. Given Thorin will display considerable anger later in the story (Giving no details because spoilers), it makes more sense if that side of his character is always there, and he has more than enough reason to be angry at the world. His home was taken over by a dragon, his people forced out into the wilderness. No-one came to help them. His grandfather was killed by Azog. His father has since gone missing. Now according to prophecy it is time for him to reclaim his home, but few of his people believe it enough to help him, and Gandalf, mighty wizard though he may be, is making a mockery of the quest by saddling them with a bumbling sedentary hobbit who in all probability has never before ventured more than 10 miles from his front door!
Plus it adds conflict, conflict makes stories more interesting. In the book, one can manage without this because we are privy to Bilbo's private thoughts. We are told that he wishes he were back at home, that he regrets deciding to join the dwarves, that he feels out of his depth. In a film, it works much better if we have someone else to say these things to him, and Thorin is an obvious candidate. With that being said, I've already mentioned the potential risk of alienating the audience from Thorin if he's permanently surly and rude to the protagonist, and therein lies the importance of his speech to Balin, and Balin's story here. It's significant that he is telling this story in particular to Bilbo, both the protagonist and the audience surrogate through whom we experience the world, and I recal a few shots of his face. Particularly when Balin referred to Thorin as "One who I could call King." Remember that moment, because it's significant and I'm going to reference it again later.

I'm going to save Radagast until Bilbo and the dwarves meet him, so the next significant event is the trolls. A bit different to the book in that Fili and Kili already know there are trolls when they send Bilbo over, and the trolls have been taking the horses. Other than them deliberately sending him into the certain danger of trolls, again I feel the film version makes a bit more sense. Attempting to rescue the horses is considerably more sensible as a reason for the timid Bilbo to endanger himself trying to pick a troll's pocket than simply feeling he shouldn't come back empty-handed from scouting out an unknown light. Then again, he's caught by an unfortunate coincidence rather than a talking purse (Seriously, that's a thing in the book), and the dwarves attack together rather than blindly walking in one by one. Allowing Bilbo to think of the way out rather than Gandalf just rescuing them slightly earlier also allows him to show his quality and that he's not completely useless even at this point.

Now, onto Radagast, and the White Council. The first we see of Radagast is him running panicking through the woods. He might be said to gibber a bit. I could see why people might criticise his portrayal as too kooky, too much a crazy old man - BUT - the scene continues, and the moment of significance is when he's trying to cure the hedgehog and says "I don't know why it isn't working!! It's not as if it's dark magic-" and then stops. He stops waving his arms around, he stops gibbering, and he says quietly and calmly "Oh, but it is." And this I feel is the point of significance. Radagast is a crazy, kooky old man. He keeps the company of animals and plants considerably more than that of people, it's not all that surprising he ha his oddities. But that's not all he is. He's also a wizard. If I were to criticise his portrayal, I would say perhaps it leant too far in the direction of the crazy old man, and we didn't see quite enough of the wizard. But I'm perfectly happy with both being there.
Even with my uestioning the balance of the two sides of him, I wouldn't change it that much. The only change I could think of is that I would insert a more wizardly line in the middle of this exchange:
G: "Those are Gundabad wargs. They will outrun you!"
R: "These are Rhosgobel rabbits. I'd like to see them try."
(For anyone who didn't know, Rhosgobel is Radagast's home)
Now, I like that exchange. I'm sure a lot of people like that exchange. I just feel that since Gandalf is basically trying to suggest he knows better than Radagast on a matter concerning animals (Which he definitely doesn't), Radagast could have asserted his mastery a bit more. Something along the lines of "I know the pace and gait of every creature in Middle Earth, Gandalf," and then the original line.

The White Council. Again, I like it. The timeline of some of the events is somewhat altered, which I'll discuss in a minute, but long story short I think it works better if more of the events are current events within the films rather than being background, since this is a story which is to be told in the films. I've seen some people quibble with the fact it appears the White Council under Saruman would consider actually stopping the dwarves from proceeding with their quest, when in fact they always just advised, blah blah etc yadda yadda. To which I say, the films are not the books. This should be shown, and potential interference and prevention has a much greater impact than mere disapproval. Furthermore, it's entirely in character for Saruman to want to order the comings and goings and deeds of, well, everyone. The one real issue I have with the White Council, mostly Saruman, is not that. It's the way he talks, particularly on Radagast.
This is also something I've seen people complain about - Saruman's line about Radagast taking too many mushrooms. My issue, however is not with the line's existence but with the way he says it. Radagast might well take mushrooms (This being Middle Earth, they may actually be magic and give him some sort of visions, possibly with side effects), and Saruman would look down on him for it, and generally sneer at him. However the way the line was written was wrong. It's in the wrong idiom. I can't actually remember the phrasing, clearly I've blocked it out of my mind, but I remember that basically Saruman says it as if he was a normal person. Even in the fantasy world of Middle Earth, Saruman is not normal, and compared to the real world... there's no way he'd fall into that idiom. He should have said something like "His fondness for certain mushrooms has clearly addled his mind." That would sound like a Saruman thing to say.
My other minor point on that is that I felt like Gandalf was falling in with Saruman too much and apologising for Radagast rather than sticking up for him, but that was less important than the idiomatic inconsistency.

Now let's talk about the White Council's role in the story, and the Necromancer, and the differences in the timeline of events between book (appendices) and film.
It seems to indicate that the Necromancer is more recent than he was in the book, but this still needn't mean he's just turned up - they just haven't really taken notice of him before. The big change in this regard is that in the book, Gandalf had already been into the dungeons of the Necromancer and discovered he was actually Sauron. And this was also where he met Thrain and got the key and the map from him. Obviously in the film he hasn't been there, but he had already got the key and map. However I assume this means his trip inot the dungeons to discover the Necromancer's identity and see Thrain there will now end up happening onscreen. Should be pretty good.
Also, I speculate about his potential means of convincing the skeptical Saruman - a big thing has been made of how everyone thought Azog was dead. Maybe he would have been dead if not for the intervention of a Necromancer? So when he gets actually killed Gandalf will take his head or something to Saruman and be like "See? Necromancy. Didn't I tell you?" (Though hopefully he won't use those precise words) Maybe, maybe not. Just a bit of speculation on my part.

The trip over the Misty Mountains. Stone giants, cool, the crux of Bilbo's desire to leave the dwarves and go home, goblin capture, Gandalf rescue, riddles in the dark.
The Great Goblin's death was played too much for laughs with the "That'll do it."
They cut two lines of my favourite riddle and I don't understand why.
This thing all things devours,
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers,
Gnaws iron, bites steel, 
Grinds hard stones to meal,
Slays King, ruins town
And beats high mountain down.
The bolded is what they omitted. It's two lines, I really like them and I can't think of a reason to remove them. 
I think those are my only real issues with this bit - I like the extended sequence of fleeing from the goblins, it means the dwarves do a bit more than just get rescued by Gandalf and the goblins do a bit more than just get blinded and die.

And finally, we reach the culmination of the character arcs of Bilbo and Thorin. At the moment when Bilbo stepped out and rejoined the group, I knew what he was going to say. With all the bits about home and belonging, it just made perfect sense - hobbits' homes mean everything to them, and so the dwarves having lost theirs is the perfect motivation for Bilbo to help them.
And then the orcs attack, there are flaming pine cones, it's a thing, but the important bit is Thorin vs Azog. The moment when he stands up on the tree and calmly walks out to fight his nemesis. Remember I emphasised the importance of "This is one who I could call King"? Because this is that again, only this time Bilbo is there, watching, and he has much the same reaction as Balin did, driving him to his final big moment. It's one thing to say he'll help the dwarves because their cause is one which touches him deeply. It's quite another to charge an orc who could easily kill Bilbo given a decent chance, and engage him over the body of a comrade who could already be dead, while the rest of his companions are powerless to help because they're busy falling off a tree.
This is the moment where Thorin sees Bilbo display his quality - loyalty, honour, a willing heart, all that - and this is what cements their friendship at the end of the film.

All in all, the film is pretty amazing. I now have the song stuck in my head again, and unfortunately, since (as I mentioned earlier) it's really low, I can't sing it at the correct pitch most of the time. I usually have to be hungover.
Not at all coincidentally, I was hungover on New Year's Day...
Far over...
Scratch that scratch that I just listened to the video for the first time and it's actually terrible maybe I'll do a better one some time maybe not but no-one can ever see this one GAAAH.