Sunday, December 22, 2013


I saw the second HOBBIT movie last night and on the way out I heard a man tell his companion, "That's got to be the worst movie I've ever seen!" Now I think he must be reacting to the fact that this movie is only one third of the story, and ends abruptly on a somewhat awkward cliffhanger. THE HOBBIT 2 is certainly is well-made movie with an excellent cast (Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch AND Stephen Fry), and absolutely top-drawer production values. It is brisk paced and unencumbered by exposition, the bane of many fantasy stories.

The place where it falls down is in the writing.

There's a reason that writers struggle with exposition. Exposition does so many important things in a novel. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but occasionally a caption helps you understand what you're looking at.

One of the advantages of film is that if actors are good we see many things intuitively without the need for elaborate exposition. As with the LotR movie THE HOBBIT 2 takes advantage of an excellent cast to bring minor characters to life. Unfortunately the one character the movie fails is Bilbo, and this is entirely the fault of the writers. They've reduced him to almost a secondary character.

THE HOBBIT is a deceptively simple book. Despite its literarily disreputable fantasy genre, THE HOBBIT is a finely crafted novel about Bilbo's personal journey from being a parochial prig to becoming a wise hero. Tolkien plays him off the secondary characters with considerable dexterity, but this sophistication is lost in a movie that's all about impressive but silly action set pieces.

Take Bilbo's interaction with Cumberbatch's motion-captured Smaug. The writers get Smaug's character right, and the movements and presence of the dragon are awe-inspiring. Yet somehow this scene falls short. In the book the threat of the dragon isn't merely physical. Smaug *tempts* Bilbo. That gives the book scene a whiff of horror which is missing from the movie, and this is entirely the fault of the writers, who don't seem to care much about what's going through Bilbo's mind.

The most controversial element in this film is the addition of the non-canonical chracter Tauriel. She is in the movie to provide a corner for a love triangle with Legolas and Kili, of all people. This didn't bother me. Tolkien had a deeply romantic streak in him that didn't make it into print in his lifetime. He was a man with his own personal mythology, and central to that mythology is the love story of the mortal Beren and the elf-maid Luthien. The love of a mortal for elven-kind is one of those crypto-catholic motifs that lurk in the background of Tolkien's works; it's all about the love between the flesh and spirit. The non-canonical scenes between Tauriel and Kili might well be the most Tolkienian aspect of this movie.

The weak leg of the triangle is Legolas, who as conceived of by the writers is little more than a pretty killing machine. There is at once too much of Legolas in this movie, and at the same time not enough. A movie *about* the adventures of Legolas is an intriguing idea. A movie *almost* about Legolas is not.

I think Christopher Orr from The Atlantic nailed this movie in his review when he called it a work of fan-fiction. But I don't take the position that fan fiction is somehow contemptible. Tolkien created a new mythology. For a mythology to live other people must embroider it, even add to it. Orr has it precisely backward. The problem with the movie's addition to Tolkien's canon isn't that this they are fan-fiction, but that they are commerical fan fiction. Tolkien's cultural promise won't be fulfilled until his work is in the public domain, if that ever happens.

THE HOBBIT 2 is not a bad movie, but the writers don't have enough confidence in Bilbo to let him carry the story. THE HOBBIT doesn't get much respect from LORD OF THE RINGS fans, and it is evident in their treatment of the source material that the writers don't love THE HOBBIT the way they adore LORD OF THE RINGS. They're less interested in telling the story of THE HOBBIT than they are extending LORD OF THE RINGS.

That's too bad, because THE HOBBIT is a very good novel in its own right and deserves the same loving treatment.