Monday, December 17, 2012

New Audio Course on the Vikings

Just in time for Christmas, my latest audio course is out from Recorded Books as part of the Modern Scholar series.

The Norsemen: Understanding Vikings and their Culture

I'm pretty pleased at how this one came out. Come for the atrocities, stay for the poetry and literature.  I'm afraid I'll never be as comfortable in reading Old Norse our loud as I am with Anglo-Saxon, but I did get a fair bit of the poetry in there.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hobbit Film Radio Interview

My interview on WBUR National Public Radio will be aired at 12:49. You can listen live here:

After 2:00 p.m. it will be archived at

The First Hobbit Film: Some Thoughts


Utterly consistent with the previous Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, The Hobbit has the same strengths and the same weaknesses as those movies. It is visually stunning from the large scale to the small. The landscape is lush and beautiful, and so perfectly rendered in the 3d format that it often feels as if you are looking out of a window rather than at a film, and the details of sets, costumes and make-up are remarkable. The CGI material is seamlessly integrated, making it almost impossible to find the boundary between the computer-generated and the traditionally made. Casting is excellent. The characters look right, and the acting is extremely well done within the limits of the script and the directing. Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Kate Blanchette are as good as they were in The Lord of the Rings, and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and  Richard Armitage (Thorin) interpret their characters well. Balin the dwarf is kind and warm-hearted as he should be, and the decision to give each dwarf bizarre and distinctive facial hair and other ornaments was a good one (but there are still a lot of dwarves to keep track of, and I don’t think I ever did get it entirely clear which ones were Oin, Gloin, Nori, Ori, and Bofur).

It’s hard to over-emphasize how important the sets and the landscape are to the film, and how Jackson’s A+ in these areas compensates for weaknesses in others. One thing that makes Tolkien’s works different from almost all the other literature of the 20th century is the deep desire it stirs in readers to go there. Whatever else there is to criticize Peter Jackson about, he’s helped bring this wish true for many readers, and that is no small feat. It’s important to give him credit for really making the film beautiful and not trying to get away with cheap back-lot images and effects because the Tolkien name would have brought in a certain number of viewers no matter what.

That said, I had some issues. These are all more in sorrow than in anger, because I think Jackson had the opportunity to make a great film but missed it—in part because of the lowest-common-denominator needs of global Hollywood, but also in part because he and screenwriter Philippa Boyens didn’t entirely understand their material or trust their audience.

The problems come from the script and the directing, and they are the same problems of the first trilogy of films. But before I get to these, I want to address what I think it a misguided criticism, leveled in Variety and elsewhere: the idea that The Hobbit should be a light-hearted children’s story and played more for laughs than epic seriousness. If we accept the governing conceit of The Lord of the Rings (both book and films) that we are playing it straight, that these particular events really did happen to these characters, then there’s nothing wrong with treating them as serious and important. What Bilbo ended up doing—in the world of the text—really was epic and heroic, but when (in the conceit of the Red Book of Westmarch frame narrative) he told about it afterwards, he made it comic, a children’s story. There’s nothing wrong with showing “what really happened” rather than sticking to the way The Hobbit treats the events, and ironically Tolkien himself started to do something similar. In 1960 he began a revision of The Hobbit intended to make it consistent in both content and style to The Lord of the Rings. He let a friend see this revised version, and got the reply that the new version was nice, “but it’s not The Hobbit,” and so abandoned it. But Jackson need not apologize for treating the events without irony, as if they are true, and keeping the serious, epic tone of The Lord of the Rings.

What he should apologize for is a script with a fair number of false notes, missed opportunities and unnecessary changes. Tolkien’s text is not a film script, and there’s nothing wrong with adapting the story to fit the constraints of audience attention. Some of the changes are clever and effective and help illuminate the characters or the plot. For example, in the text, Tolkien makes little of the exiled dwarves’ wish to return to what was once their home: the driving emotion is “the desire of the hearts of dwarves” for gold and things made by craft, or for revenge against the dragon. Jackson effectively goes beyond the book when he depicts the dwarves as suffering from homesickness and longing. But at other times Hollywood schlock oozes up, and in others Jackson’s own playful (or goofy) tendencies—which can work very well in some places, such as most of the troll scene—should have been reined in in the interest of a more effective film.

The first false note is a small but telling script blunder. At the very beginning, in an overview of the history of Erebor, the narrator says that Thror, King of the Dwarves, “ruled as if by divine right.” This line is utterly irrelevant to everything that happens later, and it is jarring for no good reason. There are no references to God or religion in Middle-earth, so to invoke, through one of the top ten ideas of 1643 is incomprehensible and totally unnecessary.  You could, if you wanted, make some reference to Tolkien lore at this point, and there are innumerable other ways to say that Thror was arrogant or entitled. The film-makers took infinite pains over hundreds of tiny details, but they left a fair number of little turds like this one in the script: making Erebor the “greatest kingdom in Middle-earth”—why? Because an amazing dwarf kingdom under a mountain that is attacked by a dragon in a visually remarkable sequence isn’t enough? We have to be told it’s huge? Jackson should have trusted his visuals to say enough.

The largest plot-related flaw is the way the War of the Dwarves and Orcs is handled. This is material from the Appendix A that is brought into the main narrative, and the review from the Associated Press is wrong in saying that this material is “bloat” to stretch The Hobbit into three films. The quest of Thorin and Company needed to interface with the epic storyline of The Lord of the Rings, and the War of the Dwarves and Orcs is a good way to do that. But the way the script handles this (excellent and exciting) material is weak. On the one hand, everything is personalized: the war seems like it is primarily a feud between Thorin and Azog, the Albino Orc. But at the same time, Jackson operates on the theory that each battle in the film series has to be bigger than the last, so there are about 144,000 dwarves and orcs, so we care about none of them. There’s elaborate choreography, but no emotion in what should be a very emotional scene. I think if Jackson had followed the appendix text, made the beginnings of the battle small and extremely personal (the desecration of Thror’s corpse, Thrain sitting shiva and then saying “this cannot be borne” in a laconic tone), he would have made us care about the battle and the characters far more than the pure spectacle does.

Moby Orc, er, Azog (he should be Bolg if we follow the Lore even a little) is the most fake-looking monster in the entire film, and really doesn’t do much to add tension to the story. It’s a repeat of the major unforced error from the first set of films of making Middle-earth too small (Saruman standing on Orthanc can see over to the Redhorn pass; elves can trot over from Lothlorien to Helm’s Deep in a few minutes). Azog is just sitting there on his Bengal-tiger-sized warg, waiting for Thorin to pass by. Jackson’s Middle-earth has New Zealand’s remarkable scenery all stuffed into a place the size of Disney World or maybe Rhode Island.

The other important sub-plot—the return of evil to Mirkwood and the rise of Sauron—is less effective, though to be fair, it looks to be more developed in the subsequent films. Unfortunately this sub-plot is entangled with the portrayal of the wizard Radagast the Brown.  Radagast is played for laughs, but it’s not particularly funny (or original; Radagast is visually T.H. White’s Merlin from The Once and Future King, even to the bird nesting under his hat and leaving droppings). The sled pulled by giant rabbits is remarkably stupid in conception, but, surprisingly, not as awful as I first thought it would be (and to be fair, one of the funniest and nerdiest lines in the film comes from Radagast. Gandalf warns him “Those are Gundobad Wargs. They’ll catch and eat you,” Radagast replies “These are Rhosgobel Rabbits. I’d like to see them try.”). But the entire Necromancer-in-Mirkwood sub-plot is terribly done. Dol Guldur isn’t particularly good visually, and, in a place where there was plenty of actual lore to use, Jackson invents spurious lore about a magic tomb in the mountains or something that is difficult to follow and does not make much sense. Have the characters think the Necromancer is the Lord of the Nazgul, work in the prophesy that he will not fall by the hand of any living man (as a wink to the audience that has seen The Lord of the Rings), and then have it turn out to be Sauron himself. Much easier than this mess.

Related to the failure of the Necromancer sub-plot is that flaw that just keeps on giving: Elrond. Hugo Weaving is by all accounts a solid actor. He was scary and believable in The Matrix, so the problem isn’t with him, but with the direction and the terrible script he has been given.  I understand that you have to move rapidly through the explication scenes and get to the fights, and that you need drama rather than reasoned debate, but honestly, Elrond is supposed to be 6000 years old and has seen anything that is to be seen (countless defeats and countless fruitless victories). His mother was a seagull and  his father lives in a flying boat! Yet the only thing he can do in debate is rant angrily, glare out from under his eyebrows, and criticize. First of all, he is never right and second of all nobody ever listens to him.  You’d think he would have learned how to be persuasive after all this time. So it’s a great idea to think “let’s dramatize the dissention on the White Council” but it’s terrible execution to have it turn into a stupid lowest-common-denominator yelling match like the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring film. You’ve got good enough actors that they don’t always have to be turned up to eleven.

Other weaknesses are more forgivable, if only because we can’t ask Jackson to go against powerful tides of Hollywood culture, and, well, with the good that he does by filming what he likes to film (beautiful scenery, perfect props and sets), we have to take the bad of him following certain less artistic obsessions. Peter Jackson likes to film rocks flying through the air and things tipping over. A lot. In slow motion. And he does in this film. A lot. In slow motion. It gets boring rapidly and sucks the narrative tension out of later scenes. We know that Bilbo isn’t really going to fall off the cliff and die when the Stone Giants come out in the storm, but it makes us care less that he might fall off of various other tall and teetering things later. Too many times we see something that is visually cool but emotionally empty, a soon-to-be-built amusement park ride at Disney World (swinging back and forth on ropes, plunging through tunnels) rather than a real moment of danger or wonder. The battle with the wargs and goblins in the trees at the end was almost ruined by this weakness in Jackson. It’s an unforced error, since the scene in the book has much more emotional tension in it: the dwarves are chased up the trees by the wargs. The trees don’t fall over, but the dwarves are trapped. Then Gandalf tries the burning pine-cone trick, and the wolves are being burned, chased away, etc., but the forest as a whole starts to catch on fire, and then the goblins arrive, take charge of the situation, and start fires at the bases of each tree. The tension escalates, the goblins jeer and sing, and at the last minute, the eagles come.  No tipping over trees, falling dwarves, etc., but a great deal more emotional impact (this scene is partially saved by the excellence of the eagles vs. wargs battle). 

Emotional impact is also lost due to Jackson’s tendency to let Hollywood convention overpower character and story development. The dwarves should not have attacked the trolls with weapons—save that for later.  And although the trolls sequence actually works reasonably well, the dwarves tied to a roasting spit so high above the fire that they would never have been cooked is just too goofy: put them in the sacks and let the trolls argue while standing over them, boiling water, building up the fire, etc.. Even more importantly, Bilbo should not have fought against an anonymous goblin with Sting or against Azog, either. Save that moment for his great triumph against the spiders (and speaking of the spiders, why on earth does Jackson telegraph that move? Save them and make their horror that much more of a surprise). Bilbo’s character development is weakened by him simply picking up the sword and fighting, and the bounds of plausibility are unnecessarily stretched when he does effective ninja-style sword fighting against experienced and much larger foes. Let him clutch his sword and be in the back or off to the side until the time comes (in the next film) for him to be heroic in that way.

But despite all these flaws, in overall assessment The Hobbit is a good, fun film (I’ll go see it again, and I never thought that about The Two Towers). Films are, after all, primarily a visual medium, and when the visuals are so good we can forgive other things (things that books will always do better, anyway). I was a little surprised at how precisely some of Jackson’s images match The Lord of the Rings On-line computer game: Goblin Town is an almost perfect rip-off (and as both are different from anything in the books, I have to wonder if someone on the production team sneaked a peak), dwarvish architecture is also awfully consistent with the MMO, as are particular features in Rivendell. But perhaps great minds do think alike.

And give Jackson the credit he deserves: Bag End is perfect, the unexpected party legitimately funny and over all far better than I would have predicted (only a few minor flaws—note to directors: I lived in fraternity house for four years; no one ever dumps good beer down his face. It’s a stupid Hollywood convention that can be dropped). Bilbo himself is played note-perfect, as is Balin, and Thorin for the most part, and Gandalf remains the real Gandalf. The opening sequence of the dragon’s attack on Erebor and Dale is stunning, with the brilliant idea of making the fire more liquid in its behavior than any on-screen fire I’ve ever seen: it is all the more terrifying. The Great Goblin is the most hideous monster in film history. Galadriel is what she should have been in The Fellowship, naturally glowing and beautiful and fundamentally strange, but without any obvious, cheesy special effects. And Andy Serkis’ Gollum may actually have gotten better: Riddles in the Dark is very well done indeed, though again, Jackson couldn’t resist a silly effect of having the Ring bounce up into the air and land perfectly on Biblo’s finger. And though there are a few times when his facial expressions didn’t seem to match what he was saying, Richard Armitage creates a Thorin that the audience believes and cares about: can a dwarf king be as big a heartthrob and action hero as Aragorn? Surprisingly, yes. (I predict that a certain anticipated scene at the end of the third Hobbit film will be one of the biggest tear-jerkers in cinematic history).

So overall The Hobbit is what you would expect from a Peter Jackson film: flawed by a weak script but saved by visual genius and, most importantly, by its source, J.R.R. Tolkien, who had the secret key to the hidden door of our imaginations. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Lecture in NJ on Monday, Dec. 10

I'm giving a talk on Tolkien and The Hobbit at Brookdale Community College on Monday, December 10th, at 7:00 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center.  It's open to the public, and I hope I'll see some of my NJ friends while I'm there.  Fun to be giving a lecture at a place where I took classes.

Here's a link to the full information on the talk.