28 January 2013

An Open Letter to the Tolkien Professor

Dear Corey:

First of all, I want to tell you how much I enjoy and admire all of your work, especially your "Riddles in the Dark" podcast -- well, all your podcasts, really. Thank you for your excellent work! You are a brilliant scholar and a fantastic communicator. I find your lectures and chats informative and inspiring. So, with all that said, what follows is not a criticism or critique of anything you have done; rather, it is an academic debate between colleagues (I teach English at Penn State and one of our local community colleges). Please take this post in the spirit of the kind of lively conversation we would have over tea (or something stronger) if we met in person, mind-to-mind and face-to-face, Inklings-style, to defend our differing interpretations of The Hobbit movie.

This is, specifically, a response to your "Tolkien chat" on Adaptation and the Hobbit movies. I thought I was done with The Hobbit. I listened to your entire "Riddles in the Dark" series, wrote a preparatory article, hosted a riddles-in-the-dark quiz game, went to the midnight opening of the film (and got four great posters!), stayed up all night in a diner writing one review about textual background (that was heavily dependent on you and on John Rateliff) and another review about adaptation theory, gave a lecture on Tolkien at Penn State, brought 222 (twice eleventy-one!) people to see the film, sat around at Red Robin afterwards talking about it, then slept for a week. Oh, no; then I graded research papers and gave final exams. But you know how that goes.

Anyway, I was thoroughly immersed in Hobbit stuff for a month or more and thought I was done for a year, except for listening to your podcast. Then I heard Tolkien Chat 12 on adaptation, and found I had more to say. 

I love the whole first part of this podcast; the way you got through adaptation theory, defending the new work on its own terms, is delightful. I love how you pull in Virgil, medieval adaptations, etc. That's really great. 

And I think that your interpretation of each of the themes of the movie, in the contexts of Tolkien's evolving texts, of the exigencies of filmmaking, of the whole culture of Jackson's septet -- all that was marvelous. I agree with you on the content of each of those themes. You had some very subtle ways of using music and visuals to pull complex thematic material out of the subtext of the Hobbit movie. I agree that they were there, and applaud your analysis. 

However, here is where we differ. I do not think that The Hobbit was a good movie on its own terms. You said at one point that you didn't really care; that you enjoyed the movie, and that means it works. But I think I can make you care, by approaching the movie via a literary metaphor. It was a bad movie, and I think I can persuade you of that and of why it matters. 

At one point, you mentioned that some people didn't like the execution of the thematic material. I am one of those people. But I do not think it is a mere matter of taste. I think that I have the force of literary and cinematic history on my side in this discussion. As you enjoin your listeners to do, I hope not to do any comparing of the film to the book, but to take the film on its own terms, in the context of film history, its predecessors, etc. Here goes.

You talk about the themes of Took-and-Baggins, Home and Belonging, Vengeance,the Spread of Evil, and Destiny. Yes, those themes are there, in the ways that you brilliantly discuss. However, in short, I believe that the execution of the thematic materials was done in ways that were unoriginal, clichéd, saccharine, melodramatic, and otherwise poorly done. This takes away from the value of that theme, for form influences content. The most powerful theme in the world is stripped of its impact if it is presented badly. This is precisely why the same story can be told over and over again, because its presentation in different words, varying media, etc., actually changes the impact of the story. The same person might be deeply moved, for instance, by the musical Les Mis but not at all by the feature-film version of the same story without music. You know this, of course: this is almost precisely what you argue in the first part of your adaptation podcast. But I don't think you went on to apply this principle to the actual details of the Hobbit film, because you were (rightfully) interested in and delighted by whether or not Jackson & Co would depict certain themes, which distracted you from how they were depicted.

The way those themes are deployed in the film is unoriginal and cheap. There is a fine line between the archetype and the cliché: The Hobbit is far, far over the line on the extreme end of the cliché side of the scale. Let's take vengeance. There is a scene in which a large, strange, overbearing villain stands with his back to the screen, looking over his dark empire. He has lost a hand and wears a prosthesis. A subordinate comes with bad news. The evil lord turns slowly, hears the bad news, and kills the messenger. The next-in-command rises to replace the dead one and is sent out with the same message of vengeance. 

Is this Star Wars? It was. Star Wars (the earlier three films, anyway, episodes IV-VI) was a brilliant deployment of archetypal themes in a new context. George Lucas & Co took elements of the Christian story, Oedipus, Hamlet, Norse sagas, and other deeply rooted myths, and put them into a space-age, technological context that simultaneously refreshed them for our modern age and gave them just enough distance to de-familiarize them and present them as if new. The emotional impact was powerful. 

In The Hobbit, however, this scene is unoriginal. It is a quick-and-dirty way of showing just how bad the bad guy is. He's as awful as Darth Vader. He's as awful as the Godfather. He's as awful as that mob leader in The Tourist. OK, sure. But a really superb director would have discovered a way of presenting the same material that was creative and original. 

Take the theme of Home and Belonging. It's really in your face. It is not subtle. It is not consistent with the character's personalities throughout the film. It is as if Jackson does not trust his audience to interpret the film at all -- not even to understand it -- without translators like yourself, so he had to thrown the subtext out onto the surface text. A better film would not have needed Bilbo make his little, "You've lost your home. I'm going to help you get it back" speech, because it would have been embedded in the actions, expressions, personalities, and situations of the characters. In other words, in this film Jackson violated the number one rule of art: SHOW, DON'T TELL. And it's also unoriginal: "There's no place like home; there's no place like home." 

Take the theme of Spreading Evil. Again, it's unsubtle. Again, it's stated directly, in our faces, rather than being artfully deployed in the fabric of the piece. And here the other huge problem of this film rears its hideous head. The acting in this section (and in other parts) is atrocious. Sylvester McCoy as Radagast was unworthy of himself. He stepped outside the bounds of the odd into the irrational, the impossible, the inhuman. There is a whole school of this kind of bad acting: the over-the-top, the ridiculous, the foolish beyond words. It makes me sick to my stomach. But I do believe this is not just a matter of taste; I do think it is poorly done, like "poems" written by people who have never studied poetry and don't know about line breaks, punctuation, specific word choice, etc. You know it; you have graded many an early attempt at creative writing or academic writing. The same mistakes are always present. There is a vast world of entertainment media that consists of these kinds of elementary attempts institutionalized: shows about untrained singers, dancers, etc., soaring on "raw talent." Actually, those are just how pretty much anybody would write, sing, dance, etc. without training. And somehow the highly trained Sylvestery McCoy slipped back into this awful style, probably due to the horrific script at that point.

I was shocked that you approved of "Sebastian" the hedgehog. That scene is intellectually embarrassing and inconsistent with the rest of the film and with the whole project to bring Tolkien's world to the screen. The 3rd-century Latin etymology of "Sebastian" makes no sense in Tolkien's linguistic world. The apparent death and resuscitation of the animal makes no sense in Tolkien's -- or Jackson's -- metaphysical world. A few minutes later, Saruman says that no one has power to raise the dead, which indeed is the case in the rest of the films. 

Consistency is a enormous problem throughout The Hobbit movie. I'm not talking specifically about consistency to time, place, etc., on which you have commented intelligently. I'm talking about consistency of character and tone. Thorin, for instance, is wildly inconsistent. The same person who appeared impressively in the doorway of Bag End, spoke about vengeance, fought Azog, and so forth, would not suddenly get all emotional over Bilbo and hug him. Yikes.

And let's talk a bit more about Thorin. The musical analysis that you shared from one of your listeners was great, about the "Dies Irae" music playing when Thorin walks down to confront Azog, leaving his friends to dangle over the cliff. Yes, I agree: the music there tells a savvy viewer that this was an evil decision on Thorin's part and will lead to his downfall. That is a good example of subtlety, of showing rather than telling. I love when music carries a message that complicates the simple visuals. So, that was well done. But it wasn't carried through. Every physical gesture of the actors, every pan-and-zoom, every bit of timing and pacing, every tableau in that scene was copied from other cheap action movies. Slow motion, sparks flying, wind in the hair, the raised blade and its delayed fall -- these are all overdone in the history of film and must be avoided by great directors except as parody. 

That's is, right there: nearly two thirds of the film felt to me like parody, yet it was done seriously. How about the end of Balin's narration of the Battle of Azanulbizar, when Thorin stands up on the battlefield, hair blowing in the wind, aesthetically placed wounds accentuating his handsome face, oakenshield dangling from one hand, the stereotyped image of the comic book warrior? 

And that leads to my final point, about tone. Was this film an epic myth, hitting notes in the range of the tragic and the sublime? or was it a middle-school-boys' slapstick-and-bathroom-humor movie? or was it a superhero action story? Was it The Wizard of Oz, or Star Wars, or Superman, or The Three Stooges, or what? It certain wasn't The Hobbit -- not even its own Hobbit, I would argue.

So, there it is. A bit of a rant, a bit of my side of the conversation I wish we could have in person. What do you think, Corey? I value your opinion, especially since any Tolkien-related thoughts you put forward are founded on an encyclopedic knowledge of his works. I thank you again for sharing you knowledge with me and so many other listeners, and hope my perspective is of interest to you. Godspeed. 

~ Sorina Higgins 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An honest question about a small point: "Sebastien" is certainly not in the Tolkien languages. But what about Tom and the other Troll chaps? Do they fit?
I quite liked the movie, but I am a gullible chap who gets lost in the magic of it all.