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Jive Tolkien

January 9, 2013

So my wife and I managed to fob the kids off on someone else long enough to get to the cinema last week, and spent a pleasant evening enjoying Peter Jacksons latest Middle Earth opus, The Hobbit. Personally I thoroughly enjoyed it – it was easily the best film involving a load of dwarves* and an old bloke with a big beard since that one my brother brought back from Amsterdam in the late 90s. Though that one did have a fair few more female characters than The Hobbit. But as entertaining as the new film was there were a couple of negative points to our evening. Firstly there was my nachos, which were bloody awful (The questionable cheese stuff  leaked all over the place and some of the Jalapeños were still frozen… honestly, how hard is it to serve decent fucking nachos?). Secondly, and for me more annoying, was the snide comments of the slighted geeks I heard as we exited the auditorium.

‘Well they got that wrong…’ ‘Don’t know why they changed that…’ ‘Money making ploy…’ ‘Reduced to comedy sidekicks…’ ‘Different from the book…’

And so on and so forth. I’ve seen similar comments across various websites and social media outlets as well, so I thought I’d weigh in with my own half-baked, semi-coherent thoughts on the issue. But before I do, I think it best to put a sort of disclaimer out there. I’m  about to indicate that I don’t like something that a lot of other people hold dear. I’m not decreeing that it’s rubbish or similar – such terms are purely subjective after all. If I say I don’t like something that is purely my opinion. It doesn’t mean I think people who do like it are wrong in anyway, just that our tastes differ. As a chap that watches and enjoys Toho movies and Syfy channel originals, or who reads far too many highly questionable 1930s pulp novels, I know taste can be a funny thing. De gustibus non est disputandum, as the Romans say. So are we cool? Yeah, we cool.

Right then. Now that’s out of the way I’ll make my position on an important point clear. I’m exactly what you’d call a fan of the works of JRR Tolkien. Like Star Wars, the Blackpool Illuminations and Thundercats I think there is an optimum age to be exposed to The Lord of the Rings books or the Hobbit – if you experience them at the right point in your development then they can become nostalgia-infused, cherished memories that you can continue to enjoy into your adult life. As it was I didn’t read The Hobbit till I was about 13 or 14. Before that my reading was mainly dictated by what my parents got cheap from book sales at work, which had brought me gems such as the Dragonlance Chronicles, The Last Legionary series and various fighting fantasy books. The books I then went out and bought myself tended to be related to what I already read, so while I ploughed my way through innumerable god-awful Dragonlance preludes and sequels, Mr Tolkien didn’t feature. Then, when I was in my third year of secondary school, I found myself in an English class taught by an ex-hippy fellow who was all for encouraging kids to expand there reading horizons and so had several shelves at the back of his classroom stuffed with books he’d supplied himself which we were allowed to borrow. One day I was stuck for anything to read and so flicked through the somewhat eclectic selection to try and find something that looked interesting, and ended up taking away The Hobbit and Mort by Terry Pratchett. While I enjoyed Mort and went on to seek out more Discworld books I only got halfway through The Hobbit before I dismissed it as a twee little kiddies book and not worth my time. If I was 10 or 11 I might have loved it – but it was never going to make much of an impression on a 14 year old Megadeth fan who thought (despite all evidence to the contrary) he was too cool and streetwise for stories of happy hobbits and jovial dwarfs.

As the years progressed I became familiar with the plot and other details of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by a sort of geek osmosis.  I’d say it’s very hard to not do so if you’re at all interested in the fantasy genre -you’re exposed to it a lot,  if only via parodies and piss-takes. And I’m in no way unappreciative as to how much Mr Tolkien did contribute to the fantasy genre  – without out him there probably wouldn’t be much of the fantasy I do like, and probably no Games Workshop for that matter.  While I didn’t like reading them I always got the feeling that there was a good story lurking in those books, albeit smothered by the twinkly, slightly camp prose and endless bloody songs, a theory that I thought was confirmed in 2001 when Peter Jackson brought us the Fellowship of the Ring movie.  After watching it at the cinema I thought I’d give the books another go, and actually managed to read The Lord of the Rings all the way through. Alas the cynical 24 year old me, with a head full of David Gemmell and Robert E. Howard, didn’t do any better with Tolkien than the self-conscious 14 year old version. While the purists where moaning about the film version I could only feel relief that Jackson had chosen to cut Tom Fucking Bombadil. As the films ticked by I was further convinced that the hairy little kiwi man had the right idea, as battle scenes that were dealt with as a few off-hand paragraphs in the book became big, splashy cinematic extravaganzas and sketchy characters became distinct and better realised. I cared not a jot that he felt some odd need to slot elves into the battle at Helm’s Deep, or that he decided to add some frankly nonsensical sub-plot about Arwen feeling a bit poorly.  As far as I’m concerned the mucking around worked. I loved the three films and would say it one of those few occasions where I could happily say that I thought each film was better than the book it had been drawn from.

Fast forward to 2013 and there I sit in the Sunderland Empire cinema with my frankly terrible nachos (wondering exactly what the strange smelling red stuff they’re trying to pass off as salsa really is) enjoying another sojourn in Peter Jacksons version of Middle Earth. As I have already said, I enjoyed it. Other people may not have been that impressed with the film in and of itself – as we’ve already touched upon, taste is a tricky and treacherous beast – but I think it’s unfair to knock it based on Jackson’s approach to the book. The directors embellishments and alterations did not bother me in the slightest. Given the previous two paragraphs that should surprise no-one, but this time round I found the criticism of the changes to be a bit odd and unjustified. Firstly I hear outrage that the dwarfs have been reduced to comedy characters. I recall similar charges being levelled against Jackson for his treatment of Merry and Pippin in the previous trilogy. I’d give the same response to both accusations – being made comedy characters would actually be a promotion rather than a demotion, given they were previously little more than scenery. At least in the films they actually do something, even if it is comedy. Personally I think only two of the ‘ri’ dwarfs – Ori and Nori I think –  and Bombur were really played for laughs, and Bombur always was a comedy character anyway. All of the rest of the dwarfish hi-jinks was, I think, perfectly in keeping with the feel of The Hobbit, which is itself pretty light hearted. After all, the troll scene (one I of the bits of the film I was a little bit ‘meh’ about personally) is pretty comedy in it’s own way, and is also rather faithful to the book.

I’ve also heard similar moaning about Radagast, and even some comparing him to Jar Jar Binks. I’d say he’s nowhere near that bad and again I’d say the way Sylvester McCoy plays him is pretty in keeping with the tone of of the source material. And his rabbit sled was cool. As for the cries of horror at the fact Jackson has spun a slimline book shorter than any individual volume of The Lord of the Rings, well, again this doesn’t really bug me. Sure, An Unexpected Journey was a bit long (and will only get longer when the inevitable extended version comes along) but to me it didn’t feel too long. It’s a very pretty film of course, and I was happy to enjoy the view and don’t recall feeling bored at any particular point, unlike when I went to see The Dark Knight Rises where I found myself bored shitless about half way through.  Also, as far as I’m concerned the addition of the Necromancer plot line is a good thing rather than just padding, as it adds some meaning to the whole Gandalf vanishes/Gandalf turns up section of the book.  I always thought that the White Council battling Mini-Sauron and his ghostly minions sounded much more fun than the plot of The Hobbit anyway. Will future films be stretched and overly slow in pace? Maybe, we’ll have to wait and see. But as things stand I’m remarkably unfussed by Peter Jackson’s cheeky monkeying around and liberty taking. More power to his arm, says I. After all, the bits of the film that I was less enamoured with such as the aforementioned comedy trolls, the remarkably convenient finding of three ancient elven swords of mighty power in a pile of troll poo and the get-out-of-jail-free eagles were all represented more or less accurately as they were laid down in the book. So Jackson didn’t probably didn’t change it enough for my tastes.

Now, I can already hear the obvious rebuttal coming from the Tolkien fans and probably from several people who know me. ‘Hypocrite!’ they cry. ‘You dismiss the mangling of the work we love simply because you were not a fan of the original. But when Hollywood wrapped it’s cancerous claws around the throats of your sacred cows you howled the howl of geek rage long into the night!’ Well, maybe they don’t use those exact words but that’s probably the jist of it.  Ultimately they’re probably right to certain extent. I have in the past found myself deeply disappointed in sweeping changes made by film adaptations of properties or characters that were dear to me, that I felt really missed the point of the original works. The roll of shame includes characters like Tarzan, Conan, Solomon Kane, Daredevil and perhaps most painful of all – Ghost Rider (Gaah! The pain from possibly the worst casting decision in a superhero film ever… it is all still too fresh). I don’t think these situations are entirely comparable. I genuinely think Peter Jackson ‘gets’ Tolkien, and that each change and design decision seemed to come from an intent to make the film a more enjoyable cinematic experience, and yet it I think it’s clear that he still has great respect for his source material. You might not agree with the changes he’s made, but I don’t think you can doubt his good intentions or the fact he made Tolkien’s works accessible to much wider range of people, even a committed non-fan like myself. Plus he didn’t inflict Nicolas Fucking Cage on Middle Earth, so you should think yourselves bloody lucky.

And in case you were wondering, I did eat them sodding nachos in the end. When I’ve been charged the thick end of five quid for some bloody tarted up crisps I’m going to make sure I eat the damn things.

* OK, I never know if it’s meant to be dwarfs or dwarves. I anticipate I will be using those two words incorrectly and probably at random throughout the rest of the blog post. And it’s not something I’m going to lose any sleep over.

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From → Musings

7 Comments
  1. One of the things I like about The Hobbit is that Jackson has decided that he’s never going to get another shot at making a Middle Earth movie and decided to put everything Hobbit related in. They don’t have the license for the Silmarillion and the rest of the bollocks (apparently) so all the stuff there is extrapolated from The Hobbit.

    Basically, neckbeards complaining that it’s not like the book need to re-read the book.

    • Your last point pretty much sums up my feelings. Makes me wonder why I felt the need to spin it out over 2000+ words, really… but then if Peter Jackson can get away with stretching things out then when can’t I?

  2. I’ve just had to make a bloody blog to post a comment and I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

  3. My way of looking at it: it’s it’s intense enough to get people talking (good or bad) then it’s probably worth a watch. Besides–it’s hard to get enough Middle earth! Now, as for the nachos–for the Lord’s sake go see your doctor; you probably clogged an artery or two go get it fixed before it kills ya.

    • I think that’s a very good way of looking at it. If someone put the time, effort and money into David Gemmell’s Legend as they did into The Hobbit I’d be chuffed.

      As far as my arteries go, I’m pretty sure they’re OK – it’s my wife I’m worried about. The giant hot dog she had must be worse than my questionable nachos.

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