Crowdsourcing “The Hobbit” Smackdown

MythgardBadge_90x90On November 8th, Mythgard Academy is holding its fundraising webathon, and I have foolishly agreed to face off with The Tolkien Professor in a debate about “The Hobbit” films — so I need your help!

As you may know, Corey Olsen has been examining the Hobbit movies in some detail since even before the first one was released on his “Riddles in the Dark” podcast. If I may venture to summarize his argument here, he has essentially shown that Peter Jackson’s team has done a brilliant job of adapting Tolkien’s texts for the screen. Nearly every little change of plot, introduction of new material, visual choice, etc. can be shown to have a relationship to something Tolkien was thinking sometime, somewhere, in some notebook or draft or other.307252id1L_TheHobbit_TBOTFA_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet.indd

In short, Corey argues that the Hobbit films are excellent adaptations.

I am going to argue that they are bad movies.

See, it’s important to know how to evaluate an adaptation. It won’t do to base its worth on how close it sticks to the original, because form changes content, medium changes message. I believe that any work must be judged on its own artistic merits.

And I believe that the Hobbit films are pretty bad movies. So that’s what I’m going to try to convince Corey to concede. Or at least to have a fun and lovely time discussing the topic.

Here, then, is where I need your help. Please reply in the comments below if you can provide any of the following:

1. Recommendations for works of film theory I should read to learn how to critique a movie intelligently.

2. Links to the best online reviews of and forums about The Hobbit movies that offer sober, mature critique (NOT rants).

3. Your own evaluation of wherein the badness of these films consists (again, NOT rants; rants will be deleted).

Thank you! Be sure to tune in on November 8th for the debate (and listen to me get trashed).debate

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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19 Responses to Crowdsourcing “The Hobbit” Smackdown

  1. jubilare says:

    I’m planning a post on this, and have been gathering my thoughts. Until I watch the latest film again, though, I am going to hold off on that. Some things I plan to touch on might be useful to you, though. Hopefully this doesn’t count as a rant. I’m a little unclear on that point.

    The two films we have so far, especially the second one, are inconsistent, and in ways that cause fridge-logic ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main.FridgeLogic ) problems. This is different from making changes. This is a mark of artistic laziness because the creators are not bothering to follow the rules they, themselves, have established, or to consider implications.
    Orcs can now wander freely in daylight… so… what’s special about the Uruks in LotR, again? Didn’t we establish something about that in the LotR films, or do those not matter, now?
    Ordinary orcs now have morgul blades, so… how are there not thousands (at least) of little wraiths running around, and why do people feed athelas to pigs? Also… didn’t athelas fail to cure Frodo? Or is orc-morgul-poisoning less potent than wraith poisoning? Why am I still trying to make sense of this?
    etc.

    There also seems a lot more stupidity going around, not all of which is, I think, intentional. The worst example I found, (spoilers) was when the Dwarves make it all the way to their destination, expecting the last light of Durin’s Day to light their path, and then stand between the light of the setting sun and the door. There were other moments like that, where what the characters were doing made no sense, but that was the most mind-boggling, to me. Mistakes like that are an indication of half-hearted film-making. It felt like everything bowed to the railroad plot, so that characters had to be stupid in order to lead them to the next dramatic moment, or action scene, or plot point.

    The result of all this is, in my view, a pair (for now) of films that have some excellent scenes, but that fail to hold together logically, and which have very inconsistent characterization. When logic and character both become tools of the plot, a film loses a great deal of credibility.
    The pacing is also screwy, but I’m not enough of a film-buff to express why. I’m more of a story-minded person. 🙂

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  2. jubilare says:

    I could also argue that an adaptation that turns the main protagonist into a side-character observer is a bad adaptation, but it looks like you are steering clear of that ground. ;P

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  3. I think both premises are true. Because they are excellent adaptations of the Hobbit. But I’m always left underwhelmed.

    I don’t have the desire to see them again. I haven’t bought the special editions, and found it way too easy to leave a house playing the movie after the appearance of Sauron.gif.

    I feel that the pacing is too slow for a movie. Something that feels leisurely and delightful in the book kinda drags in the movie.

    I also think the movies can’t quite dwell in the Hobbit or the LOTR worlds, stuck between the two. Want evidence that the 1960 Hobbit was a bad idea? Watch the Hobbit movies. They show how weirdly those worlds fit, which is the problem with this adaptation. When reading, your imagination can more easily deal with this (though I have friends who cannot finish the Hobbit who love LOTR as books). But the mood and visuals of a movie aren’t as reconcilable.

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  4. Hi Sorina,

    I wish I had an overview of cinema criticism on hand–but I will say generally I have found the reviews in THE NEW YORKER and SIGHT AND SOUND elucidating, if that helps.

    Also, the following two video essays might spark something in you. Their subject matter is wildly different, but I think in general terms they are applicable:

    Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? https://vimeo.com/99798626
    and
    What is neorealism? https://vimeo.com/68514760

    For books about the craft, you can’t go wrong with IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE by Walter Murch and FILM FORM by Sergei Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s FILM TECHNIQUE AND FILM ACTING.

    This will be fun!
    -william

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  5. let’s say you’re debating someone who claims, “Nearly every little change of plot, introduction of new material, visual choice, etc. can be shown to have a relationship to something Tolkien was thinking sometime, somewhere, in some notebook or draft or other.”

    first: the premise is bad statistics, and prone to confirmation bias. given the sheer volume of his scattered notes, what *could not* be justified in some fragment or other? robots? [well, sauruman *did* have a mind of metal and machines…] vampires? [you know, ungoliant was described in vampiric terms] werewolves? [too easy…]

    the question is, if jackson had made a hobbit-pacific rim-twilight mashup movie, could one not by this same argument justify these changes?

    second: we all know what JRRT’s reaction to these movies would have been.

    good luck…

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    • Thanks for this comment, Robert. While Corey won’t be making that point, exactly, he will be arguing that an adaptation’s quality is measured based on its interesting relationship with the source material — so I’ll be sure to bring up your point in reply!

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  6. jax35 says:

    Make sure to go back and listen to his episodes of RITD. There are several claims that he makes to give credence to the films that are accepted only because he is in a congenial environment. They would not hold up under scrutiny. e.g. His conjecture that having one of the younger dwarves live to succeed Thorin, instead of Dain (his logic is that moviegoers would not accept Dain, as they do not know him) is completely biased. In that he doubts viewers ability to get to know Dain in a single film (and probably a part of this is that he dislikes the actor portraying Dain). I know you probably won’t use this argument, as it is for a future movie, but I wanted to give you a sample of the kind of argumentation he occasionally engages in.

    I think you can distract him with some of these crow-eating strategies to get him on the defensive!

    Muhuhahaha!

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    • jubilare says:

      That ties in with the fact that I don’t think the team that created The Hobbit films trusts its audience… at all. I constantly feel as if they are talking down to me, and impression that I didn’t get from LotR. The Hobbit uses cheap tricks, anvilicious plot and character-development, and dumbs the story down because, obviously, their audience is too stupid to enjoy anything else.

      I’d be prepared to accept the films as a fun and visually beautiful romp if they at least made an effort to be coherent and a little nuanced. I don’t think they succeed in that, though.

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      • jubilare says:

        *to clarify. “because, obviously, their audience is too stupid to enjoy anything else” is intended as sarcasm. 😉

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      • Jubilare: Can you give me one specific, concrete example of the films’ incoherence?

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        • jubilare says:

          Character inconsistency is probably too nebulous and subjective to be pinned down, but it is, in my opinion, rampant. One example: If memory serves, Bilbo, hitherto scared spitless, charges an orc-chieftain in defense of Thorin (who’s relationship with him has just barely begun to warm) while the other dwarves sit back until he leads the charge… Where did that rage come from?
          Bard’s motivations in the second film also never really gelled for me. I never understood why he helped or hindered the dwarves (other than for money). Then we have Tauriel, who, after a very brief conversation, decides to throw away her career, and perhaps betray her friend/prince, in order to save a dwarf. Nothing in her character-development beforehand prepared me for that. I expected it to happen because I realized I was being plot-railroaded, but it felt forced.

          The incoherence goes deeper than that, though, into overall theme/tone. I am not sure what these films are trying to say or do.
          There is a theme of seeking a home, which is probably the strongest, but is still a bit muddled by the talk of treasure and adventure.
          There is the theme of rising darkness, but one that doesn’t quite manage to feel threatening, possibly because of the sillier elements mixed in, like the portrayal of Radagast.
          There is a family-bond theme, and a friendship theme, but these only show up occasionally. I think they might be able to pull something out of the family theme, but we will see.
          There is the LotR prequeling theme, which feels like getting an elbow in the side and having someone whisper “hey, that relates to the other movies!” in my ear while I try and watch the film (this is very obvious in the White Council meeting).
          There is the Fantastic Racism http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FantasticRacism Aesop going on with the cultural hatred of elves and dwarves being defied. It could be done well, but it isn’t looking like it will be. It is also problematic when one considers that the Orcs are still portrayed as a wholly evil race.
          There is the vengeance theme, which probably ought to have more prominence than it does because, well, we’ve got at least three people-groups out for it.

          Then there is the theme conspicuous by its absence, the central theme of the book: An ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances and finding, in himself, much more than he thought was there. The first movie promised us this, then shot it’s bolt too soon (with the above-mentioned attack on the orc). The second film just let it slide, and Bilbo is hardly focused on at all. He is just there, while people do stuff around him. The only exceptions I can think of are his use of the barrels, that is then overshadowed by Barrel Battle, his attack on the spiders, which was well done, and his immunity to the complete stupidity displayed by the dwarves that I mentioned in my first comment, which is undermined by the fact that his companions have to briefly become idiots for the scene to work.

          For tone, we have fun-but-ridiculous scenes, that look like they were added with future video-games in mind (like the chase through the Goblin City, the Barrel Race, and the fight with Smaug) cheek-by-jowl with scenes supposedly of high-drama.
          Individually, I like many of the scenes in the films. It is when they are put together that one of my eyebrows tries to touch my hair-line. It’s the same sort of disconnect I get when watching Ladyhawke, when the soundtrack distracts me from the story. Some films can get away with tonal incoherence, but an epic isn’t one of them.
          And that is part of the problem, I think. The Hobbit films can’t decide if they want to be an epic, or a more light-hearted affair.

          :/ Hopefully I’m not incoherent in trying to explain the incoherence.

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          • Brilliant!! Thank you tons!

            Liked by 1 person

            • jubilare says:

              Hope it helps! 🙂

              I was thinking, as I had lunch, that the difficulty in arguing your point is that each specific problem wouldn’t be enough to make them bad films. Any one problem can be got over.
              It is all the problems together that ruin the movies, Like flaws in a piece of stone that, together, make it break apart.

              May your thoughts remain clear, and your points carry! 🙂

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              • Yes, exactly. But Corey will be arguing (to some extent) that the PARTS of the film are good: pick any number of scenes and compare them to the texts, and you find something interesting. I will be arguing that the WHOLE doesn’t hang together. Thus your comments are super helpful!

                Liked by 1 person

                • jubilare says:

                  Excellent. And, interestingly, I kind of agree with both points! At least, there are some scenes I quite like. It’s the whole that fails to impress. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Luke! If you have an earlier example, I would be delighted to hear it — I certainly don’t have time to go back and listen to many RITD episodes, but maybe you or I or others can remember other, similar, examples.

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  7. Pingback: Guest Post: Judging the Hobbit Films | The Oddest Inkling

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