As you know, this coming Saturday is Mythgard’s exciting webathon: an evening of lively, intelligent content interspersed with chances for you to support the Academy. I’ll be participating in two sessions: the first a chat about the lives and loves of the Inklings with Ed Powell, the second a thoughtful debate with Corey Olson on the Hobbit films and adaptation theory. Today’s guest post is written by Ed Powell, and it contains his thoughts on movie adaptations and film criticism. In the debate, Corey will be arguing that Peter Jackson & Co’s Hobbit films engage the text of Tolkien’s book in intelligent, thought-provoking ways; I will be arguing that they are bad movies. He will suggest that the parts are more important than the whole, and that there are many, many good parts in these movies. I will counter that the whole is more important than the parts, and that in these films, the parts are not integrated into a high-quality movie. He will be asking what we expect in that relationship with the source material, while I will answer that the final artistic product is more important than its relationship to the source material. What matters to me is asking: How do we judge the final product? What are the standards for evaluating films? However we judge them, the Hobbit films are bad movies. Their interaction with the text doesn’t matter, because their final result is poor. In thinking through these same points, Ed Powell wrote the following post for me.
How does one judge a film? Films (or any work of art) can be judged on two fundamental criteria: the purpose of the work, and how skillfully the artist was in creating the work based on its intended purpose.
One can imagine works of art that are evil in intent yet skillfully done; and similarly one can imagine works that are fundamentally good in intent (even if that intent is simple enjoyment) but flawed in execution.
The Hobbit book itself is in the latter category. As a novel, it contains a number of flaws, most of which were covered by Corey in his podcasts. The tone changes radically during the book. The quest changes in intent. The dwarves go off without a plan and unarmed. The whole burglar idea is preposterous. The story is episodic. Major characters are either introduced very late in the book (Bard) or forgotten after they play a key role (Gollum). The book reads like what it was: a series of connected bedtime stories later (roughly) tied together. It was insufficiently re-written after the end of the book was figured out. This is distinct from The Lord of the Rings, which was thoroughly revised after the initial manuscript was completed.
A slavishly faithful adaptation of the Hobbit book would show all of the flaws in execution that the book exhibits. Now, I like The Hobbit: there is much value in the book. I like the change in tone as the book evolves, going from frivolous to serious to dead serious from beginning to end, but one could not do a movie this way. Indeed, the book only works fully because The Lord of the Rings completes it.
That brings me to my main point. I think any work of art, including books and movies, can be judged on three basic characteristics: focus, integration, and complementarity.
First, I think the work (let’s say film) should have a single focus. What is the film trying to be? What experience is it trying to give the audience? What is the *point* of the film? What is the theme of the film? A film that has no focus may have excellent elements, but doesn’t actually rise to the standard of being a good single work of art. To achieve focus, a director should ruthlessly excise all extraneous elements. Does a scene advance a character or move the story forward in a meaningful way? If not, out! Is a character necessary to the story? If not, out! One should be able to point to every aspect of the film and describe the relevance of that aspect to the whole.
That brings up my second point: integration. A film should be an integrated whole. The characters should support the theme and the story. The story should be natural for the characters. The costumes, sets, props, music, sound, photography… all should integrate with one another. There should not be any discordant aspects, which would throw the viewer out of the “secondary world.” If even one aspect of the movie is discordant, then the whole movie is ruined, as if someone painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa. (“The rest of the painting is fine” is not an adequate assessment of that sort of vandalism). Any work of art should be an integrated whole, each aspect supporting the other, and with films this is even more true. A novel has just the written word; a sculpture just the materials and subject; a painting has color, texture, and the subject. But a modern movie has many different aspects: a movie contains elements of every other art all put together. The sets are sculptures. The backgrounds are paintings. The buildings are architectural works. There are drama, poetry, and prose in the writing and songs. There’s music. Sometimes, maybe only in the fight scenes in a movie like this, there’s dance. It is hard to think of an art that is not represented in a movie. That is one of the reasons that movies can be such powerful cultural artifacts: they contain within them every aspect of art the human race has discovered in its entire history integrated together in a single unit. Movies done right are the apex of artistic endeavors, because they contain every other art within them.
This brings up the final standard: complementarity. Each of the individual aspects of a movie must not just replicate the other aspects, but complement them. The integration, described above, is not just the sum of a set of recapitulations of the same aspect of the theme, but an integration of a number of parts that complement one another, each adding something to the whole that makes it indispensable to the final product, but not the same as every other aspect.
When judging the Hobbit films, I use these three criteria. The physical aspects of the production are superb. The sets, props, costumes, etc., are generally fabulous and well thought-out. This was true of the LotR films and is true of these. The people involved don’t know how to do anything except perfection based on what they are asked to do.
It is with the script that most of the flaws can be identified. Are the films focused? Certainly not. Are they action movies with lots of set-piece action sequences? Yes. Are they comedies with lots of physics-defying stunts that would offend even Wile E. Coyote? Sure. Are they visual spectacles? Of course. Are they intimate character portraits? Yes (such as the Riddles in the Dark sequence). Are they epic adventures? Yep. Okay, so what exactly are these films again? They are unfocused. A film cannot be all of these at once, and it certainly can’t be all of these in a serial fashion, one scene at a time.
Are they integrated? Not at all. There is a lot of extraneous material, even when considering their lack of focus. The tombs of the Nazgul? Radagast’s rodents? Radagast’s running in circles? Radagast in general? The rock-’em-sock-’em stone giants? The grotesqueries in Goblin Town? The absurd chase sequences? The misuse of alien languages (why do Azog’ orcs speak only black speech while the Great Goblin speaks mellifluous English)? The whole Tauriel/Kili romance/friendship/relationship/whatever? All the political machinations at Lake Town—who cares? And don’t get me started with the ridiculous plot elements having to do with the forges and the giant golden statue—that’s just ridiculous. Surfing on molten gold? I mean, come on.
Both movies are complete messes from an integration perspective. If the tone of the book gradually changing from a slightly comedic bedtime story to heroic romance over 250 pages is sometimes hard to accept, how about changes in tone from minute to minute in these movies? Bombur’s barrel bowling. Legolas’s dwarf-head-hopping. Beorn??? It’s all too much, too many extraneous elements. Each movie could be made many times better if the “director’s cut” actually removed about 25 minutes from each. They still wouldn’t be good, but they would be more tolerable.
Finally, complementarity. Do the individual elements complement each other? I have no idea. The music, after LotR’s memorable scores, is unremarkable. The set design is much too exaggerated. The Elves’ realm recreates the look of a forest *under* *an* *actual* *forest*. How does this make sense? Erebor’s treasure house is much too large—imagine the deflation and economic depression in the surrounding community if that much gold were hoarded away in the mountain. Laketown is too disgusting for words. This may be more “realistic,” but is this a gritty noir political corruption novel or a romantic fantasy?
The movies don’t know what they are trying to be, so the elements are all disconnected. Any given one may be done well, but they do not complement each other to create an integrated work of art. Bombur’s barrel bowling was a fun scene by itself, but it did not fit in this movie. Or it would not have fit if there was a single focus for the movie—besides “Adam Sandler’s The Hobbit.”
So, no, the movies are not good films, in spite of the excellent elements contained within them. I think the Riddles in the Dark and the Conversation with Smaug were both extremely well done. More Bilbo and less nonsense and the films would have been much better. Had you seen the two films without knowing the titles, would you have guessed the title was The Hobbit?