Guest Post: Judging the Hobbit Films

MythgardBadge_90x90As 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.critic

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.

hr_The_Hobbit _The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies_3When 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?

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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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8 Responses to Guest Post: Judging the Hobbit Films

  1. Luke_B says:

    I did want to point out the standards of measure used by the film industry, and how those should also be taken into consideration. It is widely known, and mentioned in the article, that the Make-up, Visual effects, and overall design are outstanding and are recognized again and again within the industry in the form of awards and acclaim.

    When it comes to the acting, directing, writing, editing, and sound however, one finds only sparse recognition given within the field. Not to mention the fact that not a single Hobbit film has been nominated fro an Academy Award for best picture. Compare this with the fact that every The Lord of the Rings movie was nominated, and The Return of the King won!

    Now I am not saying that awards are everything, or that there are no politics involved. I do think, though, that one could make a case that the Hobbit films are perceived by the larger film industry as being qualitatively worse than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At the very least it is evident that they are viewed as nothing new or innovative.

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  2. jubilare says:

    “More Bilbo and less nonsense and the films would have been much better.” Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. …yes.
    Ok. I’m done now. Well said.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I remember how struck I was when I first encountered the suggestion that a film was better suited to adapt a short story than a novel. Houston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and The Dead (1987) seem good illustrations of this thesis – though, again, I think I liked his Wise Blood (1979) as well as either of those others. Never having read the original (do I win this round of ‘Humiliation’?), I like King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956), but I like Bondarchuk’s better (1968) – though in Russian, so reading subtitles, and even having only seen the 373-minute cut in two weekily installments, but – what is “a film”? – the BBC version best of all, though it is obviously less cinematically delightful than Bondarchuk’s. Greater length – packed with additional, varied matter – better suited (I assume) to the extensive original – the same thesis illustrated in a different way.

    So, should we regard Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as two (and only two) ‘works’, conveniently snipped up (like Bondachuk’s – or the BBC – War and Peace, or Tolkien’s non-trilogy)? If so, do either take enough advantage of the opportunity of length? Not so far as I can see, though The Hobbit (to judge by the first installment – which put me off bothering with any further one) much less so.

    But need a ‘novelistic film (version)’ be as integrated as a ‘short-story film’ – or as argued here? Is that a characteristic of the art form? – so interestingly described by Ed Powell in a way that makes me think of the analysis of the birth of opera (e.g., with Monteverdi) as an attempt imaginatively to reconstruct what Greek tragedy might have been like!

    I can’t imagine it need be so. I can’t see why “one could not do a movie this way” – as (given enough length) a “slavishly faithful adaptation of the Hobbit book [which] would show all of the flaws in execution that the book exhibits.” The Hobbit as book stood on its own for nearly 17 years, very successfully. Ed Powell’s points of detail suggest to me that the faults of the film (to date) cannot be closely compared with any discerned in the book. A film which was in effect something like a speculative post-1955 (or 1966) revision-with-deepenings of The Hobbit is surely as possible as any film of a fantasy romance: it was what I cannot suppose I alone was hoping for. The faults of grotesque, absurd, ridiculous extraneous plot (etc.) elements make it a bad film adaptation of The Hobbit. Would they – if we changed all the names – make it a bad film? To compare what was considered by many a trail run, Bakshi’s Wizards (1977) was not a reassuring prelude to his attempting The Lord of the Rings – and not (as I recall) a very enjoyable film in its own right (while I found his Tolkien torso much better than I feared it might be, in the circumstances). Is Jackson’s The Hobbit perhaps best seen as a sort of analogue to Wizards, unjustly employing the names from The Hobbit? (Even if I managed to think of it so, I still think I would have found the first installment more tedious and annoying than enjoyable…but then, in its own right.)

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Awk! “Huston’s”! And “trial run”.

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  5. The final movie in the series will be released in time for the Christmas holidays in the UK. I am not sure that I want to see it. I am also not sure that I will be under any pressure from my 17 year old daughter to take her although these days she is more likely to go with her friends. I wonder if she will. I agree with your comments on the weakness of the original story though somehow it seems to work. A proper working of the story remains to be made. Has anyone got a spare $100 million?

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    • Oh, they’re still fun movies. There are lots of scenes to enjoy. And my theory is that the last movie will be the best of the 3, because Jackson does tragedy so much better than comedy.

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      • jubilare says:

        I’ll see it as a 5-dollar matinee, when I can. I love some of the actors and the beauty of Jackson’s Middle-Earth enough for that. If the last two are anything to go by, it won’t get a re-watch, though, until I can do it for free, and I won’t own them, as I do LotR (extended edition). I hope you are right, though, that 3 will be better than 1 and 2. There are some wonderful scenes in 1, less in 2, but as you say, Jackson does do sorrow far better than laughter.

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