Tag Archives: LOTR

The Desolation of Smaug extended edition – just a better movie

Movie poster for the Desolation of SmaugAt long last, I finally got my chance to watch the extended edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Having discussed the picture with some Facebook friends, I thought I’d write down a few spoilerless thoughts. If you’ve seen it, too, I’d love to know what you thought.

First things first. The Hobbit trilogy is not, I repeat not, a dramatisation of the kids book. I said a few things about this in an earlier post. In fact, I said a few things about the extended edition of the first movie, An Unexpected Journey. In the Hobbit trilogy I think Peter Jackson is trying to show the history of the One Ring from the time it was found in the Goblin tunnels leading up to the events in LOTR. He uses a great deal of material chronicled by Tolkien in the appendices to LOTR, which explains why Gandalf disappeared, leaving the dwarves to face Mirkwood alone. Even in the children’s book, allusions were made to greater things on the move.

I’ve always felt, from the first time I read it, that the book The Hobbit has two parts. Up until the moment the dwarves reach the doorstep, it’s a kids book and written in that way, skating over the violence and using language like ‘poor little hobbit’. But after that the story becomes much darker, leading into the Battle of Five Armies. It’s as if Tolkien forgot who his audience was. And the next movie, the Battle of Five Armies, is that final chapter.

I also appreciate that a book cannot always be translated into a film because film is shorter, visual and needs to be fast moving. So I understand (to an extent) Jackson’s decisions in adding characters and situations. Azog the white Orc is a case in point. According to Tolkien, he died in the battle at the gates of Moria. Using that same logic – what moves the film forward – Jackson introduced Tauriel, the female elf captain. Like many, I could have done without the ‘romance’ factor between her and Kili. However, I like the fact that Jackson has shown the woodelves as much more than Tolkien’s depiction of them in the Hobbit the book. I also like that Legolas is in it, because it shows how he changes from his father’s isolationist stance to seeing that everything in the world is interconnected, thus lending depth to his appearance as a member of the nine companions in LOTR. I also like the way he shows the One Ring working its evil, both on Bilbo and the wider world

Back to the extended version. To me, the film is more complete. Parts of the story which were over in a flash in the original film, such as the journey through Mirkwood, are expanded, and if you know the book well, you’ll recognise the scenes. Of course, there are a few short edits which have been recovered, such as a little more of Steven Fry as the Master. But the big – huge- gain for me was the additional detail of the bigger picture, the lead-in to the next book, and ultimately LOTR. There were scenes which I had expected to see in the original movie, and did not. With those scenes added back, I believe the film is more true to Tolkien’s vision.

I’m not a movie fan, but I have to tell you, I’m hangin’ out for the Battle of Five Armies. Bring it on!

The Hobbit – how to turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie

I watched The Hobbit the other day. It’s old history, I know, but that’s how it is at my place. Anyway, having watched the movie (part 1) I re-read the book for the first time in many years. It was an interesting exercise in seeing how a children’s book was adapted to be a fitting precursor to The Lord of the Rings.

Make no mistake, The Hobbit was written for children. In fact, I can imagine Prof Tolkien reading the book to a bunch of kids. The style is narration, the narrator writes himself into the words on the page. The songs are simple verse with lots of onomatopoeic words. See the kids marching around the room, banging and thumping? The dwarves are not portrayed as particularly brave or fierce. We are given an image of little people with different coloured hoods and belts appearing at Bilbo’s door. It puts one to mind of Noddy, more than Gimli. Later in the book, Bilbo becomes something of a leader and Tolkien has some rather patronising and hardly flattering things to say about the dwarves. The elves, too, don’t come out of this book in a very auspicious light. They run away from a small group of travellers in what they know is a dangerous place, and Thranduil’s main motivation seems to have been greed. Of them all, the behaviour of the Lake people is the most convincingly drawn.

The dragon is the real villain; old and smart and dangerous and in that respect, cleverly depicted. The goblins and their wolf companions are certainly nasty but they are cartoon villains for kids. And Gollum is scary in the same way that a monster in the dark is scary.

So how DO you turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie three block buster movies?

Well, for a start you show people the odds. Jackson’s portrayal of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and the city of Dale is truly magnificent, and its ruination by the dragon very well done. This is the purpose of the dwarves’ quest, and the enemy they must defeat.

Then you make your characters much more robust. I loved Jackson’s dwarves. Each one has character and is unique, but it’s possible to see the similarity in brothers like Kili and Fili, and Dori and Nori. Much has been said about the ‘humanness’ of Thorin. (A dwarf as a sex object??) But his nephews, Fili and Kili, are also more human in appearance. Personally, I could have done without. But I suppose Jackson had no Aragorn, or Legolas to appeal to the ladies.

The villains are much, much darker. The introduction of a vengeful Orc leader in Bolg was smart. Suddenly the odds are greater and at the same time the dwarves are lifted from selfish miners into a fighting force to be reckoned with, doughty warriors all. Here, Jackson has used LOTR and its appendices to provide backstory. This change allowed him to add more action and conflict to the plot. Instead of aiming to go to Rivendell, Jackson shows Thorin as anti-Elf. Pursuit by the Orcs and Wargs forces the party into Rivendell after much hard fighting. Here we learn a little more about Gandalf and his role in Middle Earth, as shown in LOTR. Again, this gives depth to the story.

Gollum is depicted as truly nasty. Instead of Bilbo happening across the ring in a dark passage, the ring falls from Gollum’s person as he murders an Orc (to eat). What’s nice about that is Bilbo actually sees Gollum doing the killing. (We’ll ignore the fact that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing down there – phosphorescence in the rocks?) The ring leaves Gollum because it realises it can trap a new bearer. Nice. And Gollum is suddenly elevated from a horrid person into a killer to be reckoned with. Yes, I know the book talks about Gollum eating Bilbo – but this shows the issue so much more clearly, and emphasises the inherent courage of Bilbo’s decision not to kill Gollum to escape. I also liked the dual Gollum personality – Smeagol/Gollum.

Jackson used minor elements in the book as whole scenes in the movie. The stone giants are tossed-off words in the crossing of the mountains in the book. But in the movie, they come to life, throwing boulders at each other – and giving an opportunity for an over-the-top action scene. Then the dwarves find themselves in Goblin town. In the book, Gandalf arrives in secret, waves a magic wand and they all escape. That’s the kid’s version. In the adult version, the dwarves fight their way out in spectacular fashion, underlining their legitimate claim to be warriors.

Not all of the changes worked to improve the story, though. Maybe the encounter with the trolls was not quite as silly in the movie as it is in the book. It’s hard to imagine the dwarves being quite so stupid. But never mind. It’s early in the story and adds a bit of humour, I suppose. I should imagine the scene, as it is in the book, read out to children, would be hilarious. But this isn’t a kid’s movie. In the same vein, I felt starting the story with the first words of Tolkien’s book was a mistake. By then we knew what a hobbit hole was – we were in one. Further, the tie-in with the opening scene in LOTR (the preparations for the eleventy-first party) was an unnecessary distraction.

My biggest “say-what” was Radagast. Not so much the depiction of character, as the out of sequence events. Certainly, dealing with the Necromancer turns out to be why Gandalf is elsewhere as the dwarves make their journey into Mirkwood. I suppose Jackson aims to show the audience what has been happening in the world. But the way it is presented is as if the darkness spreading from Dol Guldur has only just started. Yet there is no doubt Gandalf knew about a growing evil when he spoke with Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond at Rivendell, and thereby justified the dwarves’ quest to defeat Smaug. That said, showing the leader of the Ringwraiths manifesting itself at the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur was pretty cool. Showing Radagast dashing through the grass drawn by a team of bunnies with Wargs in hot pursuit – not so much.

Sure, I could probably name a few inconsistencies in continuity, but I could do that for the movie and the book. So I won’t.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Just seeing New Zealand’s spectacular scenery is a joy in itself. I think Jackson had a very, very difficult task in coming up to everyone’s expectations from LOTR. I expect that was why it took him so long to commence this series of films. Because it is a kid’s book. As an aside, as a writer I think much can be learned from Jackson’s achievement. He has added conflict, action and much more character to the story, as well as giving it extra depth through back story so that the audience can see how the ring became what it was in LOTR.  It might be a different medium, but the rules are the same.

I’m looking forward to the next part of the Hobbit. How about you?

The Rules of Writing. The crucial first chapter.

I’ve been doing a *lot* of editing lately and, I confess, a bit of writing and some reading. As a result, I’ve become a tad introspective about the Rules of Writing. You know the ones, my authorial friends; thou shalt not use adverbs, thou shalt minimize adjectives, thou shalt not reveal Back Story in the first chapter, thou shalt mesmerize your audience from the first word.

Actually, I do agree with the last one. In fact, within reason, I tend to agree with many of these so-called rules. But what has really caused this post is the subject of first chapters and “back story”. Like many of us, I have struggled with these two things. As you may know, I recently decided that the story I told in two books and then tried to tell in one, shorter book was really two books. But where to start?

The Rules of Writing state that thou shalt start where everything changes. Hmmm. Sounds simple, does it not? Take ‘Morgan’s Choice’ for instance. I know you’ve never heard of it – it’s my soon-to-be-published book. I had two, maybe three points where ‘everything changed’. Which to use? When I started with ‘first encounter with aliens’, some readers wanted to know how Morgan got there, out in the back-blocks of space. And I could (and did) write an exciting chapter to show that part of the story.

At this point, I shall discuss one of the best known books in the fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. For me, this was a ‘can’t put down’ and I really, really mean that. My first time through this novel consumed every bit of free time I had. I read obsessively. And after I’d read it the first time, I read it again. And again, many times.

Okay, let’s assume, like me, you don’t read the long, involved introductory chapter which explains what Hobbits are and their history. Not the first time through, anyway. I read the prologue many times after I’d read the book. And then I went and bought the Hobbit.

Back to LOTR. Let’sdive right into the story. Remember, accepted wisdom is that one starts the story ‘where everything changes’. Fine. We start at the eleventy-first birthday party. And yes, everything does change. Bilbo disappears and passes into… back story. Frodo takes over and we read quite a bit about this and that until Gandalf turns up and describes the history of the One Ring. Sure, you could argue that this piece of ‘back story’ is part of Frodo’s tale. Whatever. Then Frodo leaves the Shire. Do you see the problem? We have, in effect, three instances where everything changes; the birthday party, Gandalf’s return and Frodo leaving the shire. I could make a pretty solid case for number three.

You want a more recent example? Let’s look at the first Harry Potter book. It starts, I’m sure you know, when Voldemort has been defeated and Harry is delivered to his aunt’s front door. The point where Everything Changed. But then we watch Harry’s excruciating childhood until we finally learn he is a wizard. Now I could probably, if I were so inclined, come up with an argument that the story REALLY starts when Harry gets that letter, that the rest is back story which could be revealed through the rest of the book. But the kids who read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ didn’t know that. So they read it anyway.

What do I think is the mark of chapter one? Pretty simple, really; suck the reader in, get them interested in your world, in your characters, so they’ll keep reading. And if you happen to tell them some back story along the way, there’s a good chance the reader won’t even have noticed.

Which brings me to another Rule of Writing; thou shalt edit out everything which does not ‘belong’ to the story. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?

Back to Professor Tolkien.

Hearts thumping, we have accompanied Frodo and his companions as they evaded the Nine and escaped across the Brandywine. And then we enter a billabong, a back water, a swamp.

Neither Peter Jackson in his much-acclaimed movie version of LOTR, nor his predecessor who created a truly horrible animation of the first half of the book, included any of Frodo’s escape into the Old Forest, the encounter with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil or the drama in the Barrow Downs. One might ask why Tolkien’s editor did not excise whole chapters which (let’s face it) were irrelevant in the unfolding of events. Yet I loved those chapters and was disappointed when they were left out. And what about Aragorn’s references to events in the distant (irrelevant) past? Let’s remember, too, that Jackson makes a point of starting the movie with two slabs of back story; first, the history of the ring which in the book is simply a narrative told by Gandalf, then he proceeds with the prologue, for pity’s sake, that loooong chapter where Tolkien describes Hobbits and their history. Why? Because then the people watching the movie know what he’s on about.

I wonder, too, what writers of thrillers make of this rule. Elements are deliberately introduced to wrong foot readers, to keep them guessing. Of necessity they are not part of the story.

There will always be parts of any book that some readers could do without. If I could end this rant with a quote from Tolkien:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved.

So… I’m not going to let myself get too hung up on the Rules of Writing. Readers don’t.