The Title, That’s the Problem

I just read yet another frothing-at-the-mouth pan of The Hobbit, bitterly complaining about all the ways that the movie has added “unnecessary” things to the novel. And it occurs to me now that perhaps the real problem with the movie is its title.

Because the movie is not in fact an adaptation of The Hobbit. It’s based on both that book and the appendices from The Lord of the Rings. It’s a retelling that places the events of The Hobbit in the context of the other, larger events that were happening in Middle Earth at the same time — events that The Hobbit rarely says anything explicit about, yet that are closely intertwined with the story of The Hobbit all the same.

Which is explained in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps if the movie were given a different title like, oh, The Rise of the Necromancer, reviewers would not be so single-mindedly measuring the movie against the ideal they’re carrying in their heads of what a faithful adaptation of The Hobbit ought to look like. Because that’s so not what this movie is.

Meanwhile, here’s an essay that says what I’ve been thinking, that an awful lot of the huffy criticism of the movie, although posturing as purism in defense of Tolkien, is actually based on considerable ignorance of how The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are connected according to Tolkien himself.

About the Music in The Hobbit

On my third time seeing The Hobbit, I paid more attention to the score than I had before. As in the score to LOTR, Shore uses leitmotifs in a deliberately Wagnerian manner, and I was able to figure out and follow a few of them through their development. The most prominent is the Song of the Lonely Mountain, which the dwarves sing in Bilbo’s home and the melody of which becomes a major recurring theme. There are also clear themes for Thorin and Erebor that come up a lot.

I’m less sure about the themes that come up less often, such as for Radagast, his rabbits, the Arkenstone, Sting (whose theme may just be a minor second “sting” in the music), and so on. I think there may be a general sword theme, and maybe a theme representing the diaspora of the dwarves after the fall of Erebor.

There are themes carried over from LOTR, too — the Shire, the Ring, and so on. One lovely touch (among many, really): When Bilbo evades the question of how he escaped from the goblins, Gandalf clearly suspects something, and in the music the Ring theme starts and then stops, uncompleted, telling us that Gandalf thinks briefly about the One Ring, but then puts aside the thought.

There and Back Yet Again

I have now seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey an unexpected three times. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have gone a third time quite so soon, but I was tagging along with others on Christmas Day and that’s where everybody wanted to go.

The movie certainly holds up. It continues to seem to me to be a tightly constructed movie with very little that could be called padding.


Don’t read further if you don’t want to hear anything specific about the movie yet. I will try not to give away anything major, but I have a lot of random observations that may give away a small surprise here and there.

I didn’t realize the first time that the Goblin King is played by Barry Humphries, until we got to the credits at the end. Now that I know, though, I can see Humphries’s manner and hear his inflections in the portrayal, and I can hardly stop chuckling throughout his scene from imagining the Goblin King with rhinestone horn-rimmed glasses.

What some critics and moviegoers are pointing to as being padding — for example, Radagast and Azog and the prologue about Dale and Smaug’s coming — doesn’t seem like padding to me at all. I think they’re necessary additions once you make the decision that you’re going to try to make The Hobbit feel like a companion piece to the movie of LOTR.

I reread the novel after seeing the movie the first time, and it just reinforced my preference for the filmmakers’ choice to take the movie in that direction. The novel has its charms, but it’s very straightforward and uncomplicated, the characterizations are thin, and the story is a very simple quest, with nothing like the complexities and depths of LOTR. I mean, sure, making a more faithful adaptation would have been a different but also entirely valid choice, but I think it would have made for a movie that felt very small and slight next to LOTR.

The ways in which the story has been fleshed out seem like fine choices to me. Radagast has a vital role to play in Gandalf’s learning that evil is rising in the east and the south. This is indeed what’s happening in the novel of The Hobbit, but little is actually said about it in the novel, and it’s mostly happening offstage; you have to know both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings very well, or else have read the appendices and other material, to understand it. I think it’s an entirely valid choice to bring this out more prominently in the movie of The Hobbit and tie it more strongly to the movie of LOTR. And once you’re going to do that, well, if it’s not Radagast who serves this function, then somebody will have to. And it makes perfectly fine sense for it to be Radagast.

Azog adds a complication to Thorin’s motivations, just as Aragorn’s motivations in the movie of LOTR were made more complex than in the novel. The straightforward and unvaryingly valiant warrior-hero works better as a believable character on the page than he does on the stage or screen — when you’re actually watching an actor inhabit the role from moment to moment, watching him perform all his everyday, routine actions as well as the nobler ones, then he needs more dimensions than he does if you’re reading only about how he behaves during the high points of the story. If Thorin were portrayed in the movie exactly as he is in the novel, he’d seem like a shallow stick figure by the end.

The history of Dale has to appear in the first movie if the filmmakers want the audience to really understand that the dwarves and Bilbo are motivated by something stronger and more emotional than just wanting to get all that gold. The choice is only whether to do it as a prologue or later in the movie as a flashback. Hold off altogether until a later movie and you are holding off on giving all your main characters their strongest motivations until after the entire first movie.

There are also some subtle connections that I didn’t catch the first time but that became clearer on seeing the movie again. One example (Dave caught this first and pointed it out to me): The scene at the beginning with the dwarves wildly juggling Bilbo’s dishes establishes that these guys are extremely deft with their hands, have impeccable timing, and work together well as a team. These attributes are what get them out of the goblin tunnels — over and over again they manage to escape danger by a hairsbreadth, by cutting a rope at precisely the right split second or through their dexterity and teamwork by turning anything at hand into a weapon and everybody knowing, without a word of discussion, exactly how to work together with it. The whole escape from the goblins is like a visual set of variations on that theme.

Another example: Gandalf and Thorin quarrel from the beginning about whether to stop in Rivendell (another thread of the story that the writers invented). The first time I saw the movie, it seemed as though the company stumbled into Rivendell pretty much by chance. Then in a later scene, Elrond mentions “the Hidden Pass” to Gandalf, just as a passing comment, and it’s clear both that this is the name of the trail that the company followed to get to Rivendell, and that this is a geographical reference that Elrond and Gandalf are both quite familiar with.

But then the second time you see the sequence, knowing now that Gandalf knows about the Hidden Pass, Gandalf’s behavior on the plains is understandable in a whole new way. All the time they’re on the plains, you realize that Gandalf is looking around for something, leading the party from outcropping to outcropping, and you realize he is trying to find the particular outcropping that contains the entrance to the Hidden Pass — and he’s not telling Thorin or anyone else that he is doing so. The way events play out, the company has little choice but to hide in the entrance and then follow the hidden trail, but the second time around you realize from Gandalf’s behavior and the looks on his face that he has known perfectly well all along that this trail leads to Rivendell and has deliberately led the company this way.

Okay, here’s a funny thing that Dave noticed: At one point, Gandalf is asked if there are other wizards, and he says there are five: himself, Saruman, Radagast, and two whose names he says he can’t remember. Say what??? Well, the reason he can’t remember them is that they are not named anywhere in the books of The Hobbit and LOTR, and those are the only books that Jackson and company have the rights to adapt from. The two other sorcerers are named in The Silmarillion and other materials, but Christopher Tolkien is opposed to the making of these movies, and, while the movie rights to Hobbit and LOTR were sold off long ago and he can’t do anything about that, he has refused to grant the rights to use any material from anything else.

Gandalf could easily have been given a less specific line that didn’t enumerate the wizards and didn’t call attention to his bizarre lapse of memory — “Oh, there are several of us. Saruman is the leader of our order. And then there’s Radagast, who lives not far from where we are now …” So it looks like Jackson was deliberately but obliquely twitting Christopher Tolkien by calling attention to the fact that the two names are missing.

Oh, Horrible! Catastrophe Appalling!

The office refrigerator will be turned off during the long Christmas weekend, and we’ve been asked to take any perishables home with us at the end of the day today. I have a third of a tub of Breyer’s vanilla bean ice cream in the freezer, and it ain’t gonna keep during my ninety-minute commute home. So I’m forced — forced, I tell you — to eat a lot of vanilla ice cream today.

I already put a scoop in my morning coffee instead of cream — mmmm.

The Hobbit

Dave and our friend Trenton and I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Saturday night.

We all liked it a lot. The acting is terrific and the adaptation from the novel strikes me as absolutely brilliant. OK, if you go in wanting to see the novel literally and faithfully brought to the screen, you’re likely to be disappointed. That seems to be what is going on with a lot of the reviewers who have panned it: From their reviews, a lot of them seem to have gone in already having decided what an adaptation of The Hobbit has to be, namely a fairly short movie aimed at children, as the novel is. They came into the theater having made up their minds that the novel is too slight to support a trilogy of movies and that this was therefore obviously going to be an overblown movie disaster, and they wanted to write that review so badly that they didn’t notice that what was on the screen was the sort of movie they’d already decided could not possibly work, and it was working.

On the other hand, if, like me, you’ve always found The Hobbit to be an odd and somewhat unsatisfying prologue to The Lord of the Rings, a much slighter book and too twee by half, very Beowulf-meets-Winnie-the-Pooh, then you might be predisposed to be blown away. The novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may be set in the same world and be by the same writer, but they don’t really go together, don’t feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. And yet — at least judging from this first part — these two movie trilogies are going to end up feeling like two halves of one whole.

The filmmakers have found a way to retell the story of The Hobbit not as a children’s tale but in the style of the movie LOTR. The scenes they’ve added give the story and characters more weight and depth, make connections between what’s happening here and what will happen in LOTR, fill in linking pieces of the history, and so on.

They’ve changed some incidents so that they make use of the same visual language as LOTR, in a few cases even repeating an image to stress a point. For example, the first time Bilbo accidentally puts on the Ring, it happens when he stumbles and falls in a visual echo of the scene in LOTR in which Frodo falls in the Prancing Pony, and it seemed to me to be a wonderful stroke, pointing up the connection between the two events and making the point that here, too, the Ring is actually trying somehow to slip onto the finger of whoever it wants to be its next bearer. This is the sort of ominous point that is never made in the novel of The Hobbit — logically enough, as Tolkien didn’t know yet where he was going with the fantasy world he was creating. In the movie, though, the connections are made, and we can see how the things that happen in The Hobbit and the decisions that are made are eventually going to lead to the story of LOTR. Many of these connections are things that you’d only understand if you’d studied the two novels pretty carefully and/or read the various appendices and ancillary books. I think it’s a good thing to incorporate them into the movies.

The score has plenty of new music, along with new leitmotifs for Thorin and Erebor and Radagast and so on, so I have no idea what some of the reviewers are talking about saying that it’s all just recycled music from LOTR. The score does use themes that are familiar from LOTR for the Ring and the Shire and so on, but even then, they’re often varied in new ways.

We saw the movie in 3-D at 24 frames per second. I didn’t think the 3-D seemed to be adding anything. From what I’ve heard, I’m just as happy not seeing the movie at 48 fps.

The one way in which the movie felt overmuch to me was the number and length of the battles. (This was true for me of the movie of Return of the King, too. For that matter, it’s true for me of the book of Return of the King. In a technical way, I appreciate how skillfully Tolkien’s prose takes on more and more of the noble manner and form of Old English poetry à la Beowulf in the battle scenes in ROTK; but in practice, I find that it makes for some especially draggy reading to place so near the end of a very long book).

But still — the battle with the goblins underground is brilliantly and intricately planned and executed, like a huge comic set piece out of a Jackie Chan martial arts movie (only with probably twenty times the budget). And the battle at the end does make for a very strong finish to the movie. The filmmakers make it more important than it is in the novel, and move a crucial incident from later in the novel to this point, so that the movie ends with some emotional weight, some significant development in a couple of the central characters. It totally worked for me as a strong ending to the movie.

So even though my overall feeling at the end of the movie was that my appetite for battle scenes had been more than sated, I’m not sure exactly what I’d want to trim away, either.

(My experience as a writer has been that when there’s too much of one element like this, the natural reaction is to want to start cutting at the point where the audience begins to tire of it. However, this is — in my experience, anyway — usually where you shouldn’t cut much. Instead, you want to be trimming things away much earlier, even though this is the section of your story where that element is still working well, so that if you lose any dramatic weight as a result, you lose it in your early scenes and keep it in your late scenes. So maybe there’s some battling early on that could have been shortened. It would probably take several viewings of the movie, though, to begin to have a worthwhile opinion about what exactly to trim.)

Later: I appreciate the new visitors to this site, but please note that this website is a personal online journal, and that neither this entry nor any other you find here is a review. If you can’t deal with the fact that I’m writing here pretty much off the top of my head and that I ramble whenever I feel like it and often don’t take the time to shape my entries into cogent formal arguments, then you’re probably looking for some other website, not this one.

Also, you may like to know that I have seen The Hobbit a few more times and no longer feel that there are too many battle scenes or that they go on too long. I can see why it felt that way on my first viewing, because the movie is complicated and has many layers, and I didn’t catch a lot of the subtler stuff the first time through. So a lot of the richness of the story didn’t fully register with me, the simpler elements like the battles made a stronger effect, and I wasn’t seeing the movie’s proportions very well. On more viewings, however, I have come to understand more of the many threads that are woven into the movie, and I find that the battles now feel right to me.

I hope that the extended version will use the extra screen time to point up some of the subtler elements more. If those things had been spelled out better, I think the movie would not have felt a little battle-heavy to me the first time through.

Erroneous Headline of the Morning

From today’s New York Times:

Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion
A global study of religious adherence released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that about one of every six people worldwide has no religious affiliation. …

Not the same thing, guys. The number of people who claim no religious affiliation may be only one in six, but the number of people who in fact follow no religion is more like 999 in a thousand.

Michael Chekhov


Anyway, the reason I brought up Spellbound is that it led me to take Michael Chekhov’s To the Director and Playwright down from the shelf and browse through it. I haven’t looked at that book in a very long time. Chekhov has a delightful and important comic role in the movie as the elderly psychoanalyst who was once Constance’s teacher. The actor was the nephew of the great playwright, and he was a very respected actor and acting teacher, first in Moscow and then in other countries, eventually settling down in Hollywood.

220px-Michael_Chekhov_1910хThe picture above is Chekhov as Dr. Brulov in Spellbound; to the left is one of him as a very serious-looking young man.

The book, To the Director and Playwright, is actually a collection of some of his writing and lectures compiled by an editor after his death. It actually doesn’t contain all that much that is especially for the playwright, it seems to me, even though that’s why I bought it in the first place. What he has to say is mostly about creating characters and individual scenes that contain theatrical life, and he writes about them from the point of view of how the director and actors will think about these things. This is all very good and valuable for the playwright to know, certainly; you have to create characters and scenes that will give your director and actors the basis for doing their jobs well. But it nevertheless seems to me that these things are not at the heart of the playwright’s job, and that Chekhov didn’t say much about the larger structural matters that the playwright needs to understand in order to be able to sustain that feeling of theatrical life over the course of two to three hours.

Still, it’s a very good book, with a lot of good stuff in it, and now I want to reread it and find some of Chekhov’s other books and lectures as well.

Here’s a passage I like very much, as apt to playwriting — and to life itself, for that matter — as it is to acting and directing:

There are many things around us which we feel are ugly, unsympathetic, unpleasant, and our impulse is to shun them, have nothing to do with them. That is an understandable, atavistic, animal reaction. But suppose the very next time you encounter something unpleasant you try to find in it at least a grain of something which is not ugly or repulsive. I don’t mean this as plain blind optimism; it literally is possible to discover something good or pleasant in everything unpleasant. It might be so minuscule that is is almost microscopic, or it might even be something intangible, but finding it will be extremely worth while. This act of kindness, this perceptive, artistic form of love, will help you to understand why no character on stage can ever be all black. In order to like and enjoy even the most hateful of our character creations, we must see in them or endow them with something admirable.

Still another suggestion: Listen to conversations and discussions of people around you and pay particular attention to the way they utter such possessive words as “I,” “mine,” “to my way of thinking,” “in my opinion,” etc. Frequently, they put more emphasis on those than on the things they have to say. Your impulse is to be highly critical of their egotism. But if you stopped to view this failing in a charitable light, you would soon be asking yourself, “Don’t I measure the thoughts and opinions of others through the prism of my own agreement or disagreement?” I don’t mean to say that nobody should express opinions; without them no discussion or conversation would be possible. What I am suggesting is that we curb this small ego within our own selves. The best way to treat it is with a gentle and tolerable humor; laugh at it, but without your justifiable sarcasm or cynicism. Learn to laugh at and discourage your petty ego because it is one of the numerous foibles that work in opposition to selfless love. Our kind of love, the creative person’s love, must be all-pervading and expand us; the small egos of our life only contract us.

Spellbound and The Girl of the Golden West

Dave and I watched Hitchcock’s Spellbound Friday night. I’ve been a Hitchcock buff since my childhood and I’ve seen Spellbound many times before, but evidently not in some years, because I noticed some things in it I don’t remember noticing before. Including a really startling number of structural correspondences and similarities with Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West.

Think about it: Independent, strong-willed Minnie Falconer/Dr. Constance Petersen has been wooed without success by a number of the men in her community (the mining camp/the hospital), including the local sheriff/her supervisor at the hospital, but has turned them all down — and then falls hard for the handsome newcomer Dick Johnson/Dr. Anthony Edwardes. Then she learns that the man she has fallen for is in fact an imposter and wanted for murder. But she knows in her heart that it can’t be true, and when a group of men, including the local sheriff, come to her room one evening to warn her and show her a photograph that proves the man is not who he says he is, she conceals what she knows from them, even though she could help them capture him if she wanted to. Instead, she works to save his life and make things right with the law, so they can marry and start a new life together.

Another parallel: In both cases, the couple’s first kiss is marked by a door opening (well, several doors opening in the case of Spellbound, and no snow), which in both cases is a metaphor for the heroine’s opening herself up to physical passion for the first time.

Did Hecht notice the parallels in the two stories and model some of his scenes on scenes in the Belasco play? I don’t know, but there seem to me to be just enough similarities to make that entirely plausible. And I doubt there’s any way Hecht didn’t know the Belasco play — it had been too huge a hit.