The Forbidden Kingdom

Dave and I watched the Jackie Chan–Jet Li movie The Forbidden Kingdom again last night. We had watched it a few years ago and we wanted to see it again, because I recently found a copy of Monkey — the Arthur Waley translation and abridgement of the Chinese classic Journey to the West, which has been on my books-to-look-out-for list for years — at Moe’s. I haven’t even started to read it yet, but it reminded us of this movie, which contains all kinds of references to Journey to the West and other Chinese lore as well as to some classic martial arts movies; some of the references are tongue in cheek and others are more poetic. So we thought it would be fun to watch it again.

Fun movie! Beautiful visuals! Great fight sequences! The story is rather clichéd but lively, sometimes genuinely funny, and well acted. Jackie Chan does more of his drunken fighting while playing Lu Yan (AKA Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Chinese Immortals, who traditionally has a weakness for drink). Jet Li doing kung fu in the character of the Monkey King is totally irresistible.

Spoiler Alert

I’ve been asked by a couple of people what I mean by a direct connection between Azog and the Necromancer. If I’m right, this is a big ol’ spoiler, so I’ll write it in the comment to this entry, and if you don’t want to see it, don’t read the comment.

Still More About An Unexpected Journey

Very good blog posting about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I agree with the writer that I would have been happy to skip the incident of the stone giants in the mountains. Unless it’s leading to something in the later parts of the trilogy, it doesn’t go anywhere, and cutting it would probably have made the two big battles that follow it feel less like too much of a good thing.

I disagree, though, with what she writes about Azog seeming superfluous in the story. There are a number of clues in An Unexpected Journey that Azog’s significance in the story is going to turn out to be a lot greater than it currently appears.

The author writes, “I’m not assuming that Azog will turn out to be working for Sauron, though it’s possible.” But it’s more than possible, it’s certain, or Howard Shore wouldn’t have used the Mordor theme from The Lord of the Rings every time Azog shows up. In LOTR, the motif is used only with servants of Sauron, and his score is clearly intended to mesh with his score for LOTR. So Azog must be working for Sauron.

Furthermore, if you can put two and two together, there is a very strong clue in AUJ of a direct connection between Azog and the Necromancer. True, the Necromancer isn’t identified with Sauron anywhere in AUJ, but we know from Tolkien’s books that they are going to turn out to be one and the same.

So again, Azog must be working for Sauron.

Still More Hobbitry

This is madness, but Dave and I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a fourth time, in order to see it in the 48-frames-per-second version.

The good thing about this version is that, even though it’s in 3-D, everything is extraordinarily crisp and detailed. I was able to catch a lot of details that I had missed before. And at times there are a lot of details going by very quickly.

The bad thing is that somehow the quality of the lighting looks different, maybe a little overexposed somehow. It reminded me of a 1970s television show shot on video instead of film. Hopefully the technology will improve.

And I still felt that very little was gained by seeing the movie in 3-D. A really sharp 2-D print would be just fine with me.

Some more things I noticed this time around (warning — some mild spoilers ahead):

The dwarves’ facility with juggling things, which is set up in the opening sequence in Bilbo’s home, is much more of a constant theme running through the movie than I’d realized before. All through the movie they are tossing things to each other and deftly catching (or sometimes dodging) things that are thrown at them.

Likewise their acrobatic skill. The battle with the trolls, for example, shows the trolls trying to catch the dwarves over and over, and never quite able to do so. The dwarves are always dodging them, jumping out of their reach, rolling between their feet to pass under them, and so on, always a step ahead of the trolls. Bilbo, though, isn’t as nimble, and the group is put in danger as a result.

The escape from the goblin caves shows this over and over. The dwarves toss weapons to each other, jump from swaying bridges with split-second timing, join forces to make use of unlikely objects they find at hand, and all without ever having to discuss how they’re going to do this — they just know. It’s a densely choreographed sequence, and this time through it didn’t seem a moment too long — maybe because the greater clarity made it easier for me to see and understand everything going on.

Some more observations about the music:

I’m not sure, but I think the Arkenstone has a musical theme associated with it, four ascending notes. When Thror fumbles and drops it, and the Arkenstone falls down the stairs to be lost in Smaug’s hoard of gold, I think I heard the theme being played in reverse, so that the notes are descending. Nice touch, if I’m right about that.

There were two themes associated with Gollum in the score for The Lord of the Rings, one poignant and pathetic, the other cold and sinister. Both themes turn up in the Riddles in the Dark sequence in An Unexpected Journey. The sinister theme is the one you hear when Gollum first appears, and it’s the only one you hear from that point to when Gollum and Bilbo meet. The poignant theme is heard for the first time just as Gollum’s face lights up at the thought that Bilbo might like to play a game with him.

Wow. I teared up at that moment — the theme underscores that inside this sinister little monster is a tragic, miserable, sorry creature, and it comes with a lot of associations for me already from its use in LOTR. So for it to come in at precisely that moment was somehow just a real heartbreaker.

I now have a copy of the Unexpected Journey soundtrack, in the form in which it was released on the Internet in November, on my iPhone, and I’ve started listening to it during my commute. I’ve only gotten through the opening so far. I’m hearing a lot in it that I didn’t hear before, probably because until now my attention to the music has been divided, due to, you know, watching a movie at the same time. (It’s also possible that there were some changes made between November and the movie’s release, though they’re unlikely to be substantial.)

The music for the prologue is much more complex and beautiful than I’d realized while watching the movie. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are prominent themes for Thorin and Erebor (the Lonely Mountain); what I hadn’t noticed before is that the two themes are closely related, both being based on three rising notes, the third, fourth, and fifth notes of the minor scale. (To be precise: If we’re in the key of C minor, the Erebor theme, which we hear first of the two, begins C-E♭-C-F-C-G, the distinctive feature of the theme being those leaps from C up to E♭, then F, and then G, suggestive perhaps of a mountain rising higher and higher before us as we approach it. Thorin’s slow, yearning theme is introduced soon after, and begins with the notes E♭-F-G-G-D, with that E♭-F-G sequence emphasized.) The two themes are juxtaposed and developed in some very lovely and moving ways, and the connection between the two themes makes the point that what it is that Thorin yearns for is to return to Erebor.

There is a very clear musical theme for Smaug. So clear, in fact, that I’m amazed I didn’t detect it during four viewings of the movie. I can only figure that it’s an exciting sequence and I was caught up in the visuals at that point. (Again, if we’re in C minor, Smaug’s theme begins C-B-C-B-G♭-F, this time snaking downward from C instead of rising.)

A theme consisting of rising and falling minor arpeggios may, or then again may not, represent the wanderings of the dwarves after losing their homeland. I’m not sure. I need to listen some more.

Later: The motif of rising and falling minor arpeggios (in 6/4 time, I think, with the first quarter note of each measure dotted and the second halved, giving a small but distinctive skip in the rhythm) becomes something of an ostinato through much of the scene in which the dwarves show up to dinner at Bag End. Only in this scene, it’s played humorously, and the rhythmic skip seems jaunty rather than sorrowful. Hard to believe I missed it while watching the movie. So this theme does seem to be connected with the dwarves, though whether specifically with their wanderings, I’m not sure.

Azog, the Pale Orc, is frequently associated throughout the movie with a motif of falling thirds, strongly reminiscent of the Dies Irae, that is always associated in LOTR with the servants of Sauron. So I guess that’s going to be a revelation to Thorin and the other dwarves in one of the later movies. (Gandalf may already suspect — surely he’s clever enough to pay better attention to the clues in the music.)

More inexplicably, though, at one point when Thorin and Azog are facing off, we hear music that in LOTR is always associated specifically with the Nazgûl, who I don’t think even exist yet at this point in Tolkien’s chronology. As far as I know, they don’t appear in the history of Middle Earth until about ten years after the events in The Hobbit. It’s a interesting riddle, then, to speculate on what that curious musical connection is supposed to mean. And Mr. Shore’s score is too meticulously organized for it not to mean something. I do have a theory, actually, that fits with some of the other plot points we’ve been given, but I think I’m going to keep it to myself for now.

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.