Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Desolation of Jackson

‘You don’t normally think of Dr. Rozema as fierce,’ said the husband of the aforementioned Nebraskan couple, ‘but…’

I don’t normally think of Dr. Rozema as fierce. He is a patient, smiling man, always trying to get his students to understand why philosophical questions are asked and what happens between the asking of the question and the giving of the answer. But rumour has it that he was seen fierce on one occasion: while publicly debating the merits of the Lord of the Rings movies with the English department.

After seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for the first time, I could understand why. I have now seen it two times (due to circumstances) and the initial disappointment has lessened. Yes, it is a visually superb movie. Yes, the dragon is very satisfying. Yes, some parts are hilarious (though usually not very Tolkienesque). And the use of Elvish and Black Speech was very nice, I thought. (Although they should really have made more of an attempt to pronounce Thráin and Dáin correctly.)

Nonetheless, the movie is just not the book. I know that movies and books are two different genres, but it seems to me that the makers of the movie have simply failed to grasp or capture some essential elements of Middle-earth. Like the following (in no particular order):

1) The Free Kingdoms are worth fighting for. In The Hobbit, places like Rivendell and especially the Halls of Mirkwood appear as semi-deserted military bases. They are decors for action scenes, not places with their own vibrant life. True, there are references to a Feast of Starlight going on while the Dwarves are imprisoned at Mirkwood, but nothing is shown of this feast. Beorn, too, is not a jovial bear fellow (in the etymological sense of the word ‘jovial’), but a tortured skinchanger. Laughter appears as something incidental in Jackson’s Middle-earth.

2) Heroes are vulnerable, not demi-gods who remain completely unscathed while torrents of fire rage about them, or while they are sailing down a river of molten gold. Oh, and talking of demi-gods: the contest between high powers is intellectual, not an exchange of conjurors’ tricks. Compare the battle of Gandalf and Sauron, as depicted by Jackson, with that of Finrod and Sauron, as poetically described in The Silmarillion.

3) Fate, and something more elusive, governs the course of history. In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the intention of the Creator and of other higher powers remains firmly between brackets. The Dwarf-king’s inference that the possession of the Arkenstone betokens a ‘divine right to rule’ (as the first movie says) runs counter to the Free Peoples’ reserve in speaking too freely of the One’s intentions.

4) Beauty, not power, is the prime mover of events in Middle-earth. In the book, Thorin’s longing for the Arkenstone is a natural Dwarvish response to the gem’s beauty. This response is a fundamental recognition that can be shared by other races: in The Lord of the Rings, Gimli takes a rather airy Legolas into the Caves of Aglarond, and the Elf comes out unexpectedly impressed by the halls of stone. In the movie, however, Thorin’s desire for the Arkenstone is mostly extrinsic: he wants it to bolster his claim to lordship.

5) Elven-lords, even those less wise, are not vampires. They do not sinuously coil around their captives or show off their plastic surgery. Nor is heartless elegance an Elvish trait; there are Elven-lords who become rather heartless, but they are not very elegant (Thingol Greymantle). Moreover, they would never promise a captive freedom, then decapitate him and resort to equivocation in order to justify themselves.

6) Vice and insanity are two different things. Thorin Oakenshield is arguably too attached to the treasure beneath the Mountain, the Arkenstone in particular, but that does not mean he would force a frightened Hobbit at swordpoint to go back to a waking dragon. In the book, even when Bilbo gives the Arkenstone to Thorin’s enemies, Thorin does not lose his mind (though he is understandably enraged).
(Edit: While we’re on the subject of vice, I should add something that I forgot earlier, but that did bother me a lot in the movie. This is the degree to which Bilbo is affected by the Ring in The Hobbit. He fights for it like mad, and takes it out to look at it addictively. For some reason, Smaug senses that Bilbo has the Ring; he mentions the word ‘precious’, at which point the Eye of Sauron flashes on the screen and Bilbo takes off the Ring. If all this could happen in a year, how is it credible that Bilbo keeps the Ring for decades and still remains the same? Not to mention that the movie rather detracts from the theme of Hobbit innocence.)

7) The seventh judgment is the climax and summation of all dooms: Tauriel. Tauriel feels like a character that could have been invented by a teenager writing LotR fan fiction. An attractive, invincible warrior, a self-made she-Elf who attracts the prince’s attention but develops an independent interest in someone from another race, and runs across wild country to save her newfound beloved – I mean, really? Really?

There is no romantic interest whatsoever between Tolkien’s Dwarves and Elves. None. In rare circumstances, however, something different blossoms between them: a seed of mutual reverence. To indicate the chasm that ultimately yawns between Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s gang, consider the difference between the following dialogues, and contemplate the Tree that has died and the Jewel that has been lost:

(Fili is searched by an Elvish guard and relieved of his last knife)
Kili: ‘Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my pants.’
Tauriel: ‘Or nothing.’ (Locks the door)

(Galadriel is giving parting gifts to the Company)
‘And what gift would a Dwarf ask of the Elves?’ said Galadriel, turning to Gimli.
‘None, Lady,’ said Gimli. ‘It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.’
‘Hear all ye Elves!’ she cried to those about her. ‘Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious! Yet surely, Gimli son of Glóin, you desire something that I could give? Name it, I bid you! You shall not be the only guest without a gift.’
‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing, unless it might be – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire.’
The Elves stirred and murmured with astonishment, and Celeborn gazed at the Dwarf in wonder, but the Lady smiled. ‘It is said that the skill of the Dwarves is in their hands rather than in their tongues,’ she said; ‘yet that is not true of Gimli. For none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous. And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak? But tell me, what would you do with such a gift?’
‘Treasure it, Lady,’ he answered, ‘in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.’
Then the Lady unbraided one of her long tresses, and cut off three golden hairs, and laid them in Gimli’s hand. ‘These words shall go with the gift,’ she said. ‘I do not foretell, for all foretelling is now vain: on the one hand lies darkness, and on the other only hope. But if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.’
(The Lord of the Rings, Book II, Ch. VIII)

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