The Hobbit succumbs to dragon sickness

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“On The Lord of the Rings we had actors in prosthetics playing the orcs, and I was always a little frustrated by that. If I could have afforded it then, I would have much preferred to have all the orcs CGI. Now, in The Hobbit, I can.”

Peter Jackson

A few months ago, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that as of March 2014, the budget for Peter Jackson’s latest epic – three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit – was $745 million. It’s the most expensive trilogy of all time, costing around $500 million more than Jackson’s last massively successful go-round with Tolkien’s work – those triumphant, absorbing, lived-in adaptations of The Lord of the Rings novels. After seeing the final Hobbit installment, The Battle of the Five Armies, in a packed theater over the holiday weekend, I have no doubt that every penny of that budget was used to make these movies look great. Unfortunately, you can’t finance feeling.

TBOTFA picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with that titular dragon feeling over it after a far-too-long dwarf fight and laying waste to the vaguely Celtic people of Laketown. It’s a gorgeous and harrowing sequence, with Jackson capturing the grand terror of the dragon’s every swoop, both from above the town and in the thick of its clogged and scorched canals. But before you can relax and honestly hope for a stuck landing, the dragon (77-year-old spoiler alert!) is killed by Bard the Guardsman (Luke Evans). Only after the amber light elegantly leaves its body in midair does the film’s title appear.

You’ve gotten your Smaug, now prepare for the slog.

 

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The rest of the film transforms the last five chapters of Tolkien’s book into a battleground strategy manual. It makes good on its title for sure, with the armies of dwarves, elves, men, orcs and deus ex machinas turning each other into CGI slurry for a huge chunk of the running time. There are stunning visuals here; Jackson does not deserve the “video game” taunts. But he’s blinded by pixels. The patience, warmth and good humor of the underrated An Unexpected Journey are nowhere to be found; characters have no time to talk, let alone develop enough to get us invested in them. As a result, those looking for any kind of message from these movies leave with some paper-thin bullshit. Tolkien taught us a simple, poignant lesson – if you don’t lose sight of what’s truly valuable in life, you’ll be stronger than kings. To do so on film would require some quiet, reflective moments, however.

So instead of letting his universally beloved main character Bilbo Baggins (the perfect and wasted Martin Freeman) steal screen time from the worms from Tremors, Jackson invents the character of Alfrid Lickspittle, the toady to the King of Laketown and sentient insult to our intelligence who spends TBOTFA being cartoonishly cowardly and greedy, pushing old ladies and then dressing up like one to avoid battle (which is funny in 2014, apparently). Instead of letting Bilbo actually have a conversation with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the newly crowned King of the Mountain struck with “dragon sickness,” the character can only come to his senses after a (terrible-looking) CGI hallucination sequence involving a floor of molten gold quicksand or whatever. Instead of having Bilbo do anything, we watch Bard save his “Da!”-yelling kids over and over and over again, because FAMILY. We learn about Legolas’s dead mom, because FAMILY. We hear the warrior-elf Tauriel talk about nothing but love and dudes, because WOMEN’S ISSUES=HALF-BAKED TWILIGHT-TYPE SHIT.

 

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When filming The Lord of the Rings, Jackson had to get creative to avoid blowing his budget. He had to lean on his actors and his script-writing partners. He had to shoot miniatures and build sets and use old camera tricks to make us believe that Ian McKellen was three times taller than Ian Holm. His passion and ingenuity were all over those films as a result; he was Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain. On The Hobbit, with that blank check staring him in the face, he felt like a King. His trilogy that started with such heart has ended in a haze. The dragon lives.

 

 

Catching Up With King: The Gunslinger

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine this summer, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to “cowboy up” – which is a thing you can do, apparently – and take on Book One of the Dark Tower series – The Gunslinger.

“Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.”
–The Man in Black

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If one wanted to take a swipe at Stephen King, the length of his novels seems to be the obvious place to start. None of the books I’ve tackled here so far have been especially bloated, but his loyal readers are certainly no stranger to shelf-punishing hardcovers. Of course, this invites accusations of King having a problem with endings, or a puffed up idea of his own literary significance, or a celebrity that handcuffs his editors. But I’m pretty sure this line of criticism is a lazy one, because I just read The Gunslinger – the first entry in King’s seven-part-and-counting Dark Tower series, and the opposite of a 1,000 page door-stopper – and it left me wanting so much more.

When this book came out in 1982, it must have thrown King junkies for a bit of a loop. Written in simple, muscular language, The Gunslinger is a starkly different genre exercise then the supernatural/domestic clash fiction that made the author famous. King borrows from an eclectic array of fantasy tropes to build his world – including spaghetti westerns, 1950s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Arthurian legend and the multiverse theory – boiling them down to the most basic of quest stories, where the obviously good guy (The Gunslinger) follows the obviously bad guy (The Man in Black), across a desert hellscape, getting closer and closer until he finally catches up with him. Plus, there’s a kid. It’s not a bad idea on paper – King writes the weirdo Sergio Leone script of his dreams, adding his own shadows to the good and the bad, but focusing most of all on the ugly, resulting in a Cormac McCarthy-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien mindfuck of a masterpiece. That’s what I wish this book was.

What it actually is, is way too slight. So few characters having even fewer conversations, with the emptiness of the landscape getting more play than anything else. I get that when your main character is the strong, silent, Eastwood type, your story isn’t going to be dialogue driven. But there isn’t much plot here to speak of either – Good Guy follows Bad Guy from Point A (desert) to Point B (mountains). Good Guy picks up Mysterious Boy. Good Guy bonds with Mysterious Boy. Good Guy makes Difficult Choice in regards to Mysterious Boy while following Bad Guy from Point B (mountains) to Point C (fire pit on other side of mountains). The End.

Now, I’m fully aware that context is playing a role here. I read The Gunslinger immediately after finishing The Shining, a gluttonous feast of character development that puts us inside the head of a gifted child, who becomes a portal into the heads of everybody else – while also carefully laying out the dark and complicated pasts of both a haunted hotel and the family trapped inside of it. I also read The Gunslinger with the knowledge that it’s the first book in a beloved fantasy saga – something I usually have a weakness for. So you could say I went in expecting The Fellowship of the Ring, and I got a few chapters of a shorter, picture-book version of The Hobbit.

While there are elements of the story that intrigue me and will compel me to read on – most especially the beautifully regaled flashbacks that make up The Gunslinger’s pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-Arthurian origin story – King’s world just isn’t in the same galaxy as a Middle Earth. Or even a Westeros, for all its obsessive-compulsive flaws. Maybe in future installments, King will abandon the cowboy novelist pose and just write his ass off while losing himself down all kinds of bizarre rabbit holes, fleshing out the scraps of promising meat from this skeletal beginning. Maybe there will be hundreds of pages of stuff that makes the story much longer than it probably needs to be. I can only hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary
Catching Up With King #2: The Shining