If you think of Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ as a fan-fic video game it makes more sense

I finally caught up with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Part two of the trilogy – and don’t we know it. The film ended – splat – in the middle of what was structurally the build-up to the dramatic finale.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

It also confirmed what I pretty much understood from watching the first instalment, The Hobbit: Leaving Bag End and Getting As Far as the Front Gate. Once upon a time I read a wonderful book by J. R. R. Tolkien. A few scenes in these movies bear passing resemblance to one or two passages in the book, but I think we have to accept that this movie trilogy isn’t really Tolkien’s wonderful kids’ tale.

To me this instalment – particularly – came across as a cross between high-budget fan fiction and a shoot-em-up video game, with plenty of set-piece chase sequences and puzzle-solvers, melodramatic cliff-hangers in lieu of real tension and cliched game-style characters (I’m talking about you, Tauriel). But it had little in the way of tight plot, characterisation or true dramatic tension.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.
Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Judged on its own merits – and accepted as the middle third of a nine or ten hour story – The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was OK. It’s very much in line with current trends, like X-men and other SFX spectaculars. But I know Jackson’s capable of better than this. He did a stunning job on The Lord Of The Rings. Wonderfully scripted, structured and paced.

What happened? I fear the market happened. The Lord of the Rings was over a decade ago. The big studios don’t seem to be taking major risks these days – it’s why multi-parters and franchises rule. It’s why movies appeal more to the video-game set now than they ever have in the past.

In the wider scheme of things, Jackson’s version of The Hobbit pretty much nails current market expectation. I fully expect to see a vid-game involving [spoilers!] a helter-skelter barrel chase while overcoming obstacles, pulling levers and dodging orc arrows; or a scuffle through Erebor jumping between platforms and moving conveyor belts, pulling levers and so forth in order to flood the bad guy with molten gold.

To me that tells us a lot about ourselves, about how society has changed, about how our expectations have been moulded. And Tolkien’s ouvre, I think, deserves more than this.

Your thoughts? Have you seen this part of the trilogy yet? What did you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More art deco holiday snaps, regular posts resume next week. Watch this space.


27 thoughts on “If you think of Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ as a fan-fic video game it makes more sense

  1. You hit the nail on the head.
    And when you KNOW someone can do better but they won’t then ‘Just OK’ becomes ‘horrendous fecal matter,’ from a relative standpoint.
    I sat through the first third of Jackson’s bowel movement and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t walk out and demand my money back. Needless to say, he won’t be getting admission from me to see the other two thirds of the movie.
    BTW, I consider myself a vidoegamer, and the same trends are creeping into games these days. No risks, same old set pieces and cliches, flat characters and trite–if any–story.
    So I never buy a game I haven’t rented first and I don’t support companies that produce crap.
    If we stop buying it, they’ll stop making it.
    And gamers, if you need something new to play pick up a classic you’ve never tried before. They’re dirt cheap and BETTER than most current gen games.

    1. The same, I think, could also be said of novels these days, more’s the pity. And music. We need to re-discover novelty, prod publishers – movie, music, game and book alike – into taking risks…and breaking out of dullness.

      1. Well said. And I think in each of them, indie is the answer. We don’t need gatekeepers to any of it in a digital age.
        That said, the indies need to make sure their product is FLAWLESS before releasing it.
        Ever hear of a videogame called Journey? It’s a game based entirely on Campbell’s Hero Monomyth with no dialogue whatsoever. But the storytelling is incredible–both emotional and compelling. It’s worth a play by anyone.

  2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Here was my response to a friend who asked what I thought:
    The book describes a slog with long pauses, punctuated with moments of high adventure. The movie takes those same events and accelerates them to breakneck speed. It’s like most of the movie is paced like the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. One peril leads -directly- to the next, no time to catch your breath. It’s loud, there are big fight scenes (not in the book), and scary, I guess- for someone who doesn’t know the story- but I never had time to feel genuinely anxious for their safety. It was a roller coaster ride that was amazingly reminiscent of The Hobbit, but never FELT like The Hobbit.
    (That said, I suspect that sticking strictly to the book would not be all that interesting.)

    1. Absolutely – that roller coaster never let up, and it never felt like The Hobbit at all. More a kind of epic re-imagining. I’ve always thought that a movie made directly from the book would be Star Wars…The Hobbit book was the same story – the classic Hero Journey. Something wonderful that runs to the heart of the human psyche. There was an animated movie made c1977 which pretty faithfully covered The Hobbit & also makes clear it would be good for (say) 130-140 minutes of movie.

    1. It’s possible that a Directors’ Cut on DVD may be better – I recall ‘Two Towers’ was materially re-jigged between cinema release and the DVD, and it made it a much better movie. But on the face of the two Hobbit movies I’ve seen so far, I suspect there may not be adequate material either way this time…

  3. Having gotten into seriously considering writing as a career from discovering my love of fan fiction (nearly a decade ago – and it was Lord of the Rings fan fic, at that), I would say you hit it spot on. It’s definitely a… special re-imagining of The Hobbit, but considering some fan fic I’ve come across, this is definitely what I would consider better fan fiction.

    I honestly didn’t have a problem with Tauriel. I’ve seen a lot of video games played out (courtesy of hubby’s skills, not mine) and while there were some cliched points about her character, she was certainly not as bad as she could have been.

    The fight scenes were so convoluted, though. The plot would have been much stronger if they’d chopped the barrel scene and the Erebor scene drastically in length and focused more on the time with Beorn and in Mirkwood.

    1. I agree. The Beorn and Mirkwood scenes were pivotal to Bilbo’s character arc in the original novel – it was here that he learned how to be truly a hero, after being introduced to the concept in the Misty Mountains. There was a wealth of material in them but they were absolutely truncated in the movie to the point of virtual non-existence, in favour of an entirely new swathe of events that Tolkien never wrote. Sigh…

  4. You got it exactly right. Exactly. I haven’t seen the second part yet, largely because my severe arachnophobia has kept me away. Yeah, I knew “those” were coming. I had two favorite scenes in the first part: the opening when the dwarves arrive and later when Bilbo plays the game with Gollum. I had to re-watch the movie to remind myself the game part was actually there because it was sandwiched between action sequences that made it feel like an awkward pause.

    1. I agree – the dwarf arrival and riddle game were well done and rather buried. The rest of it…meh. I don’t think Tolkien ever envisaged the goblin tunnels involving helter-skelter chases across collapsing wooden walkways. More game fodder. I had wondered whether enough of the ‘real’ Hobbit had been filmed for it to be possible to edit the trilogy down to a reasonable approximation of the orgiinal novel – maybe 140-150 minutes at most. But having seen the second movie I have my doubts.

  5. I enjoyed the movie. It was fun. The currently mandatory scene of traveling through tunnel or chute, or river in barrels is familiar. But the arrow shots are so much fun and Evangeline Lilly is just gorgeous (I think I swooned once). Honestly. I didn’t expect a masterpiece of plot crafting, so maybe that explains why I’m not disappointed. Mostly, I look at the quality of CGI and how the creatures are animated. I think Smaug was “modeled” okay, but it was the motions and behavior where he really shined. The way the neck moved was quite believable.

    I can see where an avid fan of Tolkien’s work might be disappointed. At the same time, if we take it as a movie-only visual extravaganza, it was fun and exciting. Has the scripting possessed the depth of LOTR, that would have been a bonus, but anymore, I often go to the movies expecting terrible or childish scripting (kid’s movies like Ice Age are often more complex). If something better happens, then it’s a happy surprise.

    1. Yes, from the viewpoint of action there’s no question about the dynamism. The CGI and effects quality were truly stunning in this movie. There was an enormous amount of it – these movies are being promoted to showcase New Zealand’s scenery but very little of the real stuff was actually shown. All but a tiny percentage of the live action, as far as I could tell, was against green-screen. Their main outdoor set was on a ridge about 1 km from the studio, just outside suburban Seatoun in a small patch of ‘green belt’. I overflew it one time leaving Wellington by air – it wasn’t a huge set. They also had outdoor sets in the studio lot, all of them backed by green-screen visible from Park Road, outside. (You can also look down on the studio from a public park on a ridge above – they had guards there to stop anybody taking photographs, which caused a small scandal because it was in a public place).

      1. My wife and I were admiring the wonderful views during the movie. Highlighting New Zealand is not a bad move. Easily one of the beautiful terrains on Earth. I’m sorry that New Zealanders were blocked from their own public spaces, but hopefully that’s just temporary. My wife and I can be a bit verbal at movies. We don’t talk much but we give every cinematic masterpiece deserving “oohs” and “aahs.” Views of the Shire got lots of that.

  6. Hollywood is extremely risk averse at the moment. They are stretching out existing franchises for as long as they can and revisiting all the old ones, anything with an established fan base. If they could then I’m sure they would continue to produce films set in Tolkien’s world – films that would fit your description as ‘fan fiction’ even better than the Hobbit trilogy.

    For me the difference between the films and the original book highlights the differing primary motives of Tolkien and Hollywood. One was out to make as much money as possible and the other was simply aiming to tell a great story.

    1. It’s definitely ‘product’, alas… The other disappointing part for me was the paucity of NZ scenery – so much of it was obviously green-screen/CGI. We have such wonderful landscapes & they were showcased so well in LOTR. Sigh…

  7. I’m not sure what to say. For one, I love the original book, but I’m the kind of person that can dissociate book from movie because they are 99.9% of the time never similar enough to even be compared, despite the book almost always being solid and/or awesome source material. So I liked it as a fantasy movie quite a bit, but I can understand why it’s so upsetting to some who don’t split it up like that in their head.

    Tauriel, from a woman’s perspective, was a nice badass elf lady. Who then… became frustrating. So yeah. Smaug was amazing, I fully expected it to end where it did (because three movies always means a ridiculous cliffhanger for the middle movie).

    Overall a solid movie, but you’re right. It’s nothing more than a 4/5 in my head. It’s not OH MY GOSH SO MEMORABLE, aside from Smaug, and even then I think that’s mostly because they had the money to make him impressive. Aside from that it’s another Middle Earth movie, and it does that well enough, so I’m content.

    1. Smaug was one awesomely impressive dragon – in part via mocap, as I understand it, from an 11-year old skink named Hermes. Here’s a photo a local Tolkien enthusiast group published of Hermes at a gathering in Wellington, in the lap of his owner Shirley Jones (on the left): http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-JtLDVi8fGfQ/UeTmneAaiTI/AAAAAAAADew/CShXqSz5Np8/s1600/Shirley+with+Hermes,+Barbara,+Judy,+Kathryn,+and+Jack.jpg

      You’re right, books can’t ever be exactly like the movie – and I recall, years ago, hearing from Boyens, the script-writer of LOTR at the time (and now, of course, The Hobbit) who clearly knew how the process of adaptation works. What worried me with this Hobbit instalment is that from that conversation I KNOW, directly from the script-writer’s mouth, that they have the chops. But something seems to have really come adrift along the way on so many levels with this one, especially in terms of translating some of the fundamental thematic elements that made Tolkien’s mythos what it was. Sigh. I’ll watch the third instalment, of course…

  8. The only way this film is good is to imagine Peter Jackson is your buddy that you really want to support, so you watch and enjoy out of keeping your friendship. I am ok with this film as a large embellishment to Tolkien’s work and pure fan fiction. He clearly made this film for himself, which I respect as an artist, but can condemn as a tolkienist at heart. The movie completely forgot about Bilbo for way too many scenes, which were replaced by a bad love story and a ten commandments style golden calf but golden dragon instead. Nice touch on the video game piece, I would say another level is collecting medicine around lake town without getting caught.

    1. Jackson is another New Zealander – he lives in the same city as I do, went to school with people I know… I want to support him. But yeah, this movie lost it big-time as far as the ideas, themes and concepts Tolkien envisaged are concerned. Especially the love story – Tolkien’s whole mythos pivoted on Elf-Dwarf hatreds.

  9. I haven’t seen Desolation of Smaug yet, but I do think I would have enjoyed the first movie more as a video game. The stretched out plot was watered down, and would have been boosted if it had been gameplay instead of just watching another impossible jump.

    1. Neither movie seemed to have very much to do with Tolkien’s original Hobbit, unfortunately. I’ll see the third one when it comes out, but I figure the “real” Hobbit movie adaptation remains the 1970s animated version, which stuck pretty tightly to the themes and ideas of the book.

  10. Yep. I agree, though I think (and am preparing a very late review to explain) that it is not only a high-budget fan-fic, but a bad high-budget fan-fic. I hadn’t thought about the video-game aspect before, though. Now that I think about it, I can clearly see the “cut-scenes” and play-through action sequences. The latter would have been a lot more fun if I were actually controlling it and there was a high chance of failure. 🙂

Comments are closed.