Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Perils of Osmosis

I'm reading the Lord of the Rings again at the moment. I used to read it almost every year for a while there, but it's been close to ten years now so I thought it was well time for another foray into Middle Earth. Last night I was reading the Two Towers and I came to the bit where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli meet Eomer on the plains of Rohan, and I noticed that Eomer refers to himself as "Third Marshal". And it really struck me, because in my own books (and I hesitate to mention them in the same breath as LoR) Heito has the rank of "Third Marshal". I couldn't remember where that title came from, and I had assumed it was just something that I put together that I thought sounded good. But it looks more likely I read it in LoR and my brain filed it away, only to come out years later in my own writing. At least I assume that's what happened; it could just be coincidence.

I'm always a bit nervous about that kind of thing happening, particularly with fantasy names. Usually if I come up with a hum-dinger of a name I google it, to make sure it isn't from something else that I've read or seen.  I didn't google "Third Marshal", but I just did it then and it comes up with lots of references to Rohan.

Not that it matters. It's just a reminder to me that while reading widely is vital to anyone who wants to write, it does come with its own particular little gotchas.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Hobbit Rundown


I saw the Hobbit for the second time a few days back. With cinema fees being so exorbitant I think it speaks for itself that I loved it. I'll probably go again in the next few weeks, though I might have to skip a few meals to pay for it.

Having now seen the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies multiple times I've identified what I see as an important principal for enjoying the movies.

Leave your knowledge of the books at the door. 

It's really difficult to do, I appreciate that. The first time I saw the  Fellowship of the Ring I had to stop myself many times from comparing what was on the screen to what happens in the book. Once you start doing that you're setting yourself up for disappointment, not because the movies are inferior to the book (which I don't believe they are) but because the movies are different to the book. They have to be. One is a movie, one is a book, and the way you tell a story is vastly different between the two.

Having seen the Hobbit movie twice now, I was able to spend some time afterwards pondering how Peter Jackson (hereafter known as "PJ") structured the story and the main plot points. I thought I'd make an attempt to list them, as well as saying something about how they relate to the plot/story as set out in the book, at least as I see it.

Here are the main plot points of the movie:

1. The dwarves want to take back Erabor from the dragon.

No problems there. This is taken directly from the book.

2. Sauron is rising again.

The necromancer, Dol Guldur, and the White Council are all mentioned in the book, but it's almost an afterthought, a narrative tool to explain why Gandalf has been absent from the party for most of the story. There really isn't any sense of something sinister about to happen. In fact it's the opposite. The fall of the necromancer is presented as the beginning of a new, happier age, when Mirkwood is once again called Greenwood and the goblins of the mountains disappear back into their caves and the land has a time of peace.

The reason the book ends in such a light-hearted manner is simple. When Tolkien was writing the Hobbit he hadn't yet come up with the idea of Sauron and the Rings of Power. Had he been writing them in reverse order -- with the Hobbit coming after the Lord of the Rings -- it seems pretty likely he would have cast the events of the tale in a much darker light, and made them serve as more ominous portents of the struggle about to engulf Middle Earth.

Which is what PJ did. In the movie, the light-hearted antics of the dwarves and their arduous quest to recover their home is set against a much darker backdrop. They and their quest are like small pebbles rolling at the base of a rock slide, as they set in motion events of which they have very little understanding.

Setting the story against this back-drop of rising danger gives it a depth that would be sorely lacking otherwise. Anyone who has read the book will know that the story as it stands is light-hearted children's reading. Good for a book, not so good for a movie, particularly when it stands as a prequel to the frequently dark LoR trilogy.

3. The blood-feud between Azog, the white orc, and the Line of Durin, specifically Thorin.

The book tells us that Thorin slew Azog's father in the mines of Moria, and that Azog and Thorin fight during the Battle of Five armies (spoiler alert -- in which Thorin is slain). But that's about it. Adding Azog early in the movie and giving him the goal of killing Thorin ups the level of danger the party is encountering at this early stage in the story. They are being hunted the moment they leave the shire. In the book, on the other hand, the only danger the party encounters before the Misty Mountains is their brush with the trolls. Bringing in Azog early ups the ante considerably. And how cools is he? Azog rocks.

4. The fall of Saruman.

The White Council, of which Saruman is head, is mentioned in the book, but Saruman is not. In the movie he is presented as a slightly petty and highly obstructionist character, more an annoyance to Gandalf than any kind of threat. The beauty is that anyone familiar with the later books/movies will recognise this as the first signs of his eventual seduction by Sauron.

5. Bilbo's struggle to win acceptance with the dwarves.

In some ways, this is the most important plot point of the movie. It is the only one that gets resolved by the end, which means it serves the all important purpose of giving the viewer a sense of satisfaction at the conclusion. We feel like at least part of the episode has closed.

In the book, Bilbo's abilities are initially greeted with scepticism by the dwarves, which gradually turns to respect as he gets them out of one scrape after another. In the movie, Bilbo's initial attempts to contribute actually work against him. His tactic of stalling the trolls by offering them suggestions on how to cook dwarf is met with outrage by the dwarves themselves, and even though Thorin quickly cottons on to what he is doing, he tells Gandalf afterwards that Bilbo was no help at all in the situation. Gandalf is the only one who fully understands Bilbo's intent, but the wizard's attempt to explain this to the dwarves appears to fall on deaf ears. Then Bilbo nearly tumbles over a cliff in the mountains and has to be rescued, at which point Thorin really lets loose -- telling him he has no part in the quest and it would have been better for everyone if he'd stayed at home.

This forms the all important "reversal" of the story. It is Bilbo's dark moment, during which he attempts to leave the party, despite Bofur's valiant attempts to stop him. Immediatly after that the story moves into the climax -- a fast paced series of events culminating in the riddle game with Gollum and a high action escape back into the wilderness. Once there, Bilbo overhears the dwarves ridiculing him yet again. He has still not moved forward in his attempts to win acceptance. Before he can explain himself they are in action again, chased by Azog and his orcs until they end up trapped on the edge of a cliff, high up trees, as they are in the books.

It is at this point that Bilbo finally wins acceptance with the dwarves. He leaps down and rescues Thorin.  Afterwards, Thorin appears to chastise him for his foolishness, but then embraces him and confesses he has been wrong in his assessment of the hobbit. There is a bit of light banter (including my favourite line, in which Bilbo says "I think the worst is behind us"), a glance toward the mountain and the next stage of the quest, and we are done.

So that's my take on the book vs the movie. The way I see it, all these changes make the movie actually work. Had PJ been a slave to the text, on this movie or LoR, I think the result would have been a disaster.

Was there anything I didn't like? Personally, I can never quite understand PJ and co's insistence on inserting anachronistic (or at least what I would consider anachronistic - this isn't history) expressions at key moments in the story. "Nobody tosses a dwarf" is the one that sticks out at me from LoR. In the Hobbit, PJ seems to have gone heavily for 'drug' humour. Saruman carries on to the point of embarassment about Radagast eating too many mushrooms, and Gandalf gets Radagast to smoke some "Old Toby", at which point the latter skips straight into "far out man this is heavy stuff" hippy mode. Aside from the drug humour, there's Dwalin's comment about making a "long term deposit" when they're in the trolls' cave. Certainly, the script would be fairly dull if it stuck to the dialogue from the book, but introducing such drastically modern (or at least 70's modern) elements had a habit of badly shaking my suspension of disbelief.

But maybe that's just me.

Overall, I think I would say that I enjoyed the Hobbit even more than I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings, and that's probably a reflection of the fact I prefer the books in that order too. I can't wait for the second installment!