The Lord of the Rings as a franchise doesn’t age well when subjected to critiques of feminism and racism; it is unfortunate that the original books were a product of a society that was entrenched in some very nasty attitudes towards those who were not eminently respectable white gentlemen. This does not mean that Tolkien and Lord of the Rings are ‘bad’, just that it’s an intensely male and white franchise. It is what it is, and it is as much a period piece as it is a great fantasy work.
So, along comes the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. They are undeniably great films, but have a definite gender problem. Middle Earth is a very male place indeed and there are four named women who hold prominence; Arwen, an elfish princess who is the love interest of Aragorn, Éowyn, a shield maiden of Rohan who is romantically interested in Aragorn and ends up pushed to the side to be with Faramir, Galadriel, who… gives presents and has wise voice overs, and Rosie, who is the love interest of Samwise (much to the disappointment of a generation of young women Tolkien could never have predicted). Can you see what the problem is here? Saving Galadriel, who barely features in the second and third films, the women have a function as love interests to men. And while I think Éowyn is an outstanding character, and she serves a vital function in the destruction of Sauron, she does get shoved off to Faramir right at the end. It’s as if the giant misogynistic finger of God descended from the heavens, pointed at poor old Miranda Otto in her battle gear, and loudly proclaimed for all to hear, ‘Well done, you have killed the Witch King in order to defy the boundaries of your patriarchal society. Now you can settle into babies and retirement with this man that you barely know. I hope you like beards!’.
Now, I know you’ll be saying that this is a silly criticism to make. The films were written by a predominately female writing team, can’t I be happy with that? And it’s not like Peter Jackson can just insert a female character just to fulfil your silly girly fantasies of riding around Middle Earth without washing and not having to settle for the first man that is free. They are a fairly accurate and loving adaptation of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, and the women can only perform the role proscribed by the canon text.
When it came to making The Hobbit into a film, the Jackson writing team decided that they would turn it into three films. There are plenty of pros and cons of that decision, but the team decided that a major problem was a lack of female representation. They could bring in Galadriel, as they adapted parts of The Silmarillion in order to make the films serve as a direct prequel to the original trilogy, but The Hobbit is a 100% sausage fest. It was absolutely unacceptable that there would be a three film series with only one named woman of importance. The question was, were would the original female character be inserted? The Mirkwood elves were the best choice, seeing as they play an important role in the second and third films, and expansions could be easily made. Enter Tauriel, the female captain of the guard, and an absolutely guaranteed ass kicker. Evangeline Lily took the role on the promise that her character would not be involved into overly complicated romance plots; after all, she was well known for playing Kate on the show Lost and was unfortunately despised for her boomeranging between Sawyer and Jack. Tauriel was going to be exciting and wonderful and remind all us twenty something female fans of the moment when we saw Éowyn or Arwen swing their swords and for a precious moment knew that strength, nobility, and courage does not solely come in a male package.
I sat anxiously on opening night, with my box of popcorn and my packet of Minstrels, and… well, Tauriel certainly does kick a lot of orc backside, but she unfortunately falls right into Beaton syndrome. What is Beaton syndrome? Kate Beaton, the artist and writer behind Hark A Vagrant!, identified that ‘strong’ women in films (‘strong’ being a synonym for ‘I may be a sexy [insert job here] but I can also kill a lot of things with my pinky finger’) often invariably get pushed into a relationship with one of the convenient men around her for no apparent reason. A woman’s existence must be vindicated by her connection to a male character, and love is an appropriate avenue.
Tauriel, for all that she is captain of the guard, falls squarely into ‘love interest’ territory. Not only is she the token woman on display – where are the elves of Mirkwood hiding all their other women, I wonder? – but she is double the amount of love interest. Tauriel, despite the promises Peter Jackson made to Lily, is the focus of a love triangle. The Prince of Mirkwood has feelings for a lowly, common elf, while she finds herself attracted to the bad boy dwarf prince. This is the kind of cliché I cut my teeth on as a fiction writer, and has all the bad smell of studio hacks all over it. After all, love triangles produce huge box office returns; the despised Twilight ‘saga’ brought in the big bucks with their ridiculous ‘Teams’, and the Hunger Games is marketed to teenage girls as being the intense struggle Katniss has between Peeta and Gale. If you want to bring in an audience of teenage girls, who have lots of money to spend, then you must include this latest market fad.
That is what Tauriel feels like. She feels like the creation of network executives. She has a love triangle. She is another archer, in a market where archery is very popular. She can be sold as a toy to both boys and girls, making the most profit the company can get from the great Tolkien cash cow. She is vaguely conflicted. Tauriel feels like something created by a group of men ticking boxes for maximum demographic appeal.
It is noticeable in a year where Bryan Fuller, the noted cult TV writer, has created a new adaptation of Thomas Harris’s ‘Hannibal’ novels. The Harris books, similar to the works of Tolkien, reflect the attitudes and society of the age in which they were written – in this case, the world of law enforcement in the 1980s. Fuller knew that the Hannibal books are not diverse to successfully reflect the modern world, and genders and ethnicities of characters have been changed. It makes not a lick of difference to the show, other than to highlight what other franchises are getting wrong.
This is a tragedy to what could have been a stunning achievement as a character. Tauriel, when taken away from the love aspect of her subplot, is an elf who dreams of seeing beyond the confines of her forest home. She wants to experience a whole new world. She knows the rank hypocrisy of the system that holds her up and yet would refuse to aid those who do not conform. Like the greatest of Tolkien’s characters, she looks beyond herself to fight against evil. In the film, her feelings about the evil that is spreading across Middle Earth must be related to how it impacts on the men in her life, not upon her own instincts. All that she does must be joined with a thick line to a man, denying her any agency of her own. She does not achieve the noble aim of diversifying Middle Earth.
However, this does not mean that I dislike Tauriel as a character. Yes. I know. That does sound massively contradictory considering I’ve spent over a thousand words summarising why she fails under a feminist critique. But there is something in my gut that means I cannot dislike a woman working and striving to achieve something in a masculine world that attempts to deny her presence. As soon as I saw her, kicking orc arse and being a general badass, I liked Tauriel. She is a lone woman surviving in a world that does not accept the different. She is a woman struggling with the pain of letting down those she cares about. She finds the token that humanises a creature she despises, and makes her turn away from an age-old animosity between races. She finds herself connected to someone she might lose because of old and powerful evil that she cannot fight against alone. Evangeline Lily is an immensely talented actress, and makes a part that feels so small and so proscribed so utterly real. Despite myself, I found myself believing in the connection that she made with Kili. To tell the truth, even though it was riddled with problems and felt like the decision of a network board, I found it utterly adorable. There is nothing like impossible, difficult, tragic love to melt my bitter heart.
No matter her faults under a feminist critique, Tauriel embodies the best traits of Tolkien’s characters; compassion, courage, a willingness to express and feel love, and the determination to fight for what she knows is right, no matter what the personal cost may be. When my young niece is old enough to watch these films with me, I will not be upset or angry if she wishes to be like Tauriel. I would only wish that she would take those values, and demand more from the unequal world around her.
The Desolation of Smaug succeeds where its predecessor failed, but some issues remain.
I found myself smiling as I left the cinema last night. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug had, for me, succeeded where An Unexpected Journey had failed. It had transported me back to Middle-Earth.
Gone were the pacing issues of the first film, along with the ridiculously over-the-top Twilight wolves and the ability to jump from a dry grassland to a soaking woodland metropolis simply by climbing into a rock.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy excelled in making Middle-Earth a living, breathing world inhabited by real yet fantastical characters. It did so through taking the breathtaking scenery of New Zealand and seamlessly integrating CGI and fantastic prosthetics into magnificent sets and superb landscapes. Yet, in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson almost inexplicably choses to tinker with this finely honed balance and go more all-out with CGI.
Make no mistake, there is very little attempt made to step away from CGI usage. It’s used aplenty. Yet, whether it’s improvements in the quality of the CGI, or more attempt made to integrate the CGI into the actual purpose of the scene (rather than it becoming a flashy portfolio of special effects), it feels far less intrusive this time around.
The computer generated orcs – a major problem the last time around for my enjoyment of the film – are of far higher quality this time around, and almost look real. AUJ made Gollum look real, yet failed miserably with the likes of Azog. While Azog still isn’t perfect, he’s a lot better.
And again, it felt like effort was made to make the environments more believable. There was far less of the fantastical colours, the glowing-eyed wolves, the moonlit forest fire that looked completely cartoonish. Instead, Jackson and WETA appear to have opted for a more natural colour palette, particularly in Erebor, Mirkwood, the mountain tombs and Dol Guldur.
The result? I felt like I was in a real world again, like I had in The Lord of the Rings. And since I wasn’t constantly being pulled out of the world, I was able to enjoy the film.
Leaving the effects aside (and I admit, they might seem an odd place to start a review, but they had been so pivotal in my frustrations with the first film it seemed a natural place to begin) The Desolation of Smaug is a stronger film than the first. The pacing issues that riddled the first film are gone, and while it still a long film (I did hear other cinema goers moaning about the length as we left), I felt as if it flew past faster than An Unexpected Journey. The film gets down to business quickly with a meeting of the fantastic Richard Armitage’s character Thorin and Gandalf in Bree, and it never really slows after that. It moves quickly, moving at good pace between the multiple plot lines: Bilbo and the Dwarves, Gandalf’s investigation into Dol Guldur and Legolas’ life in Mirkwood. The new characters are well realised, particularly Bard in Laketown, and I particularly enjoyed the appearances of Beorn and Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown. I actually felt the fun, this time around.
Much as the Riddles in the Dark sequence in AUJ stood out, there are several similarly exemplary scenes in TDOS. I loved the ominous scene with the Wizards at the tombs at the High Fells, Gandalf’s battle at Dol Guldur, as well as the sequence in Mirkwood with the spiders (which was a pretty terrifying action sequence). Finally, there was a great sense of geographical continuity that had been lacking completely in AUJ. Here, I felt we were back on track, travelling through a believable world, and I think the long-distance shots over Mirkwood played a huge part in grounding the viewer, showing them the path ahead – much as the ending shots in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did. I’d content they’re hugely underrated shots, and AUJ suffered without them. (I know they had the final shot of Erebor after the Eagles had rescued the Dwarves, but by that point I’d spent two hours and forty-five minutes wandering around a seemingly disconnected series of set pieces that changed faster than you could say “Fly, you fools!”
Anyway, moving on. While there are some great scenes, some sequences fall short of excellence simply because they go on for too long. The pursuit through the rivers in Mirkwood goes on a little too long, and has a little too much of the gratuitous Legolas action. The Dwarves vs. Smaug in Erebor, similarly, goes on too long with little real progress. A good comparison would be Khazad-dûm in The Fellowship of the Ring: a fantastic action sequence with stages and consequences and humour. The Erebor sequence – although visually stunning, and a magnificent representation of a decayed Dwarf kingdom, lacks the same emotional attachment and the ‘stages’ which allow it to avoid becoming repetitive. Some of the fire diving, as well, was a bit over the top.
The Tauriel storyline fell a little flat, too. I appreciate the purpose it could give, since I assume she’s going to die in the next film at the Battle of the Five Armies, and thus giving Legolas a reality slap to move away from Thranduil’s isolationist stance and join the Fellowship, but I felt the dynamic with Kili, whilst well acted, just defied belief a little bit.
I appreciate that some Tolkien fans are up in arms about how different these films are from the books. I understand that point of view, being a huge fan myself. But I also appreciate the challenges Jackson has faced in putting these films together. He could have gone for a simple film version of The Hobbit book, which could have been fun, but would have fallen slightly flat as a standalone series of films. The ring, for instance, would never really have been explained, the Necromancer storyline had to be dealt with and he couldn’t really not make links between The Necromancer and Sauron like the books. Jackson took the decision to make a prequel to The Lord of the Rings and a Hobbit series at the same time, taking content from the appendices to join the dots between the two. This material is complicated, and written for the satisfaction of an academic mind and curiosity rather than for a Hollywood audience.
As a result, Jackson has had to improvise and invent to simplify and create a digestible film story. And where in AUJ this sometimes came across as carelessness or a lack of the same love and devotion he had displayed in The Lord of the Rings, it feels like that’s beginning to come together in TDOS. For instance, I can see more clearly the purpose of Azog’s character in exploring the Necromancer storyline (and I think this will be even more important in There And Back Again next year). Jackson’s had to make some tough choices, and while The Hobbit series will never be as faithful as The Lord of the Rings was, I’m beginning to appreciate that it can’t be. And that’s okay, because it’s still trying to be faithful to its continuity and film universe.
The last film was a disappointment. This one wasn’t, and that may partially be because I went in expecting to be disappointed. After all, with no Andy Serkis to blast out that wonderful scene again, would this film make up for it? I’m pleased to say that it did. It’s no Lord of the Rings, simply because as nice as the Dwarves are, I don’t think you could do a scene as emotional as Boromir’s death (after two films) because we’re simply not as emotionally connected with them as we would have been with any of the Fellowship. Whether that’s a failing of Jackson or Tolkien (gasp!), that’s up for the debate.
But I’m certainly excited by the next film. It has the potential to be pretty brilliant, and The Desolation of Smaug is certainly a step in the right direction.
We’ll be posting our own review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow.
In the mean time, why not let us know your thoughts on the film? We’ll display the best right here.
Tolkien's Turning In His Grave
Sadly, it's too late in this series to turn things around.”
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Hot on the heels of the first poster for the second part of Peter Jackon’s Hobbit trilogy comes the trailer for The Desolation of Smaug. This two minute trailer gives us all a first look at some important characters. We have Lee Pace as Thranduil, the father of Legolas and the Eleven King, doing something other than riding an elk. We have Evangeline Lily as Tauriel, a female elf who has been added into the film and has already been stirring up controversy, with fans fearing that she may be inserted purely to add in some romance. The trailer shows her firmly as a fighter but offers no clues on her actual character. And the trailer ends with a shot of the titular dragon himself, with Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins facing up to the terror that is Cumberbatch’s Smaug…
Well, I’m excited.
The second part of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films adapting the classic novel by Tolkein will be released this Christmas. Featuring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, the poster sees the hobbit in the midst of the destruction caused by the dragon Smaug (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) before the open doorway into the abandoned dwarf kingdom in the Lonely Mountain.
First up, let me just say that I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings. By this, I do not mean I enjoyed a handful of films I saw a decade ago. I love the books, I’ve read them and seen the films several times. I like the mythology in The Silmarillion and clamber after every bit I can get. Consequently, I really enjoyed The Hobbit. And yet, it left me feeling frustrated because, for me, it came close to being a masterpiece, but fell perilously short several key areas.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy excelled in making Middle-Earth a living, breathing world inhabited by real yet fantastical characters. It did so through taking the breathtaking scenery of New Zealand and seamlessly integrating CGI and fantastic prosthetics into magnificent sets and superb landscapes. Yet, in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson almost inexplicably choses to tinker with this finely honed balance and go more all-out with CGI. The most obvious is the character of Azog, who Jackson Gollum-ises, and Manu Bennett’s performance lost behind a thoroughly unrealistic looking computerised Orc. There was no real need to do so, since Azog is largely seen in facial close-ups that expose the short-comings of the CGI. The result? It transplanted me from the magical world of Middle-Earth and back into my cinema seat faster than you could shout “RUN!” (which happens quite a lot in the movie). If I could ask Jackson anything, it’d be that The Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t need all this fancy CGI in every scene to work wonderfully, so why did The Hobbit? If it ain’t broke…
The landscapes that were so beautifully natural and compelling in LotR are too often replaced with computerised scenes, and while in certain places such as Rivendell this works magically, later sequences with Azog in the forest feel like watching a cartoon. A consequence of this reliance on CGI orcs and landscapes is a change in filming style from LotR, with a large number of quick shots and snappy cuts between sword slices and arrow shots. Perhaps Jackson is attempting to avoid drawing too much attention to the CGI, but again the result is that it makes it a distinct challenge to get involved in the action. The sublime action sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring in Moria is replaced by something more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon in Goblin Town, running over endless bridges and pushing computerised orcs off them. It’s all very pretty, but never feels particularly like Middle-Earth to me.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: a warg from The Two Towers above one from The Hobbit.
Both look quite computerised, yet the Two Towers warg seems to keep very natural colour tones all over, and feels to me like a very believable beast. The Hobbit warg seems like an extremely cliched werewolf with a cliched sinister face and glowing eyes. It just didn’t feel particularly real to me.
Some of the CGI is superb, however. Gollum is even better than the stellar animations in the original trilogy, and there are times where he simply looks as real as the brilliant Martin Freeman in the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ sequence. The opening scenes in Erebor at the height of Dwarf control are simply magnificent. I always wondered how Moria would look in its prime, and Erebor answered. As I mentioned, Rivendell looks superb, and I thought the sequence in Mirkwood with Radagast was excellent both in its CGI and the performance of Sylvester McCoy.
Speaking more generally of the film, I cannot disagree more with those who claim it is too long, or that the attempt to split the book into three films is a cash-grab. It feels like neither. The only sequence I could argue was a waste of time was the battle of the Stone Giants, which although mentioned in the book, is made a little too Transformers-esque for no real reason. Everything included in the film I enjoyed being there, especially the cameos from Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Christopher Lee’s Saruman in Rivendell.
The pacing is admittedly slow in the beginning, but with thirteen dwarves to introduce, understandably so. Similarly, I found the dwarves interesting enough – particularly Thorin, Balin, Bofur and Ori – to sustain my interest through this period. Once the action gets going, it never really lets up. Which leads onto another criticism, which is that Martin Freeman’s titular Hobbit character seems somewhat secondary through large chunks of the film, particularly in Rivendell. The trailer showed shots of Bilbo wandering through Rivendell, encountering the Shards of Narsil. Not to be seen in the film however, and I feel the decision to give sole focus in the Rivendell sequence to Galadriel, Gandalf, Elrond and Saruman discussing Radagast’s news and the Morgul Blade a mistake. Bilbo’s decision to leave the Company shortly afterward felt flat and somewhat out of the blue. Some additional footage – although not in lieu of Saruman’s council – would have worked a treat here, both in developing Bilbo and helping his storyline flow into the next stage of the adventure.
Martin Freeman’s performance is flawless: his naivety, curiosity and bravery are perfectly characterised through Bilbo, and he is thoroughly watchable – perhaps even more so than Frodo in the original trilogy. Similarly, Ian McKellen is fantastic and Richard Armitage is excellent as Thorin. In general, the casting is superb. Even James Nesbitt (coincidentally, my fourth cousin!) holds his own in his one conversation with Bilbo in the cave.
There are several magical moments and magnificent scenes in the film that hold their own against LotR. The opening sequence in Erebor, the council at Rivendell, the trolls in the forest and the meeting with the Goblin leader stand out. By far the best sequence, however, remains Bilbo and Gollum in the cavern, exchanging riddles. Andy Serkis is – as expected – stunning, and Martin Freeman is an engaging and dynamic foil. It’s sad that Gollum presumably won’t appear in the next two films, and they will have to find their own stand-out sequences – or better yet, stand out on their own as a whole!
I think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was confused about what it wanted to be. In some ways, Jackson wanted to capture the up-beat nature of the book, making it more comical, exciting and dynamic than The Lord of the Rings. And yet, at the same time, he seems desperate to have crafted a mythological partner and natural forbearer to the earlier trilogy. He wanted the grand scale, the epic environments and stunning world of The Lord of the Rings. Yet, The Hobbit is a very different kettle of fish as a novel in the first place. It’s smaller, more intimate, and less epic than its successor novels. Trying to blend both styles has left both falling short. The innocence and fun of The Hobbit becomes secondary to the epic world of Middle-Earth and story of The Lord of the Rings, yet the Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings becomes diluted – more cartoonised and disjointed than we left it when The Return of the King faded to credits.
I read a review – and I can’t recall where, or I would cite it – that The Hobbit trilogy doesn’t have the benefit of three natural breaks that The Lord of the Rings had to capitalise on. The result may very well be that the entire trilogy needs to be watched in a row to get a real sense of the balance and purpose of the films. So in this sense, my judgement is reserved. And I do think that I’ll get used to the CGI in later films, now I’m expecting it (reluctantly!).
Perhaps this review has been somewhat hypercritical. I really enjoyed the film, and I’d go and see it again. Yet I feel as though I’ve been lift grinding my teeth – that only a few small scenes and less reliance on CGI would have propelled this film into true excellence, because it is fantastically performed and an exquisite telling of the story in the book. Perhaps the next two films will rediscover the balance, but for now, The Hobbit must content itself with being a strong and excellent film, but falling far short of Jackson’s self-inflicted standards of brilliance.
A school in London – Tower House School – have decided that waiting for The Hobbit film has gone on long enough, so they’ve made their own.
The full-length (yes, it runs a full 90 minutes…) is only for pupils and parents at the moment, but the trailer is available online.
The children managed to get the film mentioned in the London Evening Standard and the Telegraph, so fair play to them. Apparently, the full version has a CGI dragon…
It’s here! The second Hobbit trailer, released just a few hours ago!