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Art or Cash: The Desolation of Critics

ArtorCash

Originally I was going to title this article “A Massive Metal Model of an Upended Space-Rocket: A Review of the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”; but then I realized it was too long, far too cryptic and I didn’t feel like researching the proper usage of two colons in one sentence with quotes and italics.  I’m much more concerned with traffic, click-through, likes and overall success.  The metal Space-rocket model purists will just have to deal with it and be happy I wrote an article at all.  I mean if you clicked through – it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, you already clicked through.  Of course, you could leave your review of my article below, and we can have a sequel to this article, have you click through again, and we’ll carry on that process as long as your happy to click through.  Know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink…?

And let me further preface this all by saying this article is not even a review, but more of an artist’s “stream of consciousness” that is loosely based on my viewing of the second Hobbit movie.  So please forgive me, this article is not a pure interpretation or adaptation of my viewing experience, but is simply my reaction to the critics based upon that viewing.   If any of the disclaimer above makes sense to you, please let me know as I’d like to buy you a pint sometime.

There was actually a third working title I had considered, “The Back-wash of Watching the Desolation of Smaug at the Elbows of Artists”, as I had the peculiar honor of watching the film between two of my favorite artists; Jef Murray and Ted Nasmith.  How can Varda align the powers to create such a scenario you ask?  Well, such is the epic setting designed by the masters of Mythmoot II; the annual gathering of the Mythgard Institute.

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Fellowship of the Wee Scarvies at Mythmoot.
This group has discussed Tolkien a few times…

 If you had the pleasure of attending this meetup in Middle-earth, you understand just how inspiring such a gathering of loremasters can be.  There were, of course, many passionate discussions of the films all weekend at the convention.  In the photograph above you will note the author in the LOTRO shirt, Jef Murray, Ted Nasmith and Dr. Corey Olsen (The Tolkien Prof.).  If you enjoy examining Tolkien from all possible angles I highly suggest you read Prof. Olsen’s book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And many Tolkien fans are sadly unaware that you can get a masters degree in “Tolkien Studies” through the Mythgard Institute.

But lets get back to the sleeping dragon and, conveniently related,  another convention that happened in 1957;  the 15th World Science Fiction Convention.

“The back-wash from from the Convention was a visit from an American film-agent (one of the adjudicating panel) who drove out all the way in a taxi from London to see me last week, filling 76 Sandfield with strange men and stranger women – I thought the taxi would never stop disgorging…They have apparently toured America shooting mountain and desert scenes that seem to fit the story.  The Story Line or Scenario was, however, on a lower level.  In fact bad.  But it looks as if business might be done.  Stanley U. & I have agreed on our policy: Art or Cash.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #202

John Tolkien
“Beardless dwarves and bunny sleds you say? Hrmmm… OK! One Billion Mithril Coins Please!”

The deal didn’t work out, but from Tolkien’s letter above, all purists and critics should understand that Tolkien himself was ready to sell his work for either buckets of mithril or artistic control.  In other words the art was very important to him, but it could be compromised for enough coin.  This is the way of the world.  If you want the pure milk, you still have the books.   Lets have the professor clarify further from the same letter;

“Either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author’s veto on objectionable features or alterations.”   So there you have it from Tolkien himself; Cash or Art.  In fantasy laymen’s terms, if there was enough cash involved, Tolkien would put up with the flying Bombur-barrel river rodeo, Dwelfs (future offspring of Kili & Tauriel), or perhaps even Jar Jar Gollum.

barrel-riding-fun-fest
“Hold on Sons of Durin, we’re going to defy all laws of physics and kick orc-tail all at the same time! Kili – hold on to your trousers! Bombur – prepare barrel armour mode! That shield-surfing elf can’t touch this!”

With Sir Peter’s versions of the Tolkien tales I daresay we have Art AND Cash.  Perhaps not the Art that Tolkien would have agreed to, but art nonetheless.  For all the bunny sleds, trouser jokes, beardless dwarves, 3D decapitations and Bombur barrel-armour, there are plenty of beautiful moments and moving paintings of Middle-earth in all of the films.   Is it the Hobbit film that the majority of Tolkien fans and scholars would have made? No it is not. And I daresay that Sir Peter is in danger of alienating many of his core Tolkien fans with this desolation of mood.  Off all the casualties of this film, it is the ‘mood of Tolkien’ that suffers most.  Thank the Valar for Martin Freeman as he is an anchor to the films that deserves much more screen time and general acclaim.  His portrayal of Bilbo is spot on and by himself burgles back the worth of the film.

With Tolkien’s above quote in mind, I can only chuckle at the oft heard critical rebuke of “cash grab”.  I was totally entertained and enthralled by the spectacle of a high budget, quality fantasy film, and so were the notable artists at my elbows.  We were all able to suspend our disbelief for that brief time, enter a fantasy adventure, all the while knowing our beloved novels were still waiting at home to be enjoyed in their intended fashion.  Many more thousands of blessed movie goers will now read The Hobbit, than if the movies had not existed, and above all, I am thankful for that.  Ticket sales will reveal if Sir Peter has also appealed to the legions of movie-goers who would never voluntarily touch a book.

And yes, of course I would absolutely LOVE to see a true-to-the-books film made.  I do believe it is possible to adapt to film and stay very close to a book; perhaps suffering the loss of philistine viewers and studio treasure troves.   I very much enjoy Sir Peter’s Tolkien inspired action adventures, even if they depart greatly from the original texts.  I know the controversy will continue, probably to the benefit of ticket sales, but for now I will let this dragon go back to sleep.

Please feel free to post your thoughts below. But I warn you, if you bore me, I shall take my revenge.

 

Harass me on the web at https://twitter.com/Sub_Creator & https://www.facebook.com/SubCreator

 

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43 comments

  1. Thank you for posting this review, it was quite enjoyable! I am looking forward to the day that a director creates a film that is more faithful to the books.

    • Aye Kiralynn! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I tried to do something different than the usual pan or fan. And yes – please, if either of us wins some mega-lottery, or finds a lost treasure hoard, lets promise each other to make a true-to-books film! I would love an animation movie of the visual quality of the animated Beowulf that stayed true to characters and story.
      See you in Eriador!

  2. I owe YOU a huge thank you John! I fully realize Tolkien’s understanding of others’ expanding upon his creation and have defended PJ’s films deviating the purist lore. Then, others made me feel bad for defending ‘such garbage’ and so I shrank back and gave in to agreement. But your article gives me back my own original opinion, and now I feel good about it all once again. Lets agree to buy each other a pint someday!

    • Thanks back at ya Knowfere! Nobody should ever feel shrinkage or shame for singing their own tune. We can be free to enjoy PJ’s version, and still be true fans and loremasters of the books, games and other media. We all agree that the original story and books are the best possible version. We have not seen the end of Tolkien in media by any means! 😉

      • Having seen the movie a 2nd time- on IMAX 3D, I will say that while Martin Freeman does ground the majority of the movie with his perfect rendition of Bilbo, I also must say that if this movie were to only get one award, it absolutely must go to Benedict’s Smaug. Stunning voice. Stunning dragon-y movements. All the scenes with Smaug just blow me away. I WILL be forced to buy a bigger screen TV JUST for this one fantastic character portrayal.

  3. MMM…I don’t necessarily disagree with many of the points made here John but I do disagree with much of the film. And largely my cricitisms are based on it as a film and not an adaptation, though I have some issues there as well. As for what they are…tune into the next episode of Random Fandom to find out! 🙂

    • Aye Viking! The film definitely has problems as a film – but it was good enough for me to watch again, no doubt. On DVD I would skip past the running river rodeo and most beardless dwarf scenes. I eagerly await the next RF and a Nordic critique!

  4. John,

    Dare I say your review was more entertaining than the film? 😉 Well done! You’ve covered all the bases, and with frankness and humour, and that is all one can ask.

    “The film we are all waiting for”, as Tolkien lovers, will _never_ truly be made, not in this life, perhaps. But, what has been special about the entire enterprise with Peter Jackson & Co. is how much of the good stuff has been stirred up along with the bad. Would general audiences have _ever_ contemplate the worth of a lock of Elven hair but for the scene with Gimli and Legolas floating down the Great River? Would the burden of immortality ever be contemplated if not for scene of Arwen beside Aragorn’s sepulchre? Would the possibility of redemption, even of as despicable a character as Gollum, ever occur to many, but for the poignant scene when Martin Freeman spares Andy Serkis’ gollum’s life?

    Sometimes, just getting the right questions in folks’ heads is what is most important, and for all of the nonsense and idiocy that accompanies all of Jackson’s films, some of these seeds may yet find fertile ground and produce good fruit.

    …and that may be an encouraging thought.

    Jef

    • Love this and burgling for a future article:

      “Sometimes, just getting the right questions in folks’ heads is what is most important, and for all of the nonsense and idiocy that accompanies all of Jackson’s films, some of these seeds may yet find fertile ground and produce good fruit.”

      I’m glad you found the article entertaining Jef – it was meant to be (at least the first two paragraphs) a metaphor for the films themselves.

      See you on the road East friend, I’ll not forget my blue apparel next time!

  5. I ignore critics and reviews as a general rule because I rarely find anything they have to say useful (unless it has something to do with art-house or foreign films) However, this was a review that was actually fun to read.

    • Thanks Victoria – I generally skip reviews as well – as in scene by scene re-caps. I’m really glad you had fun in the reading – as that was the hoped for goal. Looking forward to your next work as well!

  6. Those are NOT “bunnies” you click-driving marketer, they are Rhosgobel Rabbits and I love them. You can keep the odd-looking skin-changer for free.

    • Hail sir! Very glad you chimed in! I do prefer the title Rhosgobel Rabbits over Carrock Conies! The big question is what role will either or both play in the Battle of Five Armies?
      What refreshment do you prefer in pints?

  7. Great review. I agree that Martin Freeman is the anchor in the film and he really does need more screen time. I feel though, that even if I hadn’t read the hobbit before hand, I still wouldn’t have enjoyed the movie. It was like stumbling into the midst of a conversation where people are trying to continually one up each other while losing sight of the original point of the convo. Does that make sense? I dunno. The whole thing felt loose. The settings were gorgeous, as usual. The scenes were action packed, yes. The CGI was practically flawless, sure, but the actors, save for Freeman, seemed to be half-assing it through the movie. I’ll take real acting over computer generated action any day.

    • I’ve heard the rumors amongst indie filmmakers – that someone has put out a “challenge” – to take the 3 films (when all out) and edit them down to 1, where it is more driven by Biblo…will be interesting to see; well right up until it gets taken down. 🙂

      • I hope that rumor is true. I’ll have to keep an eye peeled for that if it ever happens.

        • Thanks Ron & L. – oh that would be cool to have a slim-down-to-one film version surface after the dust of the Five Armies settles. And yes L. – the film has issues as a film – but not that much more than most feature films today. I shudder to think of the pressure in the final editing rooms of these massive projects!

  8. Will people really start to read the books because of this movie? All those over-the-top action-scenes and all that artificial drama… does anyone really want to read a book about that? And if anyone does will they be disappointed to find a “boring” children’s book instead of the anticipated action-phantasy book?

    From a great original PJ and company made some generic carbon-copy that barely resembles the original feel of the source. What was a anticlimatic story in the original became some over-excited generic action block buster material in the film. Everything was turned inside out until it can’t be recognized anymore. If from anything the movie lives off if it’s incredible art design and that’s about it in my opinion. I pity how it was not even attempted to let the movie be what the book is. It would have been really interesting to see how well it had done. Maybe -and hopefully- one day we will know.

    Maybe Tolkien was a realist and maybe he was willing to sell his creation for the buck. But if I were Christopher Tolkien whom this book was written for I certainly would not love what was produced out of it. If all what those who love the books for what they actually are can do is to retreat into their safe hiding place then something went wrong.

    Sorry, if I now bored you John. But threatening your visitors with some kind of “revenge” is not the nicest way to treat your readers. Maybe you rethink your strategy about that and remember why you created your business in the first place.

    • You do realize that John’s comment at the end is being playful and joking..right?

      Just wanted to point that out to you before anything else embarrassing is said.

    • Hail Floradine! No worries – you didn’t bore me at all – all of these replies have been unique and filled with various flavours. I fear someone might actually try to bore me so they can see what form the revenge will take. Actually most will probably find the revenge boring itself.

      I assume you were actually joking too in your last point – but the revenge thing is a well known quote from a letter Tolkien wrote to C.S. Lewis apologizing for being hypercritical of one of Lewis’ works. “But I warn you, if you bore me, I shall take my revenge. (It is an Inkling’s duty to be bored willingly. It is his privilege to be a borer on occasion). I sometimes conceive and write other things than verses or romance! And I may come back at you.”
      I figured most Tolkien purists would get the joke, which is related to criticism in general and hurt feeling about said criticism. The punchline of the inside joke being that my last statement is actually an apology for my criticism.
      But now I apologize for being too Crypto-Tolkenian!
      Far apart – never alone!

  9. Excellent! – thanks to all of you for clicking through and reading! So far nobody has bored me and I look forward to replying to each individually!

  10. Just remember, Chief, you asked…so I moved this up here.

    First, let me say that Peter Jackson, along with a plethora of VERY talented and respected artists and artisans, is NOT the Devil incarnate. He’s a film maker and a good one. If we look at some of his other projects (yes, even the darker ones) we see a healthy respect for story continuity and artistic detail. I like his work.

    The original filmed trilogy of The Lord of the Rings was incredibly well done – on every level. The modifications – and there were several! – to the original story were acceptable to me; most probably because EVERY frame was a painting – a moment in time captured for the benefit of the viewer. I cannot recall, even after multiple viewings, of anything done in the genre that is any more artistic than LotR. The film, with all its flaws, theatre version or extended version, lives up to the inherent qualities of the book. Yes, there are visual mistakes and omissions, but as a film – which is an artform – it excels. Even the longer scenes (the Battle of the Hornburg and the Battle of the Pelennor) are well-visualised and much effort has gone into creating artistic rendering. The scenes in LotR are iconic, appearing on posters, advert materials, and internet memes regularly – 10 years after the films have come and gone.

    It is this artistic view that I miss most in The Hobbit duo.

    In all fairness, the beginning of the film: “The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey” was pleasnatly appropriate and does capture the artistic presentation established by its predecessors, but soon thereafter the attention to art set pieces seem to devolve into a muddled mire of confusion; literally an assault on the eye. This makes for very tiresome viewing. By the time the party reaches Goblin Town, the extended action scene has become tiring at best and – in my case – boring. Because I no longer see the beauty and inherent artistic quality of the frame-by-frame detailing, I have lost interest. It’s rather like an “art” exhibit that is all the same size and either all white or all black canvases. Nothing holds your interest, so you do not stay to look further.

    The second film: “The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug” is not much better, but travels well enough until “Barrels out of Bondage,” where the artistic rendition is overstepped by the action. Yes, there are several singular visions (Legolas balanced on the heads of the Dwarves comes to mind), but overall it, too, falls short of an artistic rendering, and again becomes difficult for the eye to follow.
    Interestingly, the best-liked scene of the second film is one that is a major departure from the book. Gandalf’s magical battle with the Necromancer has no reference in “The Hobbit” as it was set down on paper in 1937 – or after the re-work in 1964, but it is acceptable to most of the literary pedants, because it is in keeping with the “spirit” of the story and – it is visually beautiful and stimulating. Again, as we reach the denouement, with Bilbo speaking to Smaug, the scene is long but well choreagraphed, and the visually artistic balance carries us through with little effort. The Dwarves entry and subsequent battle with the Dragon, however, looses the effect almost entirely (the exception for me was Thorin standing on Smaug’s nose) and the well elongated scene becomes tiresome.

    It may be argued that not everyone has the same reaction to the visual quality of the film, but without an overall reference (image) as an anchor point, the evaluation has turned to other topics. I can wait for a year before the next one. It will give my eyes – and my brain – a rest.

    The Metal Space Ship Metaphor should be obvious. Guiness, please.

  11. Good review.Lovely scenery lousy script! If only PJ could keep his sticky fingers off the plot and characters and stick to beautiful cinema photography we would all be a lot happier.

  12. An excellent review! I fully agree to Martin Freeman being an anchor (and I daresay Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Smaug was more than extraordinary – chills all over when hearing his gravelly, perfectly dragon-like voice!).

    You made some great points, and I think it would be fair to remember that Jackson does pull some parts out from the appendices and puts them into the movies to help connect it better to LOTR – something Tolkien himself wished he had done later on in his life (even began rewriting the Hobbit, but only got two chapters in when a friend, who read the early drafts, told him it just wasn’t The Hobbit).

    The one thing that bothered me the most was the beardless dwarves – it seemed, to me, the most unnecessary change. You can’t just have dwarves without beards. But alas, I shouldn’t complain. The movies could have been much, much worse, so I should be thankful with the beautiful job Jackson has done, flawed though it may be.

    So, thankful for this great review! Gave me some new things to think on, perhaps for my next blog post (though I’ve already made two about the movie). Looking forward to reading more from you!

    • Thanks Susanna – yes it is the seemingly small details like beardless dwarves that irks me as well… Like how is Kili shaving on an adventure – and why would he want to in the first place? Is his beard malignantly enchanted to forever stay as stubble? At his first appearance in film #1, a three year old I know asked if he was Aragorn.
      Send a link to your blog – I’d love to read!

  13. Much more could be said about the story of “art & cash” (and already has been in some publications in recent years) but to pick up your comment the only thing I hoped for was Smaug. The rest to me is utterly devoid of the complexities and details Tolkien wove into his stories (don’t get me wrong – it’s a fun film, action-packed and entertaining but I don’t think PJ wanted me to cry with laughter at Tauriel’s script lines …) but that was to be expected after the success of the firs trilogy.

    And Smaug _RULEZ_. I mean, like, utterly, he is the champ!

    Strangely enough, you have to imagine Benedict Cumberbatch with weird points/ markers? all over his body, crawling on all fours, to realise that this has been the best performance in all of the film. Yes, Freeman is good (but has lost a huge amount of screen time), Gandalf is Ian McKellen and therefore a thespian God (but not his own Gandalf anymore) and stalker-surfing-madman Legolas (who had him wear contacts? the makeup? he really looked … weird) really isn’t much except for Orly returning.

    So, yeah, I am glad Peter Jackson did those films. They make me love the books even more.

    And I still don’t buy into the “more people read Tolkien” argument. Do you really think the single most successful author of the 20th century would not been read anymore? In fact, there are quite a few people out there who won’t like the rollercoaster, orc-overrun aesthetics of ten yeara ago. They might actually be turned off the books – which I have heard as well.

    I am grateful to every single person who has found the wonderful imaginative stories Tolkien wrote thanks to the films. I have met many of those people. But I found the books as well in a time when there were no films so … Jeez, we didn’t have the web then 😉

    P.S.: Watching the film with Jef and Ted will get you to read Tolkien. _THAT_ I will vouch for anytime, any place 🙂

    • Thanks for writing Marcel! And yes – Ted I had some really funny giggling elbow commentary during the Tauriel/Kili scenes. Scenes assuredly not meant for laughter. Of course Tolkien would have still been widely read, but I must say I think according to book sales statistics, many more thousands have at least purchased Tolkien books than if the movies had not been made. Reading of course is another subject. No surprise that we both feel burgled of the complexities of Tolkien. Well in any case I owe you a pint at least!

  14. Well framed, John. There is a reason why you are respected amongst so many learned scholars. You knowledge is only matched by your talents! Truly, you a man among legends! (I’ve seen your collection of battle axes – I know when to let the honeyed words flow 🙂

    I maybe a rarity in that I liked the barrel amusement park ride that decided to ignore any physical law – I figured if you had to break from the pace of the book for a movie you might as well use that for your over the top action sequence. And I have said that Smaug is perhaps the best dragon I’ve seen on the big screen in years – especially with Biblo! How those two actors created chemistry between them on screen is achievement at every level.

    I do feel that it is obvious that Peter Jackson was playing to a demographic through. While the Lord of the Rings movies already had that young adult demographic built in, it seemed PJ wanted to do the same for the Hobbit as well. All well and good I say, but it seems he slipped his targets more on the fratboys than the geeks that he had brought along before. The Desolation seemed a bit more Ironman than Middle-Earth.

    Putting aside that Mr. PJ willfully ignores small things like distances and time (seriously – how long is the Fall season around Laketown? One hour long?), my only fear is that we are losing Bilbo’s story and his exploration of the wonders of Middle-Earth in this movie. I miss having the world as a character too. I was really hoping more from Mirkwood, for example.

    Well, at least three major battles will occur in “The Hobbit Strikes Back.” I’m excited for that!

    • Many thanks for your honeyed words Roz, although too much honey could lead to boredom and hence revenge! But you used just the right amount to keep Beorn’s bees happy. I too actually was simply entertained and had fun during the barrel ride – which is not altogether bad is it? Although sometimes I felt I was laughing at that scene instead of with it… if you know what I mean. I have the same fears as you state in your last paragraph. With three movies we all would have enjoyed more Bilbo time…
      As far as dragons go – I can’t remember ever seeing one properly done actually – except now with Smaug, well at least talking dragons that is. Dragonslayer’s dragon was not bad, just suffered from FX of the day.
      You would think with the power and popularity of dragons in fantasy stories we would have seen even more quality dragons in movies no? Another point I think I forgot to make is this: if one wants to see a movie a second time – isn’t that in itself a good review? I indeed want to see Smaug again…

  15. I tend not to like the second film, and I guess I always will. I agree with every argument you gave on the review, but everytime my brain tells me “that wasn’t that bad a movie”, my other, more reasonable brain, yells “but there were pugs on Laketown!!!”, and I go back to hating it.

    I can easly accept the golden Smaug, but pugs? Really? Pugs?

    • Aye Igor! Lol – I have a feeling the pugs were likely pets of someone who worked on the movie. As in, “Sir Peter could we find a part for Glaurung, my pet pug? ” Perhaps it was even Sir Peter’s dog? I wonder if the pug will survive the desolation of Smaug or perhaps play some greater role in the third movie? But I agree with your sentiments, part of my brain was really annoyed by various scenes in the film, but I still want to see it again lol! Sir Peter is turning us schizophrenic!

  16. Loved this review- a refreshing voice of reason amid the fashionable cries of outrage. I’d just like to draw attention to another point: let’s not forget the reason Tolkien wrote his novels. He was first and foremost a philologist and often bemoaned the lack of original mythology present in English culture, so he wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And after all, what is a myth if not a tale that is re-told and embellished through the years? I like to think that a part of Tolkien would have been proud to see his works enter into the psyche of the world at large. And if perhaps Jackson’s version is not entirely accurate to the source material, I believe that it is an entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable version of a story I have grown to love.

    • High marks Pelham! I’d be happy to replace what I said with what you said as you captured my feelings in a much shorter space. Wouldn’t it be interesting to imagine Sir Peter’s version as a version that was later told by some hyperbolic Hobbit?

  17. Cheers. OBC
    Toast to JRR Tolkien.

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