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Of Smaug and storytelling. December 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is big on storytelling. There’s nothing as satisfying, nothing that brings such a sense of connection, nothing that reinforces a society’s values like a good story. That’s why stories like the King Arthur cycle and the Iliad and Odyssey and, say, Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol have enjoyed such long and healthy lives.

J.R.R. Tolkien was also a great storyteller. Our friend Ben has read his books, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, every year since I was in sixth grade.

Like all great stories, these books are ultimately about people (be they human, dwarf, elf or hobbit), about their strengths and weaknesses, about how they come to know themselves, to rise above their limitations or sink below their birthright. Thus, you have Gollum. You have Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. You have Arwen Evenstar and Thranduil, Aragorn and Boromir, Saruman and Sam Gamgee. You have Thorin Oakenshield.

And you have Peter Jackson, who is bringing Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, first in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now in The Hobbit trilogy, to the big screen. Mr. Jackson’s films of Tolkien’s books have been a huge success. But ultimately, they have little to do with the books that inspired them.

Mr. Jackson has succeeded in turning Tolkien’s books into high-speed action adventures worthy of any Marvel Comics adaptation. He apparently is so enamoured of his 3-D, computer-animated, high-speed action sequences that he is willing to sacrifice everything that made Tolkien worth reading in support of them. Such as individuality and character development. And as he has famously said, he doesn’t give a damn about what anyone who actually values Tolkien’s works thinks; he’s not making the films for Tolkien fans, he’s making them for himself.

Our friend Ben is sorry about this. I still see the Jackson movies; Silence Dogood and I saw “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” just last night. Much as we love Benedict Cumberbatch, we agreed that only three characters were developed at all during the entire, interminable 2 1/2-hour-plus film: Bilbo, Thorin, and Thranduil, the Elvenking. Everybody else just paled into shadow or (as with Bard and Tauriel) were cardboard characters, stereotypes, to begin with, serving a purpose but lacking real individuality.

You can’t blame Peter Jackson for Bard; he was a stereotype in Tolkien’s original as well, a place-holder. But to drain the life out of Balin, Bofur, Gandalf, Radaghast, Beorn, Legolas, the Master of Laketown, pretty much everybody; to cram in as many computer-generated fight scenes as was humanly possible, at the expense of character development; to make the plot subservient to the action sequences, just as in his Lord of the Rings trilogy: For shame!

Who knows if a version will ever be filmed that does justice to the actual story in Tolkien’s books rather than trying to turn it into Star Wars or a Marvel Comic epic. Our friend Ben salutes Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis and all the actors who tried to give Peter Jackson’s version their best. But for those who think these movies are all J.R.R. Tolkien’s world has to offer, three words of advice: Read the books.

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