One Last Time

MAJOR SPOILERS for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both movies and books.

CORRECTION: My apologies for getting the subtitle of the first movie wrong. What can I say, there were a few iterations during production, and I’m a forgetful old lady. That part’s been removed.

 

The subtitle for the second Hobbit movie made no sense. The Desolation of Smaug didn’t happen in that movie. But The Battle of Five Armies is aptly named. The battle is the movie. The whole movie.

It’s to Peter Jackson’s credit, then, that despite all that (great) action and all those (great) special effects, this was really a character movie. This is what I was missing from the second installment: it rang a little hollow, because it was just a bunch of action scenes mashed together without enough room for the actors to, you know, act and stuff.

That doesn’t happen here, and ultimately, it’s Jackson’s cast that carries this trilogy to a triumphant end. So I’m going to say nice things about them first, before I do any scolding.

Among some very stiff competition, Luke Evans and Richard Armitage were the standouts. Armitage played Thorin’s descent into madness beautifully. Sure, Thorin was a bit over the top, but if you haven’t come to expect that from Peter Jackson’s direction by now, you haven’t been paying attention. And it was the quiet moments, the flashes of the real Thorin coming through, that made the whole thing work. Armitage is what I always think of as a face actor; his performances are as much about his expression as the delivery of his lines. And when you can pull that off under all that hair and makeup, that’s saying something.

Luke Evans, on the other hand, actually manages to deliver a performance with restraint in a Peter Jackson movie, which is also saying something. He hits all the right notes with Bard, without ever crossing over into melodrama, and gives us an understated hero who despite his unlikely acrobatics and even more unlikely, for a fisherman, weapon skills, is completely believable.

And speaking of face actors, Dean O’Gorman is an unsung hero of these movies, because Aiden Turner’s Kili (also well played) gets all the spotlight in that brotherhood. But Dean O’Gorman? Is awesome. Peter Jackson is a great storytelller, and watching Fili and Kili growing from immature, innocent, plate-tossing goofballs into brave and battle-hardened men (or, well, grown dwarves) has been one of my favorite stories to watch.

The dwarves in the book aren’t really characters, except for Thorin (who himself only has one note, and that note is jerk). The others are largely indistinguishable from one another, a string of funny names. It’s quite an accomplishment for the writers and the cast that they managed to create thirteen actual, distinct, sympathetic people. I will never again read the Moria scene in Fellowship without tears, because Ken Stott made Balin real. Also a special round of applause for Graham McTavish, who succeeded in making me see Dwalin again, when I was pretty sure I’d only be able to think of him as Dougal from now on (and thus want to punch him).

It’s always, always a pleasure to see Ian McKellan and Cate Blanchett. I’d watch them read their grocery lists and be riveted the whole time. I can’t with this weird Gandalf-Galadriel thing, but still. Nice to see you guys!

And then we have Martin Freeman. Crikey. I really think this is the single best piece of casting across all six movies, and this performance right here is how you take a movie full of pointy elf ears and swords and dragons and make it real for people. And incidentally, while I got emotional several times, I did not cry until Bilbo started crying over Thorin’s body. (Then I cried the whole rest of the time.)

Okay, enough gushing. I have a bone to pick. There’s pretty much no point anymore in book comparisons. The Hobbit movies especially are more “inspired by” than “based on,” and that’s okay. Unlike a lot of other book fans, I like Tauriel just fine, and I like Evangeline Lilly in the role. But all that said, the worn-to-death star-crossed lovers routine is, frankly, a piss poor replacement for how Fili and Kili really die. It’s just one little line in the book:

Fili and Kili had fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother.

But that image of them, fighting to the death over the mortally wounded Thorin, has stuck with me since I was seven years old. Because all that courage and loyalty and sacrifice make a tragic, fitting end to the House of Durin. And it’s so much more compelling than what we got.

I’ve expected to have my heart broken by their deaths since they first came to dinner at Bilbo’s. But, nope. I was properly shocked and dismayed by the abruptness of Fili’s, but Kili’s was so strongly telegraphed, and in such a cliched way, that when it finally came it was almost a relief. I was sorry they were dead, but the actual deaths did not make me cry. And they should have. That should have been one of the most memorable scenes in all six movies.

On a lighter note for the darkest of the Middle Earth movies, it’s clear to me that either Peter Jackson, or someone on his team, plays Word of Warcraft. First they put dwarves on rams. Then Beorn does a textbook bear bomb. Coincidence or conspiracy?

I’d like to end with a hat tip to the genius who came up with the “One Last Time” marketing campaign. Because I spent the last, I don’t know, maybe twenty minutes crying, and by the end it had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with my knowledge that we were leaving (movie) Middle Earth forever.

Only the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were ever sold, and if memory serves, Christopher Tolkien has been very clear that he has no intention of selling the rights to any of Tolkien’s other work, ever. Peter Jackson already did some mining in the appendices of Lord of the Rings for the Hobbit movies, and I don’t think there’s much more story to be wrung out of the material he’s allowed to use.

Then again, “not much more” isn’t the same thing as “none,” is it? #OneMoreTime?

Bookshelf tag – I’m it!

I’ve been tagged by Marcia Meara, whose answers you can find here. It works like this:

“Answer the following questions about books on your bookshelf and then tag five other bloggers. You can answer the questions any way you want, whether it’s on your blog, in a video, or a combination of the two. Then remember to let whoever tagged you know when your post is up so they can read it.”

1. Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?

Actually there isn’t. Goodness, my first answer is boring. Now I’m sad.

2. Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre.

One? Just one? Well, I guess I have go to with good old Lord of the Rings then, which when I was 8 or 9 years old made me a fantasy reader for life.

More recently, although still many years ago, I was generally bored by biographies until I started reading Allison Weir. I believe The Six Wives of Henry VIII was the first of hers I read. I enjoy historical fiction, though, so that was kind of a natural progression.

I can’t think of anything recently that’s inspired me to read a genre I haven’t before, but that’s because I’m pretty much a genre floozie. I’m not sure there are any I haven’t read before.

3. Find a book you want to reread. (Question 3 is suspiciously absent from Marcia’s list, but I found it on Stella’s.)

I reread books regularly, specifically books with very well-drawn settings that give me that sense of being transported elsewhere: Rebecca, Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series.

Oddly, it’s not necessarily the same list as my favorite books, although of course I wouldn’t reread it if I didn’t love it. But rereading for me is more about the world than the characters or story. Jane Eyre is probably my favorite book of all time, but I don’t reread it as often as some others.

4. Is there a book series you’ve read but wish that you hadn’t?

Heavens, no. Why would anyone wish they hadn’t read something? I suppose that happens in the sense of wishing you hadn’t wasted time on something, but if I felt that way about the first book, I wouldn’t go on to read the whole series.

5. If your house was burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save?

Well, can’t I just save my Kindle, so I’m saving a bunch at once? Or scoop a whole armful off a shelf? It seems unlikely I could only save one. But if my fingers are burning off and I can only balance one book on my elbow, I’d go for Jane Eyre, because poor Jane’s had enough destroyed by fire.

I don’t actually have any expensive or special editions of anything, so from a collector’s standpoint, I wouldn’t weep for the physical objects themselves. Apart from all that wasted paper, that is.

6. Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

Again with the just one! It’s very cruel. I’m just going to ignore the “just one” instruction from now on, okay?

I’d have to go back to all the children’s books that meant so much to me in my youth: Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, Narnia. Anne Shirley, I will always love you.

I also have fond memories of waiting on my front porch for the last Harry Potter book to arrive, then spending the entire rest of the day eating fudge and reading it, having delegated all household and child-rearing chores to others. It was like a holiday.

7. Find a book that has inspired you the most.

I’d have to say all the childhood books named above. They made me love books and reading, which is something that has shaped my entire life.

8. Do you have any autographed books?

Nope. But I’m considering stalking Marcia long enough to find out where she lives and break in to steal that autographed copy of Rebecca she has. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

9. Find the book that you have owned the longest.

Maybe this doesn’t count, but I’ve got the covers of my original childhood copies of The Horse and His Boy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Anne of Green Gables all framed. As for which entire book is oldest, I’m honestly not sure. They’re all looking pretty beat up. I’m one of those people who eats while she reads and stains the pages with chocolate, and dog-ears her pages, and makes a tragic mess of the binding. (You can see why I love my Kindle.) I don’t mind my books being lived in.

10. Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

Not really. I don’t read the ones I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I’m trying to think if I felt forced to read anything in college and then ended up liking it, but as far as I recall, I pretty much looked forward to all of those too, because I’m a dork. Except Moby Dick and Notes from Underground. I never imagined I’d enjoy either of those, and I was right.

Tag time!

I’m going to tag Servetus. I’m not sure she’ll do it, as her blog is themed and this won’t fit, but she’s all scholarly and stuff, so I’d be curious to read her answers.

I’m also going to tag Paula Light.

And Roy.

And Lisen Minetti.

And Lyda.

Mostly because those five seem like they’d have very different answers, and I imagine variety and discovering new books is part of the point. I’d tag Don too, but I’m pretty sure he’s busy burningburning.

Thanks for thinking of me, Marcia!

Evangeline Lilly kicks butt, Richard Armitage twirls his mustache, and fans get the vapors

It seems I’m at odds with many of my fellow Tolkien fans: I liked The Desolation of Smaug. I didn’t love it the way I loved the first one, but I haven’t got any complaints either. Does this mean we’re in a fight?

Look, there’s something us readers of books are going to have to learn to accept once and for all: movies based on books will deviate from their source material. Seriously, it’s like every time this happens we’re surprised and outraged anew. Movies are not books. If we can’t accept someone else messing with a beloved story in a different medium, then maybe we shouldn’t, yanno, see the movie. In the case of these movies, at least a lot of what wasn’t in The Hobbit was drawn from (or inspired by, if you prefer) the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and Unfinished Tales.

And yes, Peter Jackson is always going to have a strong kickass she-warrior. If Eowyn isn’t available, he’s going to make one up. That’s because it’s his job to sell movies. Evangeline Lilly performed the task capably, and as for Kili’s crush on Tauriel, okay yeah, kind of cheesy. But I don’t get all the outrage. It’s not like it’s unprecedented in Tolkien’s universe for a dwarf to have a thing for a beautiful elf.

Like any other fan, I have some quibbles. (What’s with the ringwraiths, both here and in An Unexpected Journey, having tombs? This is driving me nuts.) But they’re minor in the scheme of things. If I have a source of anything that can be properly called disappointment, it’s that there was less acting in this movie. One of the strengths I found in An Unexpected Journey versus Jackson’s previous Tolkien films was that I felt the cast was stronger. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage in particular were both nearly flawless in their roles.

In this installment, as their arcs are written by Walsh, Boyens, and Jackson, both Bilbo and Thorin are in the midst of important internal struggles (both involving, in what I assume is an intentional parallel, their strength and sanity being tested by a mysterious object). But while we get glimpses of that inner turmoil, the movie always falls back on their more physical adventures, one after another unbroken by those quiet moments of character development that some moviegoers are bored by but others, like me, miss when they’re not there. It becomes a little heavy-handed when the only way you can show me what’s happening to Thorin is by putting an over-the-top moment of swordy-pointy menace (I’m frankly surprised Richard Armitage was able to resist twirling his mustache in that scene – perhaps he couldn’t separate it from his beard) right next to an over-the-top heroic action sequence, just to make sure the contrast is announced as loudly as possible.

The performances were good, but they weren’t given a lot of space to happen. This was, in the end, a special effects movie. So at least the special effects were good, no? Come on. Love the movie or hate it, that dragon was kickass.

Things writers can learn from Skyrim

Video games aren’t known for their high quality storytelling. They tend to be derivative and clichéd and trope-embracing. You want to give people something familiar to work with as they jump in to play, and while you’ve got to have both story and backstory, you don’t want any of it to be particularly hard to figure out. Nobody wants to spend more of their gaming time trying to work out who Jon Snow’s mother is than actually killing stuff. Or, in the case of me and Skyrim, decorating their house, because I really only kill stuff in support of my search for a really good vase to put between the shelves in my library. Stop judging me!

But plot and characters aside, setting is where video games like Skyrim shine. Forget that it’s a story about killing dragons by scolding them really loud. That world feels real. And yeah, because graphics. But also because a lot of effort has been put into making you feel like your story isn’t even most of what’s going on in that world, let alone all there is to it.

Very few of the NPC’s in that game are nameless. They have more specific and personal things to say than “Death to all who oppose us!” when you click them. (Not that I object to “Death to all who oppose us!” I always answer my door with either that or “The reckoning is at hand!”) They have histories and petty arguments with their neighbors and quests of their own to deal with.

Same goes for every town and city. They’re not just sets you’re passing through so you can sell all the junk you’ve picked up. (Or, you know, stolen. From corpses.) They’ve got politics and threats and complicated histories. Okay, and sometimes also vampires, which annoy me as a story element, but I’m not saying the game is perfect either.

The point is, Skyrim always feels like a place that was living before you came along, is continuing to live all around you as you go through your storyline, and will keep right on living after you leave. And I wish I saw this done more often, and better, in novels. I don’t mean high fantasy – people who write high fantasy pretty much know they’ve got to create a whole world – I mean everything. Horror. Romance. Thrillers. I wish the authors of stories about accountants drinking coffee set them in meticulously constructed worlds.

Not that it’s easy. It can be very hard to toe the line between providing enough detail to make the reader feel like they’re there, and boring the stuffing out of them by spending two paragraphs describing a chair. And every reader has a different threshold. But I love reading about what they ate at the Hogwarts Halloween feast and Joffrey’s wedding feast. I love all the bits of history Tolkien scatters around. I love Derry and Castle Rock and the way Stephen King takes the time to flesh out even the most minor character, and I love everything Jasper Fforde does, ever. I love Tom Bombadil. There, I said it.

The common thread there is that I don’t want to read your book, I want to fall in. And nothing kills immersion like shrinking your world down to the size of your story.