Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Well, in the book it says..."

Blowing off the dust after my longest hiatus to date...

I want to begin today's entry by talking about the movie The Hobbit. No surprise there, but I promise I have a point this time.

You see, there's a scene roughly 2/3 of the way through the film where Bilbo decides that he wants to turn back and go home. He tries to sneak away from the dwarves while they're sleeping, but one of them, a character named Bofur, catches him in the act and tries to talk him out of leaving. Bofur says that Bilbo is just homesick and that he understands that feeling, to which Bilbo snaps that none of the dwarves understand because they're used to "not belonging anywhere." Bilbo immediately apologizes for this insult, but Bofur sadly admits that it's true; "We don't belong anywhere." He then wishes the hobbit well and allows him to leave -- only for them and the rest of the group to be captured by goblins a second later. It's a well done scene and a very nice moment for both characters, and it's one of my favorite parts in the whole film. However, there is one little issue that I may or may not have with it. I say "may or may not" because there's actually another, bigger issue with the film that kind of cancels out the first issue.

I'll explain.

According to all of the movie guides, visual companion books, and online character profiles for The Hobbit, Bofur and his relatives Bifur and Bombur aren't from Erebor, the dwarf kingdom that was taken over by the dragon in the story. They're actually from the Blue Mountains, which is also where the dwarves from Erebor ended up settling. In short, I can literally draw a map of what's wrong with the above mentioned scene:

So yeah, the "We don't belong anywhere" line kind of falls apart coming from Bofur. He's one of the only dwarves in the whole group that it doesn't work for, in fact. If the screenwriters had put just about anyone else in that scene with Bilbo, there would be no issue.

With that said, here's the other, bigger issue that kind of cancels it out: we never learn Bofur's personal backstory in the movie. The dialogue never explains where he's from, why he joined the quest, or what sort of relationship he has with any of the other dwarves. This is the case for most of the dwarves in the movie, minus their leader Thorin, and since their backstories don't exist in any of Tolkien's works, the supplementary guide books for the film are the only places where you can read up on that information. So if you don't bother with any of those extra materials and just watch the film by itself, that scene will play out just fine.

This finally leads me to today's topic: required reading for movies. There are entire websites and bookstore shelves filled with literature about characters, locations, chronologies, and so on from popular film franchises. Their purpose is to enrich the films by giving juicy inside information about what's happening onscreen. In some cases, they also divulge a few very important tidbits of information that pertain to the plot, which for some reason aren't spelled out nearly as well in the movies themselves. As a result, many of these "enriching" materials become necessary ones that you won't be able to follow the movies without.

Take the Star Wars prequels for instance -- the worst offenders of this, in my opinion. Virtually no one has ever been able to make sense of the villains' plans in any of those films without first consulting the billions of outside materials that Lucasfilm is happy to sell. I'm not condemning anyone for reading or buying those materials, seeing how I own several myself, but I've come to realize from them just how poorly and lazily written those movies are. You should never have to do research in order to understand a film. If the filmmakers do their jobs well, you won't have any questions by the time the end credits roll, at least not about the plot or the characters' motivations.

The same goes for movies that have been adapted from novels or comic books. Just because the audience for an adapted movie has most likely read the source material beforehand doesn't mean the screenwriters have an excuse to phone in their script and skimp on the exposition. Movies are meant to be accessible to everyone, not just to one group of people, but you can tell that a lot of popular movie adaptations out there are mainly written for people who've already read the source material. Try going into these movies cold, and you will be very confused by what you're watching. I know as an aspiring author that I should be encouraging people to read the books in addition to seeing the films, but as an aspiring filmmaker, I 'm saying that it shouldn't be necessary to do so. Movies like The Godfather, Jurassic Park, and even 2013's The Great Gatsby prove that a discernible stand-alone adaptation can be made.

So my question after all this ranting is, what makes the supplementary/source material for a movie required reading? At what point does it cross that line and start to do the screenwriters' jobs for them? Ultimately, I think it comes down to how essential to the story the information in question is. You don't need to know every aspect of how the Galactic Republic operates, but you do need to know why it's having trouble operating and why the Separatists are declaring war on it. You don't need to know how or why Sirius Black and Remus Lupin created the Marauder's Map in Harry Potter, but you do need to know that they created it so you won't be puzzled when they randomly start explaining how it works.

And then there's The Hobbit. As much as some of us may enjoy reading about Bofur the dwarf's personal background, he's a peripheral character, and thus we don't need to know anything about him in order to follow the plot. However, we do need to know a lot about Thorin, the dwarves' leader who sets the whole plot in motion. We need to learn that two of the other dwarves in the group are his nephews so we'll understand [something that happens near the end of the story]. We need to know how Gandalf managed to get the key to Erebor from Thorin's presumably dead father so we won't be questioning the logic of it the entire time. Those things haven't been made clear yet in the Hobbit trilogy, and if they never are, then we'll have issues. If they're made clear by the end of the second film, then smooth sailing. And who knows? Maybe the second film will even reveal Bofur's background after all and it'll turn out that his "We don't belong anywhere" line was just a big sad act to put Bilbo on a guilt trip. The possibilities are still endless.

So that's my two cents about extra reading materials. They're still a ton of fun to dive into, but they should remain in the shadows of the movies that they're about. Keep collecting them if you like them, and if you don't like them, then hopefully you'll never need to.

And if it's not too much to ask, Peter Jackson, could you please explain why the characters in The Hobbit can't just fly those giant eagles to their destination? I know it says in the book, but I think you finally have the opportunity you need to state it on film and put that issue to rest.

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