Monday, December 22, 2014

Thoughts on Alfrid

Now that we've had time to absorb The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, I'd like to discuss one particular element of the film today. The character Alfrid (played by Ryan Gage) has had a largely negative reception from viewers, being seen by many as an irritating and pointless addition to the story. Being invented solely for the movies and having a strong resemblance to the character Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings have never helped his case. It's tough to disagree with the complaints about him in the latest Hobbit movie, but perhaps fans, like the survivors of Laketown, shouldn't be too quick to dispose of him.

I actually found Alfrid really interesting in The Desolation of Smaug. Even in the theatrical cut where a lot of his scenes are omitted, you can tell he has his own agenda. There's something about the way he speaks to the Master of Laketown, watches the other man's reactions, and behaves when the Master isn't looking that suggests he hates the disgusting windbag and is just using him as a puppet to control the town. It's a real testament to Gage's subtlety as an actor.

You would think then that the Master's death at the start of The Battle of the Five Armies would allow Alfrid to step out of the shadows and shine as a character. Instead, the film reduces him to a string of punchlines until he scurries off. He doesn't learn anything, he doesn't oppose the heroes, he just reminds us that he's a jerk and runs off in a dress. Why make a point to spare him from Smaug and the other townspeople if the plot isn't going to make use of his survival?

Granted, this might be smoothed out in the Extended Edition next November. That's a long time from now though, and since I've got this cemented in my head, here's my personal take on what the movie could have done with the character:

After falling out of favor with the townspeople, Alfrid starts contemplating how to win back their approval while grudgingly following Bard's orders in the meantime. He eavesdrops on the meeting where Bilbo gives the Arkenstone to Bard and Thranduil, then just like in the movie, Gandalf forces him to look after the hobbit. This of course ends with Bilbo promptly escaping from Alfrid, which makes the man look even worse and gives him a personal reason to resent Mr. Baggins.

Later, when Bard reveals to Thorin that he has the Arkenstone and Bilbo prepares to explain his role in it, Alfrid steps forward from the crowd. He informs Thorin of Bilbo's actions and describes them in the most dastardly way possible. This feeds Thorin's paranoia to the point that when Bilbo explains himself truthfully, the dwarf king refuses to believe him. Bard angrily asks Alfrid what he's up to, and Alfrid explains that exposing a traitor among Oakenshield's company will make the dwarves violently turn on each other, thus removing the need for a battle.

That's Alfrid's plan to win back the townspeople's approval -- to be the one who got them the gold and prevented war. His triumph is short-lived though, as Gandalf intervenes to save Bilbo and then the orc army arrives gung-ho for a fight anyway. No longer seeing a future for himself among the survivors of Laketown, Alfrid lies low during the battle and flees with his stolen gold at the first opportunity.

It's possible that something along those lines could happen in the Extended Edition. Philippa Boyens said in the commentary for The Desolation of Smaug that Alfrid's character is supposed to "blossom" in the third film, which doesn't seem to have happened yet. Some may cringe at the thought of him getting even more screentime, but as we saw with Beorn's introduction in the last film, sometimes material in a theatrical cut gets removed from the Extended Edition to make way for a better alternative.

And just for the heck of it, here's a crazy fan theory to walk away with: maybe in the movies, Alfrid is Grima Wormtongue's father.

They look, sound, and act a lot alike, right? Wormtongue has a vastly different appearance from the other Rohan natives, and sixty years do pass between the two film trilogies. Perhaps after slipping away from the battle, Alfrid found his way to Rohan, changed his name to Galmod for good measure, and found a woman stupid enough to marry him. Having a ton of cash on him probably helped in that department. The end result was Grima, who apparently followed his father's example and attached himself to two powerful figures.

And as for Grima's creepy habits with women...well, he probably overheard a few arguments between his parents about whose dress from Laketown that was in the closet.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Hobbit: The Long and Short of It

It's fairly safe to say that the latest Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, is a polarizing film. It seems like for every viewer who loves it, there's one who detests it. The US stock market looks steady and consistent compared to the ratings on this movie's IMDb user reviews. That's nothing new for Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy, but one thing that most of the reviews for this film appear to agree on is that it feels way too trimmed down and even incomplete.

I just got back from seeing the movie myself, and while I of course loved it...I do kind of have to agree with that complaint. I don't know why The Battle of the Five Armies ended up being so much shorter than the other Hobbit films, but I think its 144-minute run time suffocates it a bit. A lot of storylines and characters don't get the closure that they need or deserve, including a few that don't come back in Lord of the Rings. The movie is so conspicuously edited down that even before its premiere, Peter Jackson announced that 30 minutes of footage would be restored to the film's Extended Edition.

This brings me to my topic: the Extended Editions. Releasing these versions in their elegant, book-like cases with disc upon disc of special features has been a tradition since the first Lord of the Rings movie, and while they can be tougher to view in one sitting than their theatrical counterparts, they are much more in-depth and truer to Tolkien's source material. It's no surprise that the book fans tend to prefer them.

It should be noted though that their bonus scenes are usually just that -- bonuses. They enrich the movies but aren't necessarily required in the story. The only bonus scene from the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions that I would call necessary is Saruman's death in The Return of the King, as it finally gives a proper send-off to the most prevalent villain from the first two films. Other than that, the Rings Extended Editions don't have to prop up the theatrical ones too much.

The Extended Editions for The Hobbit have been a slightly different matter. Sure, An Unexpected Journey was satisfying enough even without that 13 extra minutes of fun sprinkled onto it, but the 25 minutes added to The Desolation of Smaug practically gave us a different film. Entire characters with entire subplots were added, sporadic character decisions were explained, and seemingly pointless characters were suddenly given reason to be there. It's the biggest skyrocket in quality that I've seen from an alternate version since the Assembly Cut of Alien 3.

The obvious question then is why so much of that material was cut. The commentary by Peter Jackson and Screenwriter Philippa Boyens seems to point the finger at pacing issues, and while that likely was part of it, I think the answer can be hit a little more on the nose. The reason was probably box office reports.

One of the biggest criticisms of An Unexpected Journey was how slow and meandering a lot of people found it to be. Since its earnings also reflected a drop in viewer interest from Lord of the Rings, the studio likely pushed the filmmakers to shorten the next film in an effort to restore those numbers. Thus we got the theatrical version of The Desolation of Smaug...which actually earned even less money.

Luckily, DVD's don't have to worry so much about pacing, so a lot of that cut material returned in the Extended Edition. You can still argue that most of the bonus footage isn't necessary to the plot, though it does make for a much clearer and less rushed product.

And then there's The Battle of the Five Armies. My theory again is that the studio panicked over the previous film's drop in revenue and (still feeling that brevity was the way to go) pressured the filmmakers to make the third one even shorter. The problem is that while skimping on closure can work in Part 1 and Part 2 of a trilogy, it doesn't work in Part 3. There are no more parts after that to save the closure for.

That's part of why The Return of the King's Extended Edition ended up being an hour longer. Too many subplots, albeit minor ones, didn't have endings in the theatrical cut. Yes, I just said that The Return of the King didn't have enough endings in it. Not so many people objected to those loose ends though because The Return of the King was by far the longest installment in the series. The filmmakers made it as long and as sufficient as they possibly could for a theatrical release and eventually just had to stop.

The Battle of the Five Armies, on the other hand, is by far the shortest installment in the series. What's more, it was made that short for reasons beyond the filmmakers' control. Why would they announce anything about the Extended Edition so early if they were happy with the film they put in theaters?

This leads me to a belief that I think a lot of fans have had for a while: that the theater is not the right venue for these movies. Jackson and his crew have to cater to that venue first since it's where most of their budget money is made back, but those watered-down versions of their films only play for a month or so. Then they can release DVD's of the original longer versions, which will be around forever. I think that hardcore Middle Earth fans will likely look back on the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogies not as films that were followed by Extended Editions, but as films that were preceded by condensed editions. 

And no, The Battle of the Five Armies hasn't had a scene of Ori showing Bilbo his journal yet. That just gives me something else to hope for next November.