Thursday, December 17, 2015

Kili and Tauriel in Retrospect

As we arrive at both the 1-year anniversary of The Battle of the Five Armies and the 1-month anniversary of its Extended Edition, I think enough time has passed that we can look back on the Peter Jackson Hobbit films with a more objective eye. Whether we love them or hate them, the films have always sparked controversy among Tolkien purists, and one of their most infamous controversies is the romantic subplot involving Kili the dwarf and Tauriel the elf.

It's easy to understand the backlash that this subplot has received from fans, seeing how I was among those who initially cringed at it. Not only was it never in the book, but it also featured a character who was never in the book and it took up a lot of screentime that could have been spent on elements that were from Tolkien's original tale. It's said that the studio pressured the filmmakers to shoehorn Tauriel and the love story into the movies, and although I still think that her romance with Kili is unnecessary, I have come to wonder if it's really as trite and implausible as I once found it.

First of all, I'm not against adding an original, major female character to The Hobbit. The book has pretty much no women in it, which would be conspicuous in a modern-day film, and since many characters from the book were totally re-envisioned in the movies anyway, creating a whole new character alongside them doesn't feel like that much of a crime. When you get down to it, the biggest difference between Tauriel and the film versions of the dwarves, Radagast, and Azog is that Tauriel was given her name by the screenwriters instead of by Tolkien. I never took issue with her, just with her and Kili's romance.

Looking back on that subplot now, I'm willing to consider that it's more complex than I first gave it credit for.

While their relationship is technically a romance, it's a romance that never really gets off the ground. The whole thing is just about Kili trying to convince Tauriel to give him a chance while she keeps trying to deny that she feels anything for him. It's largely one-sided, they don't exchange sappy love dialogue, and they don't even kiss until after it's too late for them to be together. I think the reason I cringed at their relationship the first time I saw The Desolation of Smaug was because I was so bugged at the film for including it at all that I blew it out of proportion.

Consider this: shortly after Desolation came out, I tried an experiment where I went through the Kili and Tauriel scenes over and over in my head but kept replacing Kili with other dwarves from the Company. The only changes I made to the scenes were some adjustments to the dialogue so it would better suit the replacement characters. Some of the other dwarves filled Kili's shoes better than others, but one that I actually found those scenes working really well with was Ori.

Now, that wasn't because Ori is an irresistible dreamboat full of charisma  which, let's face it, he's not. The reason those scenes worked so well with him was because he was so childlike that it made Tauriel's kind and protective behavior towards him come off as motherly instead of romantic. It made it seem like she befriended him in prison because she felt bad for him and then came to admire how innocent he was, not because she was attracted to him, and it made it seem like she followed him to Lake-town to help him because she wanted to preserve his innocence in the midst of all the evil that was growing in the world, not because she had fallen in love with him.

While I was recently thinking back on how much more interesting a relationship like that would have been, it occurred to me that maybe Tauriel's relationship with Kili in Desolation actually was supposed to be like that. She says that Kili's promise to return to his mother is "pure," and when she explains her decision to follow the Company and the orcs to Lake-town, she describes it more in terms of taking a stand against evil than in terms of saving one dwarf. Maybe she first takes a liking to Kili not because of who he is, but because of what he represents to her in the grand scheme of things.

It's probably not until Kili asks if Tauriel could have loved him that she starts to wonder the same thing. Since love is unheard of between elves and dwarves and she knows how irrational Kili can be, she tries to let him down easy. That rejection obviously hurts him, but being young and hopeful, he refuses to let go of the idea. I think the reason why Tauriel's so sad at the end of their goodbye scene in The Battle of the Five Armies is because she feels that Kili's only setting himself up for more heartache over her, and she doesn't want to be the thing that ruins his optimistic outlook on the world. I really don't interpret it as her being sad that she can't be with her romantic interest that she's known for one day.

Furthermore, I think that Thranduil's speech to her about how she doesn't really love Kili is supposed to be what makes her realize that she does, hence the reason why she's in such a state of shock after he says it. Not all love is romantic love; Tauriel's feelings for Kili could be anything that's strong enough to make her want to save him from Azog's ambush, and they could be anything that's strong enough to devastate her when she fails to save him. It's possible that kissing Kili after he dies is her way of admitting that her love for him could have become romantic somewhere down the line, if it wasn't already.

Bottom line, I think that Kili and Tauriel's subplot is mainly about, again, what they represent in the grand scheme of things. It's not about their relationship; it's about whether or not any relationship between any elf and dwarf is possible, and ending it with the realization that such a thing is possible is actually a halfway decent setup for Legolas and Gimli becoming friends in The Lord of the Rings. Kili and Tauriel's romance presents the idea without them getting much chance to act upon it, and then Legolas and Gimli's friendship takes that idea to the next level by having them maintain a bond after forming it. I think that Kili and Tauriel were meant to pave the way for Legolas and Gimli in the movies rather than steal their thunder.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this subplot, or maybe the screenwriters really were trying to make lemonade out of lemons with it and their efforts just took a year or two to stand out. In either case, it's nice that Kili and Tauriel's story is presented in a way that leaves it open to more than one interpretation.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Is Gollum a Villain?

In a slightly more topical blog entry, I want to give my opinion on a rather interesting news story that's currently making its way around the Internet.

Apparently, a doctor in Turkey is on trial for posting a meme online that compares photos of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to screencaps of Gollum from the movie The Two Towers. It's being seen as an attack on Erdogan's character since Gollum is not a very morally upstanding character, and the doctor who posted the meme could face prison time for it.

Since the judge who's overseeing the trial isn't familiar with the Lord of the Rings movies or the character, he actually assembled a team of experts in various fields who will determine if Gollum is really a villain, which will factor into whether or not the meme was meant to be offensive.

Here's a link to one article covering the story:

Naturally, this got me thinking as well about whether or not Gollum is a villain. It's a topic that Tolkien fans have been debating about for decades, with some people saying that he is a villain, others saying that he's simply a victim, and some even saying that he's the true hero of The Lord of the Rings. I'm no expert on any of this, but in regards to the meme that led to this trial, here's my two cents:

Sam said it best about Gollum - "He's a villain." He kills people, plots to kill people, lies and manipulates people, eats people, and delights in causing pain. However, Gollum is not the only entity living inside of the bald, skinny creature that we see onscreen. There's also Smeagol, the sympathetic and decidedly helpful person that the creature used to be before he found the One Ring.

Here's the meme from that news story:

An easy way to distinguish the character's two personalities is by looking at the pupils of his eyes, which are small when he's Gollum and large when he's Smeagol. Of the three pictures shown above, only the first one shows the villainous Gollum personality. The other two show the good Smeagol personality, and they're both from scenes where the audience is meant to sympathize with him.

The question then, I suppose, is whether or not Smeagol ever becomes a villain in the story. We see Gollum more or less sway him into helping to betray the hobbits, and he certainly has no qualms about getting revenge on Sam for being mean to him, but he remains conflicted about hurting Frodo pretty much up until the end.

I think that the last we ever see of Smeagol in the movies is in Shelob's lair when Frodo finally tells him that the hobbits plan to destroy the One Ring. This is the final straw that breaks Smeagol's spirit once and for all, and even then, he isn't the one who lashes out at Frodo for it. You clearly see his pupils constrict as the Gollum personality takes over right before he gets up and jumps on Frodo. I always interpreted that as the good Smeagol side fading away once and for all because he's lost the will to oppose the Gollum side anymore, not as Smeagol becoming a villain.

In short, I think that the doctor who posted that meme has 2:1 favorable odds.

It should also be noted that the doctor claims that he only posted that meme to be funny. I can believe that; it's no more offensive than the hundreds of other comparison pictures that you see every day on websites like Heck, tons of people have been compared to pictures of Gollum on that site.

I won't get into why the Turkish Gollum meme turned into a court case while none of these others did, but it doesn't seem like any harm was meant by any of them. My only hope is that at least one Tolkien fan ends up on that team of experts or on the witness stand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Top 5 Things the Hobbit Films Improved From the Book

November 17th, 2015 marks a milestone in the history of the Peter Jackson Middle-earth film series, in that it's the release date for the Extended Edition of the final Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies. This is the last time that the fanbase gets to celebrate the release of any official version of any of the films, and in honor of that, I wanted to do something special this month.

It goes without saying that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is a literary masterpiece, but because film is such a different medium from literature, a lot of changes did have to be made in the process of adapting the book for the big screen. While some of those changes have been controversial, some of them have actually made a lot of sense and strengthened the story in many regards. It can even be argued that the films handled some story elements better than the source material did, and I say that as someone who loves the book enough to collect copies of it.

Since both versions of all three Hobbit films can now be seen in all of their glory, I think it's only fitting to discuss what are, in my opinion, the top five things that they improved from the book.


Consistencies with The Lord of the Rings

I put this one low on the list since 1) Tolkien had the excuse of writing The Hobbit as a stand-alone book with no plans of further developing its universe at the time, and 2) the differences between the two works are because of The Lord of the Rings being different from The Hobbit, not the other way around. Tolkien did make some revisions to The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings was published, most notably to Bilbo's encounter with Gollum, but the two works remain very different in tone and in their presentations of Middle-earth--which is actually never given as the name of the setting in The Hobbit.

The Hobbit films make a point to show us that transition in tone, starting out lighthearted like the book and then slowly taking on the darker and grittier feel of The Lord of the Rings as they progress. They also remove some of the book's more whimsical elements, such as the talking purse that Bilbo tries to steal from the three trolls, to better match with the more realistic Rings.

In addition to that, the Hobbit films emphasize a lot of prominent elements from Rings that were largely glossed over or absent from the book, such as Sauron and the Rings of Power, the deep-rooted tensions between the elves and dwarves, and the One Ring's influence on Bilbo. It can be debated whether or not The Hobbit needs those elements in it as a stand-alone story, but now that it shares a universe with Tolkien's darker and more fleshed out works, I think it's good to tie the whole series closer together.


Thorin's Plan

One of the strongest overall changes in the Hobbit films is Thorin's motivation for wanting to reclaim Erebor from Smaug. In the book, his main reason from the start is to steal back the treasure in the mountain, but in the movies, he starts out wanting to win back his people's homeland and only becomes greedy for the treasure after he reclaims the mountain. Since his goal in planning the quest is different in the adaptation, his strategy is different as well.

Thorin's plan in the book is to hire a burglar, send that burglar into the mountain over and over again to steal back the whole treasure one piece at a time, and then transport all of that treasure to a place that's far away from Smaug. Thorin's plan in the movies is to hire a burglar, send that burglar into the mountain to steal back the Arkenstone, use the Arkenstone to command the loyalty of every army in Middle-earth, and then lead those armies into the mountain to kill Smaug. Comparing these two plans, the one from the movies seems a lot more logical and has a much better chance of working.

To the book's credit, Bilbo does point out how flawed Thorin's idea to steal and relocate all of the treasure is. However, it's difficult for an audience to invest in characters who are that poor at planning ahead, especially when the thing that they're trying to get isn't terribly noble. In terms of the narrative structure, it's also more concise to have Thorin's plan center around the Arkenstone since the King's Jewel becomes so important later in the story.

Granted, his plan doesn't work out in either the book or the films, and since both versions of it do serve the purpose of showing Bilbo's cleverness and capability, it can be argued again that Thorin's plan doesn't matter. Still, I find the story a lot more engaging if Bilbo's company has a feasible strategy going into things.


Bard the Bowman

A key principle of storytelling is that the better you establish a plot element before using it, the more justified its use will be. Considering this, I think it was very smart of the Hobbit films to introduce Bard the Bowman and his Black Arrow sooner than the book did.

Smaug's attack on Lake-town in the book is far from boring, but since it's also Bard's introduction scene, the readers only have the most general reasons for wanting him to kill the dragon. In contrast, letting the readers get to know him over the course of several scenes leading up to that point threatens them with a sense of loss if he fails, and that always raises the stakes. It's all the more beneficial to establish Bard as an important character prior to the attack on Lake-town because Smaug's death is such a crucial plot point in The Hobbit. Having an unknown person resolve one of the main conflicts in a story runs the risk of cheapening that resolution, even if the unknown person receives help from an important character.

I also think that giving Bard extra time for development makes his personality in the films more compelling than his personality in the book. Since we see what he's like and how he interacts with Thorin before Lake-town's destruction, we have a better understanding of where he's coming from when he demands a share of Erebor's treasure. What's more, it's easier to get behind him when we're introduced to him as someone who's witty and charming rather than someone who's just a voice of reason. All in all, I feel that the movies did a lot more with this character and made his purpose in The Hobbit much stronger for it.


Bilbo and Thorin's Relationship

Bilbo's most important relationship in The Hobbit will always be the one he has with Gandalf, but in terms of him actually finding it in himself to grow as a character, his relationship with Thorin plays the biggest role. Thorin underestimates Bilbo while overestimating himself, which challenges and even forces Mr. Baggins to grow more courageous over the course of the story. While this dynamic between the humble hobbit and the proud dwarf king is of course explored in the book, it's shown mostly as a professional relationship that doesn't really become personal until their last few scenes together. In the films though, Bilbo and Thorin's relationship is a personal roller coaster that serves as the story's emotional backbone from beginning to end.

I can't stress enough how much more the movies focus on these two and complicate their relationship, and it all works perfectly. They hit every high and low imaginable, becoming friends a third of the way into the story and then constantly having their friendship tested, damaged, and repaired up until Thorin's death. It should be noted that a lot of the scenes dealing with their relationship were added to the story for the films, but even the scenes that come from the book are given more weight on screen and become more engaging, as well as more heartbreaking in a few cases.

The two biggest reasons for this seem to be that Bilbo in the films is much more affected by Thorin's criticism of him than in the book, making him more sympathetic and strengthening their conflict, and that the films give a lot more attention to Thorin's character arc than the book does. The book mentions Thorin's hardships of the past but doesn't really delve into how much they've affected him, whereas the films do that and more. We can sympathize with him as much as with Bilbo, and the fact that we can still see his nobility and optimism through his arrogance and bitterness makes us want to see him befriend the hobbit all the more. There's just a lot more meat added to the bones of what was in the source material, and at the end of the day, that makes for a heartier meal.


The Dwarves

Maybe it's an obvious choice for #1, but it was apparent from the start that the films had made these characters way more interesting than the book had. Instead of thirteen largely interchangeable dwarves with varying beard and hood colors, the movies gave us thirteen very distinct individuals with unique personalities and appearances--most of which were conceived from scratch by the filmmakers themselves.

What's especially impressive about this feat is that the filmmakers did more with the dwarves than they really needed to. I've said before that Jackson's team could've easily just made each dwarf a one-note stock character and still given the audience more than the book did, but they took the time to develop these characters as much as possible and show more sides to each of them as the story went on. They didn't just want to make these dwarves entertaining, they wanted to make them realistic and relatable, and they were right to do that. These are the characters that drive the narrative, the people that Bilbo spends the most time with on his adventure and decides are worth risking his life for over and over again. He should form bonds with them over the course of the story, and in order for us to believe those bonds, it's important that we believe those characters.

Another reason why I made the film dwarves the #1 improvement from the book is because unlike the other things on this list, this one actually goes full circle to benefit the book. There are entire fanbases now dedicated to characters of Tolkien's who had virtually no fans prior to 2012, and anyone who reads The Hobbit after seeing the films will have an identity for each dwarf. They'll think of a prankster in a floppy hat when they read about Bofur tripping over Bilbo in Beorn's house; they'll think of an easygoing young warrior with knives hidden all over him when they read about Fili trying to spot the boat in the Enchanted River; they'll think of a pointy-haired thief and a fussy mother hen when they read about Nori and Dori bickering over leaving Bilbo at the bottom of their tree during the warg attack.

That's probably the greatest accomplishment of the Peter Jackson Hobbit films: they gave us something memorable that offers us a new experience when reading the book. They gave us a more colorful cast of characters to go on a quest with, which made the story as much about meeting new friends as it is about seeing new places and trying new things. In short, they added an extra dose to an already very exciting adventure.

Monday, October 19, 2015

To Find Our Long-Forgotten Theme

Music has always been one of the most pivotal elements of the Middle-earth universe, both in the books and the movies. Ever since the first chapter of The Hobbit, songs have been frequently used as storytelling devices to set tone, to give exposition, and even to develop many of the characters and cultures in Tolkien's tales. What's interesting about their use in the books, as Tolkien points out in his lead-in to the very first song, is that they have no actual music to accompany them in that medium. This of course leaves the door wide open for how readers can choose to hear them and has led to several different interpretations in various adaptations.

One of the best renditions of any Tolkien song is probably the song "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" as it's performed in An Unexpected Journey, the first of the three Peter Jackson Hobbit movies.

The song is an account of how the singers, a company of thirteen dwarves, lost their mountain home of Erebor and all of the treasure inside of it to the dragon Smaug and how they intend to reclaim it from him. Only two of Tolkien's verses are sung in the film, but the melody composed for that version is present all throughout An Unexpected Journey as something of a theme for both the company and their quest. Even the movie's end-credit song "The Song Of The Lonely Mountain" is built around the tune of it. It's about as perfect as movie themes come, being flexible enough for just about any emotional context while always creating atmosphere and hearkening back to the source material, and it's one of the most memorable pieces from the first film's soundtrack.

So why don't we hear it anywhere in the second or third film?

It's not as if the story changes in those installments. The main plot still revolves around the dwarves and their quest, so "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" would still be a fitting theme to use. No official explanation has ever been given for its disappearance from the trilogy, at least none that I've ever found, and this has created almost an air of mystery around the piece for fans. Seeing how the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey recently made its debut in theaters, this is perhaps a good time to explore this issue again and try to draw a conclusion.

To begin, "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" isn't the only theme associated with the dwarves and their quest. There's also Erebor's theme, which is played in all three films. It's played at all of the appropriate times too, such as whenever the dwarves see the mountain in the distance and when they enter it. These have all been times that fans have cited as good moments to play the "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" theme instead. This leads to the belief that Tolkien's song was never meant to be the theme for the dwarves or the quest in the movies, which then raises the questions of what its real purpose was and what became of that purpose after the first film.

Looking at the context of the song's initial performance, we see the dwarves singing it together in the home of Bilbo Baggins, the story's main protagonist, while Bilbo eavesdrops on them from another room. This is the last that Bilbo hears of the dwarves before waking the next morning to find them gone and deciding to join their quest, which at the time was being described to him as "an adventure." An Unexpected Journey is by far the most lighthearted of the three Hobbit films, so it's possible that "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" is being used to convey the excitement and fun of the quest from Bilbo's point of view before things grow more serious in the next installment. 

It should also be pointed out that "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" is not the only theme to disappear from the Hobbit trilogy after the first film. The theme for the wizard Radagast is also absent from the other two soundtracks, despite his presence in all three movies. This is perhaps because his theme was meant to reflect his eccentric and whimsical nature, which is subdued in the sequels as the tone of the story grows darker. This theme disappearing at the same time as "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" could just be a coincidence, but the above logic seems to suggest a pattern of the soundtrack letting go of the story's more innocent ideas as things progress.

If that is the reason though, then why isn't the "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" theme replayed at a later point in the trilogy to remind viewers of those better times? The theme for the Shire where Bilbo lives, for instance, is played in all three films for that exact reason. In addition to providing  emotional throwbacks like that, the act of reprising old themes in later soundtracks is a good way to unify the music of an entire film series. Dropping a major theme one third of the way through a trilogy can feel unbalanced to a lot of listeners, as this trilogy has proven.

Another explanation could be that the Hobbit movies were doing something similar to the Lord of the Rings movies, where the tune of the song "Into The West" was only incorporated into the soundtrack of The Return of the King, the film that featured that song in its end credits. This presumably was done to give that movie a more distinct soundtrack and to foreshadow events that are described in the lyrics of "Into The West." This could perhaps be the case with "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold," seeing how the song is actually called "Misty Mountains" on the soundtrack for An Unexpected Journey and the film ends with the characters entering and then leaving those mountains.

However, giving it the title "Misty Mountains" is an inaccuracy. The song was only called "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" originally because that's the first line in its lyrics. The song isn't really about the Misty Mountains; it's about the Lonely Mountain of Erebor. The fact that the end-credit song built around its melody is called "The Song Of The Lonely Mountain" only drives that point in deeper.

Furthermore, the tune of "Into The West" isn't introduced until the third and final Lord of the Rings film, so its use in only one film works fine in that trilogy. The filmmakers didn't introduce it and then exclude it from any sequels. Even if they did do that, "Into The West" is used sparingly throughout The Return of the King's soundtrack and isn't associated with any particular characters the way that "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" is, so its disappearance might not have been noticed had it dropped from The Lord of the Rings before the third installment.

A third possibility for the disappearance of "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold," and probably a more realistic one, is that time may have been simply working against Howard Shore while he was composing the soundtracks for the Hobbit film trilogy.

It may be news to some people that the song's melody in the Hobbit movies wasn't actually composed by Shore. It was composed by Plan 9, a company in New Zealand that creates music for film and TV. Having helped with the soundtracks for many of Peter Jackson's other films, including The Lord of the Rings, Plan 9 was approached to write a tune for the song that the dwarves sing in Bilbo's house. Long story short, Howard Shore loved what they came up with so much that he worked its melody into the score that he had written.

What isn't news to people is that the Hobbit trilogy had a very problematic production from the start. The temporary change in director, constant pressure from the new studio, and the evolution from two movies to three partway through shooting made things so difficult for the filmmakers that it really is a miracle that the films turned out as good as they did. Is it possible that in the midst of all of these setbacks, demands, and deadlines, Shore simply didn't have time to work the "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" theme into the later soundtracks?

The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies would have been far more affected than An Unexpected Journey by the change from two films to three, and sources say that Shore wasn't even available to conduct the orchestra himself for the recording of Desolation's soundtrack. It could be that in the rush to finish the music that was absolutely needed for those later films, he had to sacrifice the luxury of later additions and revisions.

Looking at all of the above mentioned reasons, it's likely that every one of them played some part in the disappearance of "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold." Maybe when his workload suddenly increased from two to three soundtracks, Shore decided to limit the theme to the first movie for the other discussed reasons and it just never occurred to him that people might miss it later.

Things may have turned out very differently had the production of the trilogy gone smoother, but that's not at all to say that the music replacing that theme in the later installments is bad. Howard Shore, Peter Jackson, and everyone involved in the Hobbit movies did the best job that they could with a much less favorable situation than they had with The Lord of the Rings, and they should be admired for that. The fact that Shore put "Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold" in his score at all when he didn't have to shows that his heart was in the right place.

Perhaps in hindsight, we can look on that theme's use just in An Unexpected Journey not as a loss, but as a musical equivalent of the Arkenstone in Erebor's treasure hoard; as a rare gem that should be remembered fondly but not obsessed over.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"The Battle of the Five Armies" Extended Edition - Early Review

I've finally seen it.

After ten months of blogging theories and a few days of trying to find a construction-free route to the one theater in town that was showing it, I've finally seen the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

I should backtrack a little though to talk about this event as a whole. Just as they did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in June of 2011, the company Fathom Events recently hosted a one-time-only, three-night screening of the Extended Editions of the Hobbit film trilogy in select theaters across the country. Fans like myself naturally flocked to cinemas to see the Extended Editions of the first two films last week, and both were highly entertaining experiences. However, this week's screening of the never-before-seen third Extended Edition was the star attraction of this event.

This was apparent not only from the much larger turnout in the audience, but also from the much more visual presentation of Peter Jackson's pre-movie introduction. Instead of showing one simple shot of the director talking to the camera like the first two Extended Editions did, the third one's intro featured music and clips from all three movies along with a full-screen graphic at the end. This extra bravado for the third Extended Edition makes sense, seeing how underwhelmed so many people were by the theatrical cut, and I for one was very excited for the movie to start after Mr. Jackson was done giving his thank-you's.

With that said, and with the promise not to give away much, what did I think of the Extended Edition of The Battle of the Five Armies?

To begin, there's only about 20 minutes of bonus footage added, not 30 minutes as was originally planned, and the bulk of it is more battle scenes. There are some scenes added before the battle, including a simple but poignant one that fans have been hoping to see since almost last December, but expect a first half that's very similar to the theatrical cut. There's also a bit more wrap-up after the fighting is over, though most of the minor storylines still don't get the closure that a lot of people probably wanted for them.

On a more praising note, there's actually quite a lot of humor throughout the bonus footage. Some of it is just goofy slapstick and sight gags, but the jokes involving the main characters give this version of the film something that was sorely missing from the other: a sense of fun.

Bilbo may be the heart of this story, but in the movies, the dwarves are the soul of it. They're the key to what made Bilbo and the audience come to enjoy this whole adventure in the first place, and having their presence diminished so much in the theatrical cut of The Battle of the Five Armies sapped nearly all of the enthusiasm out of it and left us with a terribly bleak final act of the Hobbit trilogy. Thankfully, the dwarves get way more screentime during the battle and we get more of their action antics like those in the first two films. Fans of Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur are especially going to walk away happy from this movie.

For anyone concerned about the Extended Edition's R rating, don't worry. I can point the finger for that at exactly two shots, and what happens in them is mostly aimed to draw cheers and laughter from the audience. What that says about our modern-day senses of humor is probably more disturbing than the actual onscreen content.

There's really only one deleted scene that I lamented not making it into the Extended Edition, since it likely would have been a major character development moment and was sort of a centerpiece of the film's original trailer, but ultimately, I do understand why it was cut. There's also a scene added in that I've thoroughly spoken against in a previous blog entry, although the way that it unfolds is just so ludicrous and yet poetically fitting that another part of me couldn't help liking it.

And since it's been almost a year since I wrote my "There's Something About Ori" essay, I might as well mention that the little dwarf scribe photobombs Bilbo twice in one bonus scene. It's not the journal scene that I was hoping to get, but I'll still call it a victory.

In short, the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is worth the wait. I wish we had gotten this version in theaters instead last year, and given its 164-minute run time, it feels more like a theatrical cut anyway. Like I said back in December, hardcore fans are probably going to look back on this movie and all five of its predecessors as films that were preceded by condensed editions rather than followed by Extended Editions.

But in the end, I'm grateful that the filmmakers of the six Middle-earth movies cared enough about their fans to give us two versions of each to choose from. We're a very lucky bunch, if you do believe in luck.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"The Last Creator - Part 1" Now Available

Here it is! My novel "The Last Creator - Part 1" is now available on Kindle for $2.99.

The Last Creator - Part 1 by Katelyn Rushe

Amber Brenin is as new to the world as a twelve-year-old can be. Life in a care center for autistic children such as herself allows her very little interaction with other people, including her geologist father Robert. When an upcoming expedition threatens to separate them for months, Robert smuggles his daughter along on the trip, only to lose her when he finds the thing that he's looking for.

Now Amber is stranded on Rökshena, a world far away from Earth where no one knows how to communicate with her or understands her condition. As she begins to cope with her strange surroundings and stranger allies, a chain of mysterious disasters strikes that could doom all life on Rökshena. Questions mount as Amber attempts to uncover the cause of these events while also discovering herself—and most importantly, finding her place in her new world.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Last Creator - Part 1

The Rökshena Revolution is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy book series that will launch in October 2015. The series documents the history of Rökshena, a world in an alternate dimension that is connected to Earth by a series of portals.

The first book, The Last Creator, begins the story of Amber Brenin, an autistic girl whose kidnapping leads her to one such portal.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Talking Animals in the Middle-earth Movies

Keeping with something of a theme that’s come up in my past couple of essays, I want to discuss the subject of talking animals in the Middle-earth books and explore why this aspect of Tolkien’s universe has been mostly left out of the Peter Jackson film adaptations. It’s understandable that not everything on the page can make it onto the screen, but in the case of certain animals, this change in depiction is a bit more noticeable and raises a few questions about why it was made. This is especially the case for the talking animals in The Hobbit, who play much larger roles in that story than in The Lord of the Rings.

To start off, not every animal in Tolkien's source material talks. The majority of them don't, in fact. The only ones who do, at least in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are Shelob and the spiders in Mirkwood, the ravens of Erebor, and the eagles. Sometimes a character will be able to speak the language of an animal in order to gain information from it, and the reader is occasionally treated to the thoughts of an animal that crosses paths with the heroes, but those individuals never voice their thoughts out loud.

In the six movies, the only animals who speak are the spiders in Mirkwood, and even the circumstances of that are changed so that their voices can only be heard after the hero puts on the One Ring of Power. It's implied that the dwarves might be able to communicate with the ravens of Erebor, but no conversations between them are ever shown on screen. Shelob says nothing, now arguably because no one ever wears the One Ring in her presence, and of course, the eagles never speak with anyone to explain why they won't just fly the characters all the way to their destinations. Jackson's team didn't even modify that in the Hobbit films after a decade of hearing fans complain about it from the Lord of the Rings films.

The question then is why these changes were made to the adaptations. Why were the filmmakers so opposed to including this particular aspect of Tolkien’s stories?

The first possible reason is the change in depiction from the books to the movies. The Middle-earth that we see on the screen is a less magical and more reality-based world than the one we read about on the page. This helps to make the setting a bit more familiar and relatable to movie audiences and thus makes the world in the movies easier to step into in a shorter amount of time, as well as to give it a bit more credibility to viewers who aren’t familiar with the source material. Talking animals are obviously not a realistic concept, so their inclusion would detract from what the movies are trying to do.

Another possible reason is the change in tone from the books to the movies. It’s not to say that the books were geared entirely for children, particularly not The Lord of the Rings, but the films are much more graphic than what Tolkien wrote. Case in point, the upcoming Extended Edition of the third Hobbit movie is going to be rated R for “extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.” Talking animals in this day and age carry a more Disney-esque kid-friendly connotation that most teens and adults probably wouldn’t take seriously, so they don’t fit so nicely into a more mature adaptation.

And that’s the third possible reason for taking away most of the animals’ voices in the movies: the change in times from the books to the movies. The Hobbit was originally published in the 1930’s, a time when epic fantasy was still blossoming as a genre, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy was published in the 1950’s, a time when popular entertainment was just starting to become a little grittier. I would dare say that both of those works played a major role in revolutionizing the genre and the grit, but to stay on point, talking animals in fiction were not considered so childish back in those decades. Times have changed so much since then that even modern-day Disney films like Enchanted and Frozen not only steer away from using talking animals, but also poke fun at the idea.

To put things into perspective, compare the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films to another recent big screen adaptation of a popular fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Written by C.S. Lewis and also published in the 1950’s, the Narnia books were very much intended for children and are filled with talking animals who play major roles in each story. While a few funny lines are added to the films to properly convey the humans’ surprise at these animals, not much of that aspect is changed and the series remains very much geared to a younger audience.

The three Narnia films that have come out to date made a total of roughly $1.5 billion worldwide at the box office—about half of what the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the Hobbit film trilogy made apiece.

I’m not saying that talking animals were to blame for the Narnia movies not being more successful. I’m saying that they were just one element of an overall tone that doesn’t appeal to fans of fantasy movies so much anymore. Granted, the Lord of the Rings films probably gave a lot of viewers certain expectations for future fantasies that the Narnia films didn’t live up to, but the fact remains that more realism and less whimsy seems to be a bigger draw for the genre nowadays.

So why then did the Hobbit movies give us talking spiders in Mirkwood? Why not stick to the rule of silence and let them go on making disgusting little noises like Shelob instead of inventing a way for Bilbo to decipher their language? My best guess is that the filmmakers wanted to give a nod to the very vocal spiders from the source material and to perhaps lighten the mood of the scene a little.

The intention of the Hobbit trilogy was to start out lighthearted and fun like the book and then gradually take on the darker tone of The Lord of the Rings, which is understandable since those books are extremely different in tone. Since the spiders show up early in the second Hobbit film and the scene where Bilbo saves the dwarves from them is supposed to be an enjoyable moment, it’s still fitting to make them silly, and a good way to do that is by making them complain and comment on their still-living food just like they do in the book. They can be seen as sort of a less cartoony version of the three trolls from the first film, and then Smaug can be seen as an even further transition from that.

In short, I think that talking animals were largely left out of the Peter Jackson Middle-earth movies because they’re seen as something too innocent for what Middle-earth has become since the 1930’s. Tolkien’s books themselves offer some hint of that, as the only talking animals in the more adult Lord of the Rings books are carry-overs from the more child-friendly Hobbit. The lessening presence of talking animals in that world, as well as in our world’s popular culture, seems to reflect an overall transition towards maturity that has occurred over nearly the past eight decades. Whether this is good or bad is debatable, but in the case of Middle-earth, it is perhaps a sign of Tolkien's universe simply growing up alongside its readers.

Monday, August 17, 2015

How Do You Talk to a Dragon?

By far one of the most iconic figures from any work of J.R.R. Tolkien’s is Smaug from 1937’s The Hobbit. While not the first treasure-obsessed dragon to terrorize villagers in the history of literature, Smaug is one of the most memorable and widely portrayed. This is possibly because he was one of the first and still one of the few who speaks. 

Dragons in fantasy traditionally don’t serve as characters, but rather as plot devices; they are obstacles without personalities or voices that are in the story for no other reason than to be vanquished by the heroes. Tolkien’s fiery villain, in contrast, is a character with a cunning and cocky personality that he frequently makes known to Bilbo Baggins and the readers by boasting of his abilities in words.

With that said, here’s my latest fan theory that I want to put to the test: that the Smaug played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Peter Jackson Hobbit film trilogy does not in fact speak English.

One of the films’ more clever changes to the story of The Hobbit is the One Ring’s power to make its bearer understand the language of magical creatures while wearing it. We see this occur once in the second film, when Bilbo rescues his companions from a nest of giant spiders. This concept was obviously created as a means of being true to the source material, where Bilbo hears the spiders talking, while also keeping with the screen adaptation’s more realistic approach of not having any of the animals actually talk. What’s interesting about it though is that we clearly hear one of the spiders say something in English to Bilbo after he takes off the Ring. Some viewers may see this as a continuity error, but others see it as Bilbo retaining his ability to understand the creature's words once the Ring grants him with that power.

It’s possible then that the same thing occurs during his meeting with Smaug later in the film. Bilbo initially puts on the One Ring to conceal himself from the dragon, then he reluctantly takes it off when its power becomes too overwhelming. From there, the hobbit and Smaug share two conversations until the latter exits the Lonely Mountain to attack Lake-town. One wonders if either conversation would have taken place if Bilbo had kept the Ring in his pocket the entire time that he was in the mountain.

This theory gains a bit more weight when looking at Smaug’s scenes without the burglar. We see the dragon assault the city of Dale and take over the Lonely Mountain in the opening of the trilogy’s first film, but not once does he ever say anything during that massacre. The argument can be made that he’s too preoccupied with his task to comment on it, as it’s probably difficult to speak while breathing fire, and the filmmakers are clearly trying to keep him under wraps until Bilbo meets him, though from what we learn about Smaug in the next film, it seems odd that he would do something so catastrophic without bragging about it to the people he’s killing.

Smaug doesn’t say very much when the dwarves are trying to apprehend him in the second film either. The only times he ever seems to address anyone in those scenes is when Bilbo is present. He says a great deal to Bard the Bowman while attacking Lake-town, which Mr. Baggins is not present during, but upon closer inspection, that exchange doesn’t seem quite as interactive as the ones with the hobbit.

Bard never speaks to Smaug. He just goes about his business of preparing to fire his black arrow while the dragon taunts him. Again, it’s possible that the man is too preoccupied with what he’s doing to say anything (and really, what can anyone say to a dragon who just burned down their entire town?), but the notion that the audience is being allowed to hear something that he can’t in that scene holds up fairly well. Bard’s supposed reactions to some of the things that Smaug says could be seen as Smaug commenting on things as Bard is realizing them for himself.

For instance, the bowman looks at his son Bain after the dragon makes a comment about the boy; Smaug’s glare at Bain while making that comment would be enough indication that he’s taking note of the youngster and would give Bard enough reason to look at his son with concern. Also, Cumberbatch’s Smaug certainly seems like the type who would gloat at someone even when he knows they can’t understand him.

The only other person that the dragon speaks to, just before flying to Lake-town, is Thorin Oakenshield. The following lines are said:

THORIN: Here, you witless worm!
THORIN: I have taken back what you stole.
SMAUG: You will take nothing from me, dwarf. I laid low you warriors of old. I instilled terror in the hearts of men. I am King Under the Mountain.
THORIN: This is not your kingdom. These are dwarf lands, this is dwarf gold, and we will have our revenge.
SMAUG: Revenge? I will show you revenge!

This could almost read as Thorin giving a separate speech to Smaug that just happens to be about the same thing as the dragon's speech to him, unbeknownst to the dwarf king. It would make sense for both characters to have similar mindsets like this since they’ve spent the past several minutes fighting each other for the mountain, and since Smaug's ability to understand English is not being questioned, it makes sense for him to give the appropriate reactions and responses to what Thorin says. However, Thorin's reply to Smaug calling himself King Under the Mountain can read as a comprehending dialogue between the two and is probably the strongest argument against the “Smaug doesn’t speak English” theory.

To still humor that idea though, this scene could perhaps be interpreted not as the dragon speaking English to Thorin, but as Thorin also having the ability to understand dragon speech.

Just look at the third Hobbit film. When it becomes clear to Thorin that he and his company will have to defend the Lonely Mountain from the Lake-town survivors and the Mirkwood elves, he sends a raven to his cousin Dain to call for reinforcements. The raven isn’t carrying any letters when it leaves the mountain, and since the dwarves are able to communicate with the ravens in the book, it has to be assumed that Thorin verbally gave the bird his message to deliver and Dain was able to understand the animal in order to receive that message. 

If the film dwarves are able to converse with one creature, then they may be able to converse with others. And who knows? It’s possible that Thorin’s susceptibility to dragon sickness could have given him the ability to understand Smaug, similar to how the One Ring may have given it to Bilbo. Durin's line is said to be more susceptible to dragon sickness than other dwarves are, and since none of the other members of Thorin's company attempt to speak with Smaug during their confrontation, it could be common knowledge among them that only their leader has the skill to do so. They may not know that dragon sickness is the cause of it, though.

By either of these rationals, Bard remains the one character out of the three addressed by Smaug who can't decipher the villain's words; the plot point of him learning of Smaug’s weak spot from the thrush is written out of the films, implying that this version of Bard can’t communicate with other species, and he of course is never corrupted by dragon sickness.

Whatever language Smaug does speak, he remains one of epic fantasy’s most outspoken dragons. He rightfully deserves his distinction as one of the most famous (or infamous) as well, and Cumberbatch’s eerily arrogant portrayal of him in the Hobbit film trilogy will no doubt be the most prevalent one in people’s minds for many years to come. If the above theory has intrigued anybody, then perhaps the regard of that portrayal will be just a little more open to interpretation so to speak.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Did the Dwarves Pre-write "Blunt The Knives"?

Something that I should probably clarify at the beginnings of my Hobbit theory essays is what a "fan theory" is. The best definition that I can think of is that it's an idea regarding something in a film, show, book, or some other storytelling medium that members of the fanbase choose to believe even though that idea is typically not the intention of the original creator. Fans conceive such ideas for various reasons, sometimes to fill in plotholes or to connect things in the narrative that seem like they could fit together, but the purpose of most fan theories is to provide a more interactive way of enjoying a story. We like to feel as if we contributed something to our favorite films, shows, books, and so forth, and putting together evidence to support our theories can make for a fun brain exercise.

With that said, I want to present another fan theory about the Peter Jackson Hobbit films: that the dwarves of Thorin Oakenshield's company wrote and rehearsed the song "Blunt the Knives" prior to meeting Bilbo Baggins.

This theory could perhaps apply to the book as well, but I'll be discussing it mainly in the context of the movies. That's because the song's inclusion is a bit more conspicuous in the film adaptation.

By in large, the six Peter Jackson Middle-earth movies try to ground the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in reality more than the books do. The animals don't speak for the most part, uses of magic are depicted very subtly, and aside from a few goofy combat physics (mostly on the part of the mystical elves), the characters don't bend the laws of time and space too much. Considering this, it's a bit jarring to see twelve dwarves break out into an improvised, well-timed song and dance number where everyone sings along in perfect harmony and knows every word. When does that ever happen outside of a musical?

It's easy to believe other singing scenes in the Hobbit movies, namely the dwarves' renditions of "The Misty Mountains Cold" and "The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late," but that's because we can assume that they've known those songs for a long time and have probably sung them before. This leads me to wonder if perhaps the song "Blunt the Knives" wasn't improvised after all, but was in fact another piece that the dwarves knew well before performing it.

They would have had the time to compose it; Gandalf decides on the morning of the Unexpected Party that he will send the dwarves to Bag End, and they don't arrive there until late in the evening. Furthermore, the first dozen arrive at roughly the same time, which could mean that they spent a good portion of their journey from the Blue Mountains to the Shire traveling together. A trip that long can get boring, and since Middle-earth dwarves are shown to be musically inclined, the twelve of them could have easily come up with and memorized a song about their soon-to-be host along the way. They would know his name, since Gandalf says that morning that he will "inform the others" of Bilbo's inclusion on their quest and Kili almost says it correctly upon meeting Bilbo.

The song's lead-in at the party is also somewhat suspicious. Right in the middle of their rowdy celebration, the dwarves all start pounding their silverware on the table in perfect rhythm until Bilbo complains that they'll blunt them, then the dwarf Bofur very slyly relays this concern to the others. It's as if they were deliberately baiting Bilbo into saying something close to their song's opening line and then Bofur cued everyone to start singing it. This begs the question of whether all of their rude behavior before that really was plain ignorance or actually one big act to get Mr. Baggins fired up.

The next question is why the dwarves would want to tease him so thoroughly. Most likely, it's because Gandalf mentioned while informing them of Bilbo that the hobbit was sort of a stick in the mud. The wizard makes it clear while talking to Bilbo that morning that he's unhappy with the way Belladonna Took's son has turned out, so he probably conveyed that unhappiness to the company and painted a less than flattering picture of the halfling. This may have given the dwarves the (correct) impression that they wouldn't be welcome in Bag End, so they may have decided to give Bilbo the same treatment that they give to most hosts who don't appreciate their company.

Just look at their behavior in Rivendell later: they make a mess at the dinner table, sing a song that the elves clearly don't like, eat them out of house and home, trash the furniture, and do something in a public fountain that probably also caused a few plumbing issues.

Compare that then to their respectful behavior in the house of Beorn, a giant skin-changer who makes a habit of tearing apart unwanted visitors, and their reverence in Erebor, the home of their forefathers. Dwarves are entirely capable of civility, but they'll be stubborn and proud if they can afford to be. If they pick up any holier-than-thou vibes from someone and believe that they can get away with a few pranks, they'll gladly entertain themselves at that person's expense. Writing a song about ruining said person's belongings is one of the tamer things they can do.

With that said though, they seem to like Bilbo a lot more than they like the elves. Why else would they clean his dishes after all was said and done? If "Blunt the Knives" was a pre-written prank, then it was obviously meant in good nature. It's almost flattering, really, that the dwarves went to the trouble to compose a song specifically about Bilbo instead of just singing any old tune. Maybe like Gandalf, they sensed that the hobbit wasn't as prim and proper as he tried to be and just wanted to nudge him out of his shell a little.

Dwarves just nudge a little harder than most folk, as we all know.