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.


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