2.17.14 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 18, “A Warm Welcome,” Part 4)
Good Morning, Everybody!
Okay, final thoughts on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “Chapter 10: A Warm Welcome,” in the 2013 film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
To continue from the last blog: as you’ve all come to know, I’m not one of those critics who decry the use of CGI if it’s done well in service to the film. I was fine with The Hobbit: AUJ’s crazily depicted goblin battle beneath the Misty Mountains, thought that The Hobbit: DoS’s “Barrels Out of Bond” white-water-orc-arrow-Legolas-&-Tauriel-kick-ass fest was fantastic, and truly enjoyed the newly created scenes of Gandalf’s battles with Azog and the Necromancer.
First, though, we need to pause and give kudos to Ian McKellen for consistently portraying a Gandalf in both the LotR and Hobbit films that will stand the test of time. Here’s just a top-line of his career from Wikipedia:
Sir Ian Murray McKellen, (born 25 May 1939) is an English actor. He is the recipient of six Laurence Olivier Awards, a Tony Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a BIF Award, two Saturn Awards, four Drama Desk Award’s and two Critics’ Choice Award’s. He has also received two Academy Award nominations, eight BAFTA film and tv nominations and five Emmy Award nominations. McKellen’s work spans genres ranging from Shakespearean and modern theatre to popular fantasy and science fiction. His notable film roles include Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and Magneto in the X-Men films. McKellen was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1979,was knighted in 1991 for services to the performing arts, and was made a Companion of Honour for services to drama and to equality, in the 2008 New Year Honours.
For The Hobbit and The LotR films, McKellen’s given such a definitive take on the character, and imparted the wizard with such a distinct personality that I’m glad for this adaptation’s expanded role for Tolkien’s character simply because it gives Sir McKellen more screen time! Amazingly, thanks to his thoughtful & impassioned acting, we’re seeing a “younger” Gandalf in these films, and completely believing that this story takes place sixty years before Jackson’s LotR trilogy began 10+ years ago. Bravo, Sir McKellen!
Now, back to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. To see Gandalf going solo into Dol Guldur was such a departure from what I’d always envisioned in The Hobbit, when the wizard left the dwarves to “tend to business in the South.” As a kid, I’d thought that meant he and a bunch of wizards took on the briefly mentioned “Necromancer,” and then as an adult (before reading other accounts by Tolkien) I believed that Gandalf had joined some kind of human-elf alliance a la the LotR assault on Mordor. In this instance, I completely disagree with the critics: I very much thought Jackson & Co.’s screenwriting that had Gandalf enter the Dark Lord’s new lair was brilliant!
Well done, and the ensuing conflicts with Azog and the Necromancer were completely in keeping with the sorcerous might that Tolkien always ascribed to this wizard. Remember, in both textual and cinematic versions of Gandalf the Grey’s story, the defining moment for the wizard is his battle with the Balrog in Moria, which he survives and emerges victoriously as Gandalf the White. In Tolkien’s vision expressed in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (“The Istari”), a Balrog’s power was on par with a dragon’s, and the Balrogs themselves were “fallen Maiar,” angel-like beings who’d fallen with Melkor at the start of the First Age, and among the most fearsome servants of evil that Melkor used for conquest (in that construct, think of Melkor as Lucifer, with the Balrogs akin to fallen angels Mammon, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, et al).
For Gandalf to contend with (and defeat) a Balrog in The Fellowhip of the Ring and The Two Towers films is a considerable moment, and in this adaptation of The Hobbit (and also adapted from Tolkien’s “The Quest for Erebor,” which relates aspects of The Hobbit from Gandalf’s point-of-view) we get to see the wizard (initially) fail against a returning Sauron. Now, readers of the The Hobbit know that the Necromancer gets driven from Mirkwood by the end of the tale (that is, Gandalf finally returns to Bilbo, Thorin, and Co. after the Battle of Five Armies, saying that he succeeded), but thanks to Jackson’s depiction of events, the viewer gets to see that that victory wasn’t an easy one.
Most appreciatively, this Hobbit film trilogy is seriously dealing with one of the proverbial “elephants in the room” when we approach Sauron’s return to Mordor — the failure of the so-called White Council to permanently counter the threat of a returning Sauron. For me, given the context that Tolkien gave in the original Hobbit that there was a darkness named the “Necromancer” growing in Mirkwood, it wasn’t a stretch that Gandalf would’ve taken on a returning Sauron because it’s been made pretty clear from Jackson’s past two films that neither Radagast nor Gandalf thought the former lackey of Morgoth was anywhere near the powers he’d wielded when he’d fallen to Gil-gilad and Elendil during the war of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves.
Also, to those critics who expressed dismay at the power-levels Gandalf demonstrated in his fight with the Necromancer, it’s clear that Jackson’s done his homework. He knows from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, that Gandalf, Radagast, and Saruman are themselves versions of the “angel”-like Maiar, called Istari, who disguised themselves as human to assist Middle Earth in times of trouble. (Gandalf’s name is Olórin/Mithrandir, Radagast is Aiwendil, & Saruman Curunír). Indeed, in the first two films even Galadriel and Elrond can’t bring themselves to believe that the Dark Lord has returned.
For us as viewers, though, we get to see Tolkien’s work fully realized on film; that is, the author himself created a backstory for Gandalf’s “business elsewhere” that meant trying to deal with a returning Sauron when he abandoned Bilbo and the dwarves, so why criticize Jackson & Co. for trying to convey this very exciting, heretofore unseen) part of The Hobbit? No, in contrast to those criticisms that seem to think that Gandalf’s journey was foolhardy and unrealistic — or, worse, an excuse for Jackson to employ more CGI — I say simply, enjoy the battle for a great sword-and-sorcery moment, and appreciate that Jackson’s taking time to give a proper backstory to what’s going to be at stake in the existing LotR films.
Here’s all of that battle that Tolkien himself related in the original version of The Hobbit, when Gandalf and Elrond are reflecting with Bilbo on the adventure, from the final pages of the book, “Chapter 19: The Last Stage”
…Gandalf it was who spoke, for Bilbo was fallen quiet and drowsy. Most of the tale he knew, for he had been in it, and had himself told much of it to the wizard on their homeward way or in the house of Beorn; but every now and again he would open an eye, and listen, when a part of the story which he did not yet know came in.
It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.
“Ere long now,” Gandalf was saying, “The Forest will grow somewhat more wholesome. The North will be freed from that horror for many long years, I hope. Yet I wish he were banished from the world!”
“It would be well indeed,” said Elrond; “but I fear that will not come about in this age of the world, of for many after.”
Did Peter Jackson take some very dramatic liberties with this short description of Gandalf’s battle(s) with the Necromancer? YES, and I thought it (and the subplot with Azog the Pale Orc) was fantastic. I also imagine that we’re going to see an more epic one this December when a full White Council battles Sauron in The Hobbit: There and Back Again… !
Next time: Tolkien’s Original Version of The Hobbit, “Chapter 11: On the Doorstep”