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2.24.14 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 25, “Inside Information,” Part 4)

2.24.14 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Film Comments 25, “Inside Information,” Part 4)

Lord of the Nazgûl (by John Howe)

Lord of the Nazgûl (by John Howe)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

We’re having fun now that we’ve reached the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s 2013 film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, an adaptation of Chapters 7-12 of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, The Hobbit.  I’ve given you the essentials of Tolkien’s Ch. 12 “Inside Information,” I’ve sketched how Jackson interpreted (and departed) from that text, and yesterday I praised the presentation of Lake-Town (Esgaroth on the Long Lake).  Today, I’m going to probably irritate fellow Tolkien bloggers because I’m starting a four-part series on why the presentation of Gandalf was superb, and it’s an argument that rests on a three-legged stool: (1) the Witch-King of Angmar & the Nazgûl, (2) Sauron and Smaug, and (3) the backstory of the millennia-old Mithrandir/Gandalf.

Gandalf vs. Witch-King (The Return of the King, 2003)

Gandalf vs. Witch-King (The Return of the King, 2003)

Gandalf & Necromancer (Part 1: The Witch-King of Angmar and the Nazgûl):
Some critics have found the story of Gandalf to be essentially a hyper-inflation of the wizard’s role in the original book; that is, those critics believe that his meeting with Thorin in Bree (a scene from Tolkien’s own “The Quest for Erebor”), White Council interactions, telepathy with Galadriel, & investigation of Dol Guldur all collectively do a disservice to Tolkien’s total focus on Bilbo Baggins in the original book.

I think that, for a 21st century film audience, Jackson’s characterization of Gandalf is appropriate, exciting, and needful for the larger tale that he’s telling (i.e., a full story in 6 parts, that will include both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings film trilogies.)  Here the film-maker made certain that those who follow his film adaptations securely understand both the power and failures of Gandalf and the White Council.

The White Council Attacks Dol Guldur (Angus McBride)

The White Council Attacks Dol Guldur (Angus McBride)

Of course, for those of us who have read Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and the crucial lines in The Hobbit that tell of the ousting of the Necromancer, we can hope that there will be a full-on “wizard war” that sees Sauron & the Nazgûl vs. Radagast-Gandalf-Saruman, and Galadriel/Elrond in this December’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again, but, in looking at these two films solely as part of an as-yet unfinished film story, I really appreciated the fact that Jackson let Gandalf lead the viewer through his discoveries that the Nazgûl and Sauron have returned.  From a purely “entertainment” perspective, this side-story of the Necromancer’s rise is a wonderful, canonically respectful way for those familiar with Jackson’s LotR films to get some more background of people and events that informed the director’s earlier work (but which chronicle people and events that take place 60+ years after these Hobbit films).

Lord of the Nazgûl (Lawrence Makoare; from The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema, 2001)

Lord of the Nazgûl (from The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema, 2001)

"The Witch-King's Hour" (from The Return of the King, 2003)

“The Witch-King’s Hour” (from The Return of the King, 2003)

Yes, I’ve read the criticisms that Jackson’s playing a bit fast-and-loose with the facts; just to cite the most glaring departure, before I dismantle the argument:  in Tolkien’s LotR and Silmarillion, the Witch-King of Angmar, who leads the Ringwraiths, didn’t die at the close of the 1000 S.A., but rather fled the wrath of Eämur of Gondor, whose hand was stayed by the prophecy of Glorfindel, when the elf said,  “Do not pursue him! He will not return to these lands. Far off is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, LotR: The Return of the King, Appendix A, I: iv).

Glorfindel vs. Balrog (from The Silmarillion, by Justin Gerard)

Ancient Evils…Glorfindel vs. Balrog (from The Silmarillion, by Justin Gerard)

Those fans who cheered when reading The Return of the King and viewing Jackson’s 2003 film adaptation, know that Éowyn, the niece of King Théoden, is the “doom” of Glorfindel’s prophecy.  Jackson knew it, too, but he also had to reconcile the fact that Tolkien had called the unseen villain of Mirkwood, the “Necromancer,” a term that specifically entails “raising or communicating” with the dead.

Gandalf at the High Fells of Rhudaur (Tombs of the Nazgûl in Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug")

Gandalf at the High Fells of Rhudaur (Tombs of the Nazgûl in Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”)

To have the Witch-King brought back from the dead makes it clear that there is, indeed, a Necromancer in Mirkwood, and does no disservice to Tolkien because the essential relationship remains:  the Witch-King of Angmar remains the leader of the Nazgûl, will plague our heroes for six films, and die a surprised death by Éowyn’s hand (with some stabbing help from Meriadoc Brandybuck!).  I’m good with this version, and just glad to see more “Witch-King” on-screen!  That’s the problem with daring to adapt as vast and nuanced a saga as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories; you simply are not going to have perfect synchronicity between all versions that Tolkien presented, and, frankly, you don’t really need to in order to tell a compelling story!

The Witch King & Radagast at Dol Guldur (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012)

The Witch King & Radagast at Dol Guldur (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012)

Éowyn (Miranda Otto, from The Two Towers & The Return of the King)

Éowyn (Miranda Otto, from The Two Towers & The Return of the King)

I think Jackson was spot-on in having the Witch-King of Angmar (1) return in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (he’s the one who rises out of the rock when Radagast enters Dol Guldur), (2) be the owner of the dagger that Gandalf brings to the White Council in AUJ, (3) be the owner of the vacated and destroyed tomb that Gandalf and Radagast discover in DOS (also loved the chilling scene that shows the other ruptured tombs of the Ringwraiths).  Now, I don’t know what role he’ll play in There and Back Again, but do know that he makes repeated appearances in the LotR trilogy (stabbing Frodo on Weathertop), only to have him confront Gandalf on the battlements of Minas Tirith, and then finally fall to Éowyn at the end of RotK.

Minas Morgul, The Witch King's Citadel in Jackson's LotR Films

Minas Morgul, The Witch King’s Citadel in Jackson’s LotR Films

So, as we assess Gandalf’s presence and story in Jackson’s Hobbit films,  we get to part of my chief complaint against those bloggers who are quibbling about reconciling Tolkien’s original text and Jackson’s adaptations — and especially against those who cynically say that his part in The Hobbit as being artificially elevated to give Ian McKellen more screen time…!  Just because many of us Tolkien fans live and breathe questioning the kind of details about “how does this section of The Silmarillion stand against what Tolkien wrote in Appendix A of The Return of the King, but also don’t forget the marginal notes he made in Unfinished Tales…,” there’s a very human (but ultimately misplaced) assumption that the typical movie-goer is going to want complete synchronicity between books and films.  That will never happen, because they’re different mediums!  In fact, I don’t want it to happen.  I read literature for one kind of experience, and I go see a film for a different one.  And, Jackson’s responsible to a larger perspective.  What about the parts of the movie-going population who have never (and maybe never will) read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings?  

The Nazgûl (from The Silmarillion, by Ted Nasmith)

The Nazgûl (from The Silmarillion, by Ted Nasmith)

(Hey, what the heck?  Get back here!  It’s possible that some people have never read the books, you know.  In fact, even some friends whom I assumed to have read Tolkien’s works either never have completely, or they haven’t really gone back and read his books for two or three decades. And, trust me, it’s still a rare moment to find someone who’s actually read the entirety of The Silmarillion.  When they do, they’re inevitably surprised by the style of writing, the almost complete lack of women, and the amount of time that the characters spend walking through Middle Earth!)

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Okay, now that you’re back, I’m still standing by my point:  as an artist himself — that’s another non-starter; go ask any director if s/he considers what they do “art”; I’ll wait until you’re discharged from the hospital to resume my tirade… — as an artist, Jackson is obviously tending to that pesky part of storytelling that demands you tell a tale that stands on its own.  For those shaking fists at his adaptations of The Hobbit in these first two movies, wondering “why, oh why, didn’t he make the film as it appears in my memory of that book?”, ask yourself this: on purely storytelling terms, and given that these films are cinematic adaptations of a children’s book, and let’s imagine that you’d never read The Hobbit, how would AUJ and DOS stand up to your scrutiny?

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Hard as it is to believe for those of us who grew up with Tolkien’s works, there are some people who’ve never read one of his books.  But, what I think they will do is walk into these films, be shocked by the imaginative force of the story (even distilled Tolkien is still Tolkien, and his world is a helluva accomplishment), and then emerge in the same kind of trance you did when you read the book.  They’ll emerge entranced because Jackson has so lovingly adapted the books, but left them identifiably Tolkien.  (Okay, Tolkien didn’t have a gigantic gold statue of Thror in his book, but he did write paragraphs and paragraphs about Thorin’s greed, and the miserly nature of the dwarves.  A movie-goer isn’t going to be reading those paragraphs; she’s going to see that statue, though, and think “wow, that dwarf-king was kind of full of himself!”  To me, the same point is made, albeit in different mediums.)

Spirit of the Witch-King

Spirit of the Witch-King

So, yes, I think as adventure flicks, these films will hold up remarkably well.  They also will fill in the uninformed — and, again, for those who might never read the Tolkien books — an essentially correct version of how Sauron returned to Middle Earth, where the Nazgûl came from, and, finally, by the time we get to The Return of the King, why in the hell Aragorn, Frodo & Smeagol, and Eowyn are so awesome.  And, to Tolkien’s credit, even in the 1950s, for all the lack of females of which he’s been criticized, he did write one heck of a scene for Eowyn dispatching the Witch-King!

Éowyn (Miranda Otto) slays the Witch-King of Angmar (from The Return of the King, 2003)

Éowyn (Miranda Otto) slays the Witch-King of Angmar (from The Return of the King, 2003)

Each of these heroes succeed on their respective fronts where everyone else failed.  (We can discuss the “who’s the real hero, Frodo or Smeagol?” some other time…).  In assessing Thorin, I’ve written before that these films are as much a tale of his and the dwarves’ failure as LotR is one of Aragon & Frodo’s ultimate victory, and Jackson is really giving us two trilogies that will make complete sense to each other, while inarguably paying respect to Tolkien’s source material.  By giving attention to the return of Sauron and his Nazgûl, Jackson really gives serious context for the menace that will confront the Fellowship of the Ring and Middle Earth in his “later” films.  And, as a parent, my answer to that ten-year-old girl or boy who bounds out of the cineplex screaming “that was awesome!” I know that I can confidently tell her/him, “If you thought that was something, you should read the book!”

Next Time:  Gandalf’s Story Part 2:  The Necromancer and Smaug

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