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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A Not Entirely Unexpected Review

I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night. It was time.

It’s no secret that I am a Tolkien fan. It’s probably the second thing people learn about me. Maybe the third. For some reason, everyone expected me to run out and see it on opening day. That’s silly. Why is that silly? Well, that’s probably the 43rd thing people learn about me, if they get that far.

At any rate, I am ready to submit my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In traditional Wright Style, it is a short novel. Enjoy!

The film is visually beautiful; gorgeous, in fact. I only saw it in normal, Luddite-vision (2D, normal frame rate, whatever that is), and I was nearly moved to tears by the fair, green country of the Shire and its environs. Rivendell and The Misty Mountains were no less inspirational. On the whole, it was breathtaking.

The creatures look different in The Hobbit. That should also be expected, for a couple reasons. First, The Hobbit is not LOTR. The Orcs faced in The Hobbit are not Orcs. They are Goblins. Yes, there’s a difference. Now, Goblins are faerie creatures in myth and lore. In my mind, that means one thing: Guillermo Del Toro. I have never seen any sort of faerie creatures on film that come closer to my own vision of the Fey Folk than the works of GDT. Although his designs were reworked almost completely, enough of his design style shows through to make the Goblins of the Hobbit distinctly different from the Orcs of LOTR.

Orcs and Goblins, in Middle Earth, are the same species. Thank you, purists. However, I would propose that they are separate breeds of the same species, much like a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both Canis Lupis Familiaris, but no one would argue that the two are distinct from each other. Chew on that, purists! And also suck it, because I will go one step further and propose the radical theory that other species among mammals are also extant in various breeds, including Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Are your minds blown?

On that note…
The Dwarves in Middle Earth are NOT a breed of Humans. They are an entirely different thing. They weren’t even created by The Creator (whom the Elves call Eru Iluvatar, The One). They were created in a forge by Aule The Maker, and he made them strong, to endure.

The intro sequence of The Hobbit portrays the Dwarves as I always wanted them to be portrayed. They are majestic and glorious, and Erebor is absolutely magnificent! If you have ever taken joy at making, assembling or repairing anything, ever, then you may get a bit misty when seeing the splendor and majesty of the Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor for the first time.

In the book of The Hobbit, I was not at all impressed with the Dwarves. They were whiny, incompetent, prideful a-holes and comic relief caricatures that constantly needed Bilbo to bail them out of mortal danger every other chapter or so. Ridiculous!

Thankfully, they were a bit rewritten, and if any are less-than-badass, it is because they are actually civilians, except for a few. Each is very distinct from the others, and even have their own easily distinguishable personalities. That is something I couldn’t say about the Dwarves in the book. With the exceptions of Thorin and Bombur, I couldn’t have told you anything specific about any of them. In this film, each is recognizable, and a few stand out very clearly. I like that.

Also, a few are badasses. Dwalin, Thorin and even Balin and Kili are actually quite deadly. The others, well I’m sure they’ll get a chance to show their worth in the next two movies.  I’m not worried. In my opinion, the nerdiest, whiniest and most passive Dwarf in Middle Earth still has a badass inside of him somewhere, and can easily whip the asses of an entire cubicle farm full of “average” Humans, using only a wooden ale mug or beer stein or maybe a staple remover. Dwarves were from the beginning made strong, to endure. And you can see that in this film.

The film definitely had some of the spirit of the LOTR trilogy. That is to be expected, as The Hobbit was always advertised as its prequel. So quit whining, purists. No movie is ever the same as the book. Deal with it already. That said it also had a certain whimsical quality that felt more like a fairy tale or a children’s story. Of course, The Hobbit is in fact a children’s story, so that too is expected. So you other purists quit whining too. It would be very easy to mess up such a compromise. Like a futon, such a project could end up trying to fulfill two functions and end up doing neither well. In the end, I felt it was done very well. I felt both wonder and foreboding. Thank you, cast and crew.

The Hobbit was never conceived as part of the Lord of the Rings. It was a story that Professor Tolkien used to tell his kids, and decided at some point to go ahead and put it all down on paper, since it was such a beloved tale. It was never intended to be a prequel to anything. There was no LOTR yet. Heck, The Hobbit wasn’t even in Middle Earth at that time! Years later, his publishers wouldn’t shut up about a sequel for The Hobbit. Prof Tolkien eventually acquiesced and began work on something that would eventually become the Lord of the Rings, after plugging it into the vast setting he had been creating for decades. Now he had a problem. The Hobbit was already written and beloved by legions of purists. The Lord of the Rings followed from The Hobbit, but it was firmly embedded in the creative fabric of Middle Earth. What to do?

The answer: Retcon! (google it if you don’t know) The LOTR has lengthy appendices, and in them, he reconciles the two in a way that only a true master of fiction can. What does this have to do with my review of the film?

This is why The Hobbit will be three films, my dear enraged cynics and purists, not as a ploy to squeeze more of your easily-earned money from your bitter fists. Adding to the movie all of the retconned information from the LOTR appendices and other sources, and then reconciling that with an entirely different medium as well as the huge LOTR trilogy of films means that there must be three movies. Would you rather have a chopped up atrocity that no longer resembles its source, like Battlefield Earth? I don’t think you do. I know I don’t.

They did a fine job, and I happen to like knowing all the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that Bilbo knew nothing about. I like having it all in one place, too.
I was a bit disappointed with the film’s treatment of Gollum, although I do not blame the filmmakers for it. After their phenomenal work in LOTR, they could only do Gollum the way they did. I understand that. So, if you liked Gollum in LOTR, and you think he should’ve been like that sixty years earlier, when The Hobbit takes place, then you will like him in this film. I believe that Gollum would have been a bit different in The Hobbit. He was more dangerous back then. He was more monstrous.

Think about it: By this time, he will have been living in those caves for decades, possibly centuries. What would happen to a person’s mind in that situation? Tom Hanks was talking to a soccer ball in less than five years. Gollum was just as isolated, in complete darkness, and living on cave fish, mushrooms and Goblin flesh for much, much, MUCH longer than that.

Now let’s think about that, too. The dude would turn himself invisible, kill a hapless Goblin with a rock (hardcore), and eat them. Raw. Top that, Bear Grylls! He would do this whenever he could. He was so isolated that he rarely even saw a Goblin, but when one did end up in his little territory, he was overjoyed at the prospect.  Apparently raw Goblin is tasty after you’ve been eating only fish and mushrooms for a couple months or years.

Okay. I have met men who have killed people. They carry a burden. No matter why they killed (usually in the line of duty, whether as a law enforcement agent or a soldier), they carry it, and it doesn’t always rest easy in their hearts, even if it was “justified”. I have also met men who have killed a lot of people. Special Forces badasses, snipers and other highly trained agents have done things that most of us cannot comprehend, and that includes a lot of killing. They carry a burden, too, and they (probably) didn’t eat their victims raw afterward.

Imagine if you can, what sort of person is able to do that and enjoy it. Imagine someone so enslaved to their obsession so thoroughly and for so long, and so inured to killing and eating people that it is no longer a burden. It’s a treat!

Yes, he’s the size of a twelve year old. To me, that makes him no less dangerous and pants-poopingly frightening. This dude snuck into Mordor by himself. He snuck through Lothlorien! That place is populated by the oldest and wisest Elves in Middle Earth, who guard their borders unceasingly, day and night with bows and magic. They were like, “Uh, we saw something following you guys, but we couldn’t catch it. Not sure what it was.” Excuse me?! The Wood Elves of Greenwood caught him for a while, but he escaped. Yeah.

I digress, but I hope you see why I was hoping for a scarier, more dangerous and chilling Gollum in The Hobbit. He’s basically the stuff of horror movies. In this film he was even more human than when we meet him in LOTR. The dialogue between Smeagol and Gollum is obvious. He is comfortable killing people, and more aggressive than I remember him in LOTR, but I rather expected Smeagol to have been a long forgotten dream at this point. It had been centuries, after all. He had his Precious. Why would Gollum need Smeagol for anything? He would’ve suppressed that whiny little weakling long, long ago. I know why the filmmakers did it. I just wanted the nastier Gollum.

What can we learn from The Hobbit that will enrich our gaming life?
                DRAGONS SHOULD BE EPIC
You don’t actually see Smaug in The Hobbit. You glimpse his tail and his great paws and one eye. You definitely get a good look at his handiwork, but you don’t see the Dragon. Not yet. This is a storytelling and movie making technique. I get it. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Smaug is Epic. He is not something that a decent team of skilled friends can defeat if they try really hard, like the cave troll in Fellowship of the Ring. He is not even a fearsome but manageable monster who can be driven off if you’re lucky enough and have the right tools, like Shelob in The Return of the King.

Smaug is more than that. He is described as “a calamity”. WTF? That’s what I’m talking about! When he came to Erebor, it was at the height of its glory, and all the greatest and mightiest Dwarves of the greatest and mightiest Dwarven kingdom in Middle Earth could do nothing against him. He walked in and made himself at home. He’s been there ever since. The land surrounding his lair is blasted and infertile for miles and miles. It’s called “The Desolation of Smaug”. No one messes with him. No army, no King. Not any one; not  ever. People are scared to death to even draw his attention.

This is how I prefer Dragons to be portrayed, in film, in literature and in my games. A Dragon is more than a monster to be slain and added to the tally. It is a force of nature, and it is to be feared, no matter who you are. Some games do this well. Earthdawn comes to mind first and foremost. Warhammer does a fair job.

I look forward to seeing Smaug in his full splendor. All the while, I am also remembering certain other Dragons from Middle Earth’s ancient history: Glaurung The Golden, Father of All Dragons, who was slain by Turin Turambar. He was impressive, and was a complete d-bag. He got what he deserved. But let us not forget the greatest Dragon in the history of Middle Earth, Ancalagon The Black, who was slain by an arrow from Earendil the Mariner in the War of Wrath. When he fell from the sky, he toppled the two tallest peaks in the world. Think about that. Imagine Everest and K2 standing next to each other and then a Dragon, so huge and black and apocalyptic, smashes into them with such power and fury and ruin that they are both broken and toppled into rubble. I don’t care who you are, it doesn’t get more Epic than that!

That’s a lofty goal, but at least take some inspiration from Smaug and make your Dragons worth slaying, GMs!
An RPG is a group effort. It is an ensemble cast. GMs and players alike would do well to remember that your games will not be like The Hobbit. The Hobbit has a large supporting cast, to be sure, but it is still the tale of one hero: Bilbo Baggins.

In my experience, ensembles are best handled over a series of episodic sessions, not unlike a television series, so that there is enough time for all the characters to accomplish their personal goals and experience some kind of change. The only good stagnant character is an NPC.
                HERO’S JOURNEY
The Hobbit is Bilbo’s Journey. In the beginning, Gandalf spells it out for the reluctant Hobbit. When asked whether he can guarantee Bilbo’s safe return, Gandalf says straight up, “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”

A good character is changed by their experiences. This often takes the form of a Hero’s Journey.  This is a big deal, and I won’t get into its specifics here, but it is a powerful storytelling tradition that has stood the test of time across all cultures that ever existed on this old Earth. It is nearly impossible to accomplish in the context of an RPG in its full form, because RPGs are a group effort and a Hero’s Journey is a solo endeavor. Nevertheless, GMs would do well to make themselves familiar with the structure, strengths and weaknesses of the Hero’s Journey as a storytelling tool, if they seek to create a powerful, emotionally rewarding experience for a special player.
Middle Earth is arguably the most fully developed fictional setting ever put on paper. The author worked on it his entire adult life. It was his life’s work. Add to that his supreme erudition and profound level of skill in his craft, and you have a setting whose depth, breadth and richness may not ever be surpassed. Remember that Prof Tolkien considered Middle Earth to be an unfinished project when he died at the age of 81, after working on it in one form or another nearly constantly for over sixty years. Recognize!

GMs seeking to run games set in Middle Earth have a lot of material to work with. That’s the good news. The bad news is that GMs have a LOT of material to work with, and legions of purists waiting to point an accusing finger at any divergence from The Scripture. I don’t run games set in Middle Earth. It’s too intimidating. Yes, I said it. I am intimidated by something.


I liked the movie a lot, despite theater distractions and the nagging knowledge that I was seeing it in “sub-standard” Luddite-vision instead of whatever new hotness is the thing this year. I will see this movie again, and not because I am some mindless fan of some aspect of it. It is fun, beautiful and enjoyable. I will also see the next two. I doubt I’ll feel ripped off, scammed, hoodwinked or bamboozled, either. I know what to expect, and I don’t let it interfere with my enjoyment of things.