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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Seven Things We Want From The Hobbit

It's hard to imagine, after the awe-inspiring success of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and barrage of legal debacles that followed its release (hope you enjoy that crow you're eating, Robert Shaye), that Peter Jackson is actually going to be returning to Middle-Earth for not just one, but two more films - one based on Tolkien's classic The Hobbit and the other... um, we're still not sure. (What exactly is a "bridge" film? Will it be "The Young Aragorn Adventures"?) Fine, Pete's not directing the new Hobbit-centric movies, but he is producing (and assumedly co-writing) them, and he's found a tremendous director, Pan's Labyrinth's Guillermo Del Toro, to follow in his footsteps. We'd never want to suggest that Del Toro is merely acting as Jackson's surrogate - particularly since he'd probably send giant cockroaches and Hellboy after us - but we're confident that Del Toro is a smart enough filmmaker that he'll take what he needs from Jackson and his WETA Workshop and find his own way down the rest of the Hobbit-hole.

And, while The Hobbit isn't scheduled to be released until sometime in 2011, Hobbit fever is already spreading like wildfire, with Jackson and Del Toro scheduled to host an hour-long web chat to field fan questions about the movies on Saturday the 24th. (You can register for the chat here.) Now that this opportunity to talk directly to the filmmakers has presented itself, it's gotten us at The Deadbolt thinking about what we really want to see from a film version of The Hobbit. The Hobbit is one of the classic works of children's literature, holding a warm place in our hearts that's reserved only for such youth-defining books as Where The Wild Things Are and The Phantom Tollbooth. While the other LOTR books are canonical works of modern fantasy, The Hobbit transcends the fantasy genre and is, unquestionably, the most universal work Tolkien ever wrote. With that in mind, we have a whole different set of expectations for Guillermo Del Toro's The Hobbit than we had for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. We're much less concerned about battles and Balrogs and much more concerned about preserving the most memorable qualities of one of our favorite childhood fables.

And so, just in time for the inaugural Hobbit web chat, The Deadbolt presents...

The Seven Things That Any Good Hobbit Adaptation Must Have:

1. It has to be funny.

Sure, J.R.R. Tolkien was no Jim J. Bullock or Carlos Mencia (please note the sarcasm, Tolk-heads), but The Hobbit is a surprisingly funny book. The text is filled with slapstick, verbal puns, and wacky moments (the introduction of Thorin's dwarf gang and the ensuing breakfast debacle at Bilbo's house, for one) that you probably wouldn't expect after watching Peter Jackson's earnestly stoic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Let's be honest, while we all love the LOTR movies, humor isn't exactly their forte. In fact, aside from some anachronistic dwarf-tossing humor and Legolas and Gimli's running death toll, there's barely a chuckle in the whole trilogy. So, we're a bit nervous that, in an attempt to make The Hobbit fit in stylistically, that all the good-natured funny stuff is going to be tossed by the wayside. I mean, honestly, how exactly is Guillermo Del Toro going to handle the trolls tossing dwarves into sacks, sitting on them, and debating how to eat them without a wink and smile? If treated seriously, that scene will be borderline ridiculous. It doesn't help that Del Toro isn't really known for comedy (well, Mimic was funny for different reasons), and Jackson's sense of humor is far too in-your-face and wrong for Tolkien (watch Meet the Feebles and tell us if we're wrong). Just remember - The Hobbit is, by the intention of its author, a lighter, funnier, more family-friendly work than The Two Towers. Either embrace the light-heartedness or don't even bother.

2. It needs to work as a stand-alone film.

It would be a mistake to treat The Hobbit like LOTR 4: The Prequel. We're not saying that continuity and carry-overs should be ignored - we love that Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis are returning - but while Fellowship, Two Towers, and Return of the King were written as a trilogy, The Hobbit was written as a stand-alone adventure. More than any of the LOTR movies, this film needs to stand tall on its own merits. That means Del Toro can't assume that we know anything about Middle-Earth before we enter the theatre, and the story needs to have a definite beginning, middle, and end. We know that there's this nebulous "Hobbit sequel," based on a hodge-podge of Tolkien works, that's being filmed at the same time, but man, will we be pissed if The Hobbit ends with a "To Be Continued..." The Hobbit is a perfectly contained story that begins and ends at Bag End, and is short enough that it doesn't need two movies to tell the tale. This has the potential to be one of the ultimate all-ages fantasy adventures of all time - just like the original book - so let's not taint its appeal by retro-fitting the story to make it a part of the Peter Jackson LOTR mini-series.

3. The whole movie can't be about the Battle of the Five Armies.

Don't get us wrong. We've been hard on Peter Jackson in our previous two sections, but we desperately love, love, love the Lord of the Rings movies. They, honest-to-god, definitely compete with the original Star Wars series (not the crap-tastic prequel trilogy) for the "best movie trilogy EVER" title. But, as much as we love Jackson's LOTR, The Hobbit was one of our favorite books growing up, so we treasure it a lot more than an Orlando Bloom movie, hence the tough love. And here's another hard truth that it might be difficult for WETA to swallow - the Battle of the Five Armies can't dominate the whole damn film. Yes, the final battle between the goblins and wargs and the armies of men, elves, and dwarves DOES bring the story to a general close and resolves the conflicts between most of the main characters, but it literally takes place during ONE chapter of the original book. We're totally fine with the battle closing the movie, but it can't be transformed into a Helm's Deep-sized uber-war that concerns most of the narrative, like it did in Two Towers. The Five Armies battle gives The Hobbit a very cool high-octane action note to close on, but Bilbo's journey and the confrontation with Smaug are infinitely more important. But Peter Jackson loves his epic-scale castle sieges, so we're a bit worried. Let's hope that Del Toro has a better sense of what's driving the story of The Hobbit, and, if the battle takes up more than 35 minutes of screen-time, we'll be very, very disappointed.

4. Smaug needs to be a classic movie villain first, dragon second.

Earlier this month, the ultimate LOTR fan site, theonering.net, published a fantastic essay about the "dragon problem" that's facing Del Toro and WETA as they begin pre-production of The Hobbit. The gist of the problem is that, thanks to poor special effects, overuse, and horrible movies like Dragonheart and Eragon, dragons have (to quote theonering.net) "taken a place just behind unicorns and rainbows as the most hackneyed subjects of fantasy art." So what does that mean for The Hobbit adaptation, particularly when the debatable climax of the story involves the interaction between Bilbo Baggins and one of the coolest, most breath-taking, bad-ass talking dragons in the history of literature, the treasure-hoarding Smaug? Renaissance festivals and lackluster CGI have defanged the dragon for modern film audiences, so how can Del Toro hope to make Smaug as cool as he needs to be? Our advice - concentrate on the drama and dialogue of the Smaug scenes first and worry about his design later. Smaug, first and foremost, needs to be a classic villain - we're talking Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, etc. - and we need to be much more afraid of his words and demeanor than his spiky claws or teeth. In fact, Del Toro should use the scene in No Country for Old Men between Anton Chigurh and the gas station owner as the model for the tone and level of raised stakes in the Bilbo/Smaug scenes. Chigurh was so scary it didn't even matter that he had the haircut that he did, so if Smaug's character is handled correctly, it shouldn't matter that movie audiences aren't afraid of dragons anymore.

5. Don't cut out all of the songs.

We can't believe we're saying this. We were totally in favor in clear-cutting all of the namby-pamby ballads and singing from the LOTR movies, and we happily mocked any nerds who claimed that Fellowship of the Ring was ruined by the exclusion of the karaoke-loving Tom Bombadil (one of the best decisions Jackson ever made). But, as we've mentioned, The Hobbit is a totally different beast. In terms of tone, The Hobbit needs to be a lighter and funnier film, and it also needs to be a Midnight Run-esque road movie, in which Thorin and his band of treasure-lusting dwarves eventually warm up to their vastly different Hobbit companion, Bilbo. And Tolkien's songs - The Hobbit contains probably his best lyrics ever - are a great vehicle to convey those changes in tone. There are some, frankly, hilarious dwarf songs and the moments where the wood-elves mock Bilbo and Thorin in song are priceless. Plus having Bilbo and the dwarves engage in a hearty fire-side sing-a-long might be the best movie male-bonding moments since the choruses of "Show Me the Way to Go Home" in Jaws. The key, however, will be to resist making the songs all sound like Enya-esque, Celtic lullabies, and instead make them sound more like the mead-hall ballads that Robert Zemeckis used so well in his Beowulf.

6. Explain the ring.

This is going to sound like we're contradicting ourselves. We'd previously said that we didn't want The Hobbit to get mired down in the continuity of the other LOTR films, but there is one big element in the story that really will need to be explained within the context of the whole LOTR series - the One Ring. In The Hobbit, which Tolkien wrote before the other LOTR books, the ring is simply a magic ring that can turn the wearer invisible (and can make Gollum purr "My precious..." for hours). Even in the opening of Fellowship, Peter Jackson showed us that Gandalf and Bilbo had no idea of the ring's dark legacy. However, now, thanks to Jackson's insanely popular movies, we all know what the One Ring can do. So, when in The Hobbit, Bilbo wears the ring for weeks at a time to evade capture by the wood-elves, every card-carrying LOTR movie fan is going to think, "Wait, why isn't he being corrupted? Why doesn't he see the fiery eye of Sauron?" And, before Tolkien fans throw a fit, notice that we said "every card-carrying LOTR MOVIE fan," not fans of the original books. We're no Tolkien experts. We're sure that there's some footnote or appendix that explains why Bilbo could wear the ring for weeks and be fine and why, several years later, the ring turned Frodo into an emo-looking mess. But the thing is - most movie fans aren't versed in Tolkien's complete canon. We know (and love) the movies, so the ring disparity will have to be explained somehow in The Hobbit, just so us average joes don't spend the whole time wondering why the Nazgul haven't showed up and speared Bilbo's ass yet.

7. Don't be afraid to make Gandalf a bit of a bastard.

The big difference between Gandalf the Grey (the pre-Balrog wizard) and Gandalf the White (post-Balrog) is that the Grey is a hell of a lot more fun. Ian McKellen did a terrific job of bringing a playful gravitas to Gandalf in the opening reel of Fellowship of the Ring - bumping his head in Bilbo's house one moment, showing off his awe-inspiring power the next - and we really want him to keep that same mischievous menace in The Hobbit. Granted, Gandalf does get some nicely heroic moments throughout the story - killing goblins, fighting in the Battle of the Five Armies - but the truly memorable Gandalf moments in The Hobbit are watching the wizard con Bilbo into becoming the dwarves' burglar or mysteriously disappearing whenever trouble is afoot. We're not saying that Gandalf is cowardly or immoral, but his Hobbit incarnation should have more of a Han Solo roguish charm than the stately, austere presence of Gandalf the White in Two Towers and Return of the King. (And, of course, we're talking about Han Solo back when he was allowed to shoot first and didn't suck.)

Original here

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