The dislocation of CGI
The second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy (“The Desolation of Smaug”) is out, and it’s worse than the first. But how can that be, given that the first was so bad? That, dear reader, is the mystery this post will attempt to grapple with. Everything I said last year remains true; but wait, there’s more.
Well, yes, of course there’s more: Peter Jackson had to add something to make this movie 161 minutes long. But note: it’s not like he needed to add more than he did to “An Unexpected Journey.” That film covered the first six chapters of the book, this one covers the next six-or-seven (it’s hard to tell, given how much they mangled the original story), and the last film will, presumably, give us the final seven-or-eight. And this film is actually shorter than the first. So what makes it feel so dreadfully long?
The answer is not just a catalog of all the unnecessary additions–the made-up characters, the unnecessary battle scenes, the irrelevant Necromancer sub-plot, the clumsy parallels with the LotR series, the completely absurd elf-elf-dwarf love triangle–though they are, indeed, all unnecessary and almost all detrimental to the movie as a whole. Rather–and quite surprisingly–we can better understand how painfully long it feels through a catalog of what they left out. To whit:
- The last film ended with Thorin & co. in the eagle’s eyrie, and one might have expected this one to pick up there as well. But no; it begins with our heroes fleeing from a band of orcs. (Not for the last time.) No option to ask the eagles to set them down somewhere else, to decide not to continue the journey to the lonely mountain. No freedom here.
- In the book, they go pretty much directly from the eyrie to Beorn the shapechanger’s house, and ask the man politely–if deviously–to allow them to stay. In the movie, they run into the house chased by orcs and a giant bear (i.e. Beorn) and slam and lock the door behind them. No manners here.
- In the book, they spend several days resting at Beorn’s house, while Beorn goes off every night to hunt orcs; only gradually does Bilbo realize that their host is a shapechanger. In the movie, they leave the next morning; Beorn, now human again, has spent the night outside but somehow gotten back in; he wakes them and immediately, if grudgingly, offers them his aid. No rest here.
- In the book they spend several weeks making their way slowly through the gloom of Mirkwood; they must camp on the elvenpath while glowing eyes stare at them from the forest; by the end they are exhausted, depressed from lack of sunlight, and almost out of food. In the movie, as soon as they enter the forest they got lost and wander into the spider nests. No isolation here.
- Note that a lot happens in Mirkwood in the book: a stag knocks Bombur into the enchanted river; he falls asleep, they must carry him; eventually he wakes, and tells of his dreams of grand feasts; when they cannot bear the hunger, they investigate the lights and sounds of revelry that they hear off in the wood; they find a circle of feasting elves, but when they approach, the elves vanish; this happens thrice; now that they are completely lost, the spiders come. But in the film: none of this. No enchantment here.
- In the book, Bilbo spends several days in the elvish castle trying to find a way out besides the front door, in the meantime “miserably burgling the same house day after day,” well the rest of the company are trapped in their cells. In the film, it takes him five minutes. No imprisonment here.
- In the book, they escape the elves by packing themselves into barrels with straw, closing the lids, and tricking the cellar keeper into sending the barrels into the river; the elves don’t realize they’re gone until too late. In the film they just climb into open barrels, drop into the river, then head downstream while a three-way fight rages between dwarves, orcs, and elves. No secrecy here.
- Quick now (don’t worry, almost done):
- In Laketown, again, the book has them spend several days resting; not so in the movie, which has them leave the next morning. (The movie also has orcs sneak into Laketown to attack some dwarves who remain behind.)
- The trip from Laketown to the Lonely Mountain, likewise, takes them several days in the book; in the movie, apparently, it’s just a few hours, and it takes them two minutes of screen time.
- The book has them show up at the door with plenty of time to spare; the movie has them show up in the nick of time. (Oh, and the movie invents a last-minute problem at the door for Bilbo to solve, predicated on the dwarves turning around and giving up thirty seconds after it seems they might have failed.) No patience here.
- Finally: in the book, after Bilbo enters the mountain and talks to Smaug (keeping his ring on so the dragon can’t kill him), he accidentally mentions Laketown, and Smaug flies off to destroy it, stopping along the way to destroy the hidden door; the dwarves are now trapped inside the mountain. In the movie, Bilbo takes his ring off, the dragon almost kills him, the dwarves run downstairs to save him, and a giant battle between dwarves and dragon commences, which ends with Smaug being driven out of the mountain (!) and flying off to attack Laketown in revenge. Plenty of violence, but no eerie homecoming here.
In other words: this movie entirely leaves out most of the actual content of the chapters this movie covers. Of course some things had to be cut. Bombur’s fall in the river, for example; that would be hard to do well. But the basic idea–that Mirkwood is a place of isolation and enchantment–could have been retained. Nor will I buy that the rushed journey was necessary because the pace of the book doesn’t translate well into a movie. The LotR movies did an excellent job conveying the fact that they were traveling long distances over a long period of time. Peter Jackson made us feel rushed, not because he had to, but because he thought it improved the story.
In the original story, remember, we follow the company through a series of unhomely homes. The eagles’ eyrie; Beorn’s house; the elvenpath; the spiders’ webs; the elves’ caverns; the barrels; Laketown; the hidden doorstep; and, finally, the Lonely Mountain itself. These follow a chiastic structure, save for the Lonely Mountain. The eyrie and the doorstep make promises, but they can’t stay there for long. Beorn and Laketown are suspicious of strangers, but welcoming to those who meet their lofty expectations. The elvenpath and the barrels keep the dwarves safe on the road, but are claustrophobic. The spiders and the elves take them prisoner, and Bilbo must help them escape. Then, at the end, the Lonely Mountain: the dwarves are at home, but the rest of the world does not want them to be. This is the human content of The Hobbit, the stuff that makes the action worthy of our attention.
The first movie, however incompletely, recognized that The Hobbit is about home–about having it, losing it, leaving it, looking for it, having to make do without it; about being welcomed as a guest, being barred as a stranger, being captured as an intruder. “The Desolation of Smaug” replaces this all with action. Peter Jackson omits the eagles, has the dwarves abandon the doorstep; has them break into Beorn’s house, break into Laketown (did I mention it has them breaking into the Laketown armory?); eliminates Mirkwood entirely, turns the barrel ride into a battlefield; has Bilbo escape the spiders through straightforward combat, and the elves through–what, dumb luck? Then the dwarves drive Smaug out of the Lonely Mountain with an absurd Rube Goldberg contraption. (I cannot get over the absurdity of the final half hour.)
Hence the rushed pace of the movie: the characters never rest from their travels and never travel for long periods of time because this movie isn’t interested in a journey, it’s interested in the war that Peter Jackson is convinced The Hobbit is really about. We get an endless stream of violence, with the putative main characters–Bilbo and Thorin–hardly saying a word or experiencing an emotion. There are no emotions for them to experience, because the emotions they have in the story as Tolkien wrote it have nothing to do with violence. We spend more time, in fact, following figures we don’t care about at all, mostly the absurd elf-elf-dwarf love triangle, presumably because such a story is more suited to the war-story Peter Jackson wants to tell. Of course, The Hobbit isn’t about war; and this fact forces the movie to make the war omnipresent if we are to be convinced it is there at all. LotR takes as its backdrop a world at war, and then shows the main characters moving through it. “The Desolation of Smaug” doesn’t have that backdrop, and compensates through having violence constantly interrupt the foreground action.
LotR had something else “The Desolation of Smaug” lacks: a real (and beautiful) landscape across which the war and the journey can play themselves out. In this movie, by contrast, everything feels saturated in CGI. It seems like a video game, meaning, not least of all, that we are completely aware that nothing exists beyond the edges of the screen. Mirkwood does not look like a primeval forest, but rather like a CGI artist’s fantasy of what a primeval forest would look like. It certainly does not convey to us the grandeur of Middle Earth. The video game feeling ramps up in the action sequences, of course, with falls from absurd heights, firing arrows while mid-air or while jumping on someone’s head, and other things that draw from the audience impressed laughter rather than a sense of tension. But the problem is not just that the movie fills itself with such scenes; the problem is that it cuts out everything else. There is only violence, with no sense that it is happening anywhere in particular or to anyone we care about.