Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Hobbit Movies

Let me begin by saying up front that I am hugely beholden in all of the below analysis of the novel The Hobbit to Corey Olsen, aka The Tolkien Professor, and his excellent series of lectures (available online) on The Hobbit. Credit where it's due.

Now, let's talk about the upcoming films based on The Hobbit. As you may have heard, the film adaptation of Tolkien's novel The Hobbit is going to be split into two installments. The first, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will apparently cover from the beginning to the novel until Bilbo helps his companions escape from the halls of the Elf-King, leaving the second, The Hobbit: There And Back Again, to cover Bilbo's arrival in Lake-town through the end of the Battle of Five Armies and Bilbo's return home.
Promotional image for An Unexpected Journey property of Warner Bros

Before I go on, let's talk for a second about three-act structure, for those who aren't familiar. You may have heard of this in the context of film trilogies, but at heart it's an idea about individual movies. The basic concept is that a film has three acts: in the first act, the viewer meets the characters, and the stakes of the film are set: i.e., what are the characters hoping to accomplish? The stakes could be anything from "steal the money" to "get the cute boy to notice me" to "make it to White Castle." In the second act, the characters situation gets darker and darker, because they aren't yet capable of doing what they need to to settle the stakes. In the third act, the characters change in a way that lets them finally accomplish their goals and settle the stakes.

Take the original Star Wars movies, and the character of Luke Skywalker in particular, as an example of this unfolding over a trilogy. In A New Hope, we meet Luke Skywalker, a restless farmboy, and after he meets Ben Kenobi and the Empire kills his foster parents, he sets out to accompish two things: stop the Empire, and avenge his father by killing Darth Vader. in The Empire Strikes Back, the Rebellion suffers major setbacks despite Luke's best efforts, while Darth Vader both defeats him in a duel and drops a major bombshell: (thirty-year old spoiler alert) HE is Luke's father! NOOOOOO! In Return of the Jedi, we see a very different Luke from the boy we met in the first movie, a patient, powerful young man, start solving his problems proactively, helping his friends prepare to attack the Empire and then confronting Vader a second time, this time with the intent of of redeeming him. In the end, the rebels destroy the Death Star and Luke saves Vader. Stakes settled, films over.

The Hobbit isn't going to be a trilogy, so I don't want to think about each movie as its own act per se. Instead, I just want to think of it as two three-act structures, one following the other.

So, in the first film, it seems to me we can expect these three acts:

  • Act 1: Begins with Gandalf initially approaching Bilbo. Ends with the arrival of the party in Elrond's house.
  • Act 2: Begins with the party entering the Misty Mountains. Ends with Gandalf leaving them on the threshold of Mirkwood.
  • Act 3: Begins with the party entering Mirkwood, ends with Bilbo rescuing Thorin & Company.
Maybe the film ends with a nice ominous shot of Lonely Mountain in the distance and Bilbo not liking the look of it at all.

In the second film, the act structure might look more like this:
  • Act 1: Begins with the party arriving in Lake-town. Ends with the party approaching the Lonely Mountain.
  • Act 2: Begins with searching for the secret door into the Lonely Mountain. Ends with the destruction of Laketown.
  • Act 3: Begins with the death of the Dragon. Ends with Bilbo departing for home.
The movie may continue after that point, but the rest is epilogue.

This structure - which I must emphasize is purely speculative and doesn't include the White Council material hinted at in the novel The Hobbit and fleshed out in Tolkien's other writings, which we know Jackson et al. are going to be including in the films - suggests some cool things about the films - mostly about what the stakes will be for each movie. Because of course it's not enough for the whole series to have stakes; for each movie to work, it has to have stakes of its own, that are completely resolved by the time the credits role.

We can see this in the Star Wars example: in New Hope, in addition to the larger stakes, the first act sets smaller stakes for Luke as well. They're something like, "Can Luke find a place in the world outside the family farm?" and "Can Luke follow in his father's (and Ben's) footsteps as a Jedi?" The award ceremony at the end of the film resolves both questions: Luke now has a place as a celebrated member of the Rebellion, and his victory came because he was able to call upon the Force to make the shot at the end of the Death Star trench run. The larger questions of the Galactic Rebellion and Luke's father's legacy are unresolved, but the movie has provided answers to enough questions to give us a sense of satisfaction at its conclusion.

(By the way, I haven't thought about it much, but as I think about this I have an intuition that a clumsy intersection of the series-long and movie-by-movie stakes is one of the weaknesses of the prequel series. Thoughts?)

So, vis a vis the Hobbit, we have to have stakes that are introduced before Bilbo leaves Rivendell that are completely resolved before he reaches Laketown, as well as stakes that are introduced before the party begins to search for the secret door that  can be completely resolved in just one movie. Looking at The Hobbit gives us, I think, a pretty clear idea of what those stakes must be - and I think shows that Jackson et al. made a pretty and savvy and informed choice of where to end the first movie, because the journey from Mirkwood to Lake-town marks a pretty major thematic shift in the book.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo has been advertised to the dwarves by Gandalf as a burglar, a experienced adventurer of a kind, when actually he's a middle-aged man of leisure who enjoys the occasional long walk. They're noticeably dismayed when they meet him, and in his unpublished writings Tolkien provided additional material about just how close Thorin was to refusing to take Bilbo along. Bilbo himself has no reason to want anything to do with this dangerous quest; he's quite happy in his peaceful life, and he has no real skills, knowledge or experience to contribute to the party. Tolkien drops a few hints right from the begging that there's a little more to Bilbo than even he realizes, but still, the idea of this quite ordinary and domestic fellow going on a dangerous adventure seems absurd on the face of it. What upsets the scales and drives Bilbo out on to the road is, initially, a realization of how silly and disappointing he is to the dwarves, and a sudden need - a very Tookish need, one might say - to be taken seriously by them, to be thought brave and fiercesome. He impulsively agrees to go in a moment of embarrassment as, essentially, a pose to save face. It's not just a fleeting moment, either: it drives many of his decisions, like trying to steal from the trolls and using the Ring to make a flashy entrance when he reunites with the dwarves after the Misty Mountains.

This will be the central stake of the first movie: can Bilbo win the respect of Thorin & Company? You can tell not just because it makes sense, but because, in the novel, that question is decisively answered - wait for it - with the escape from the Elves. That rescue is the culmination of a series of unlikely heroic acts from Bilbo in Mirkwood that save the dwarves from very nasty ends to their quest, and after that point, while the dwarves don't always agree with Bilbo, nobody will ever question whether he's to be taken seriously. He completely proves himself as competent adventurer.

Likewise, just after that point in the novel is when the company arrives in the neighborhood of the Lonely Mountain, which introduces a major theme we don't see very much in the first half of the book: the idea of the lost glory and prosperity of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. Yes, the story is told to Bilbo at the beginning, and the dwarves sing their famous song about the treasures of the Kingdom, but only when the party arrives in Lake-town does the Kingdom take on a reality beyond the idea of being a place where there's lots of treasure. Lake-town is inhabited by people who used to live in Dale, a city near the Mountain that thrived on a symbiotic relationship with the dwarves. Dale was destroyed along with the Lonely Mountain, and now the people of Lake-town live in diminished circumstances, to the point where they still sing songs about the old prosperity that flowed out from the Mountain, and tell hopeful stories about how wonderful it will be once the King Under the Mountain returns. In Lake-town, we start to see the larger implications of this quest for treasure: it will enrich not just Bilbo and this company of dwarves, but a whole region and all of its peoples. This issue - the prosperity of the whole region - comes to dominate the end of the book; if you notice, Smaug dies right at the beginning of act 3 in my little scheme above; with the dragon out of the picture, the conclusion of this story deals almost exclusively with how the the dwarves, elves and humans will resolve their differences. Those are the real stakes of the second half of The Hobbit, and by having Bilbo and company arrive at Lake-town at the beginning of the second movie, Jackson et al. have positioned themselves perfectly to introduce that stake in their second act 1.

Of course for a really good film adaptation google Hobbit 1977
One final note: as mentioned, Smaug doesn't die at the end of the story. While the question of defeating Smaug is obviously an important one throughout the story, it's not the central stake of The Hobbit, nor is the question of whether Bilbo will escape with treasure: he gives up all claim to it well before the end, and while he does bring back gold and silver, it's only a fraction of what he's promised in the beginning, and to him it's a bit of an afterthought. The real central stake of the whole story is more a challenge Tolkien presents to his readers: "...well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end." To my mind, the trailer released in December promises that that question will be prominent in the story, right at the end:

BILBO: You will promise that I will come back?
GANDALF: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.

Sounds about right to me.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Gleeful Exegesis

I don't watch Community: please understand that. I'm not a member of the elite cadre of virtuous souls that has kept this show alive as long as it has lived. I've seen a smattering of episodes. the first I ever watched was the Dungeons and Dragons episode, since I heard it was pretty good and I like role-playing games - and I'm here to tell you, that episode is probably the best portrayal of role-playing games I've ever seen in any sort of video format (among the most positive as well, but that's not what I mean, I mean the most accurate and engaging). I could go on, but I'm going to hold back, because the point is that I want to let you know that all of the below is not informed by a great deal of familiarity with the show.
I watched episode 3.10 of Community because my friends couldn't stop talking about this song that the character Annie sings:

I watched that video a few times and thought it was pretty funny, but more than that I was just enormously confused (and intrigued!) about the context. What the hell is going? Why is she seducing him with a parodical book number? What are regionals anyway?
So I watched the whole episode on Hulu, enjoyed it immensely, watched all the songs on youtube over and over again... and then I had this thought about how the songs themselves reinforced the theme of the episode, and my English degree let out a mighty roar... and I began to compose an exegesis.

So. Every song in this episode is, in itself, fundamentally false and deceptive. The plan that Abed and Troy hatch to undermine Christmas is explicitly hypocritical, since Troy plans to go on celebrating Christmas forever ("I might have to dedicate my life to Christmas / And act just like I love it til the day I die"). Baby Boomer Santa, as Annie points out, relies on revisionist nostalgia to flatter Pierce's "generation's well-documented historical vanity." Annie's song to Jeff is, as Jeff perceives, a "bit." The song that infects Shirley is a cynically saccharine concoction designed to push her buttons, lampshaded in the line about baking but also present in the political lyrics, which sound so out-of-place coming from children. The original song about glee is a lie Mr. Rad tells Abed, which Abed then repeats himself, and this lie is the central one examined and exploded throughout the episode: the idea that "everything's cooler when cameras are spinning," or said more plainly, that things are better when you disguise the truth, when you "try to make things brighter."

None of these songs are "heart-songs" that come from deeply felt emotions. Sometimes they're a lie the singer tells the listener, such as Annie telling Jeff she's sexually available, or Troy and Abed telling Pierce his generation created everything worthwhile. Sometimes they're a lie the singer tells him- or herself, such as Troy convincing himself celebrating Christmas is consistent with his religion, or Abed telling himself that glee will bring his friends "to a healthier place." The fundamental act of lying is present in each song.

Abed is aware that they're all being deceptive throughout the episode. Lines like "Glee / Is what I'll spread to my friends, like a virus..." and "I might have a loophole" suggest that, unlike the others, he remains aware that what they're doing is fundamentally dishonest. But he's willing to be dishonest in order for everyone to be together and (at least apparently) happy at Christmas. At the glee club performance at the end of the episode, however, Mr. Rad makes him realize that once you start lying it can be hard to stop. Rad's obsession with regionals mirrors Abed's obsession with Christmas: they're both milestones that have become personally important, but are actually intrinsically meaningless. (Actually, the sign-off at the end of the episode - "we'll see you all after regionals" - might be understood as making that equivalence explicit, since it could mean "after the holidays.") Rad won't be satisfied with regionals; there will always be another milestone that has to be reached at any cost. In the same way, having everyone happy at Christmas won't ultimately satisfy Abed, because in itself it doesn't fundamentally change the group dynamic; if Abed wants the Christmas lies to have a lasting effect, he has to keep telling them. "This is what we do now," says Rad as Jeff and the gang jabber like idiots onstage, an idea that horrifies Abed.

Fortunately, Abed has the perfect tool to unravel all of the accumulated falseness: ugly truth. As I mentioned, I don't know much about the characters in terms of their arcs and underlying identities, but I do gather that Brita is an iconoclast, and I wonder if Rad's abhorrence for Brita has something to do with that, with a fundamental fear that she'll destroy the icons that make up his world. In any event, Abed tells Brita to sing her from her heart, and she uncynically does. Obviously the words of Brita's song don't express any deeper truth, but her singing, sans glamor and accompaniment, exposes the emptiness of the whole gleeful enterprise. Even more, it brings forth a much uglier truth from Rad himself, revealing that living so disingenuously is not only empty, but actually dangerous. If your life becomes devoted to lies, you're forced to become more and more callous towards real people in order to maintain them.

Incidentally, I found the coda scene of this episode, with the cast singing "The First Noel" for Abed, a little disappointing on first viewing. It just didn't pack the emotional wallop I was looking for. But I think that's the point. The episode can't end with swelling music and a group hug, because that's not where the group is. But it can end with a sweet gesture and a choice to be together, however reluctantly made. The choice of the carol is a very nice touch: "The First Noel," being about the first appearance of the angels to the shepards, emphasizes the arrival of salvation in a time of great darkness. Using this song makes the point that music can be honest without being hopeless, that our communication with each other can be both truthful and kind. This isn't one of my favorite carols, but the more I think about it the more I like its use here. Some other good choices might have been "We Three Kings," the first verse of which is about a journey to get to Christ, or the wonderfully ambiguous beginning of "O Little Town Of Bethlehem":

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the restless stars go by
But in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight