Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Concerns before the Victorian "Sherlock" Special

If I know anything, it's that nothing gets people coming here more than me complaining about how much of a load of old wank I think Sherlock is. Nonetheless I must admit that, with a sense of disappointment in myself far greater than could be felt by any other towards me for saying this, seeing Benedict Cumberbatch in the Inverness cape and deerstalker with Martin Freeman sporting a bowler hat and moustache does stir something approaching guilty pleasure in the blackened recesses of my icy heart. I must confess, I'm a bit of a Holmes purist. I like my Holmes Victorian, and I don't think the concept actually works very well outside the confines of the late Nineteenth Century. Of course you can read all this and more on my extensive article on the subject.

In any event it looks like the next bit of Sherlock is an out-of-continuity piece set in the times of the original texts, and I'm all in favour of that, or I would be if I had any faith whatever in the two men who write the show, which I don't. One of my numerous issues with Sherlock is its insistence, like New Who, on "cheekiness." For instance, Holmes and Watson have to be mistaken for a gay couple a million times because "ooh wouldn't it be funny if we transposed their living arrangements from the books into the modern day, everyone would think they were gay." Or "ooh, wouldn't it be funny if Holmes met a modern person who was flirting with him, he wouldn't understand." And so forth. A result of all this "wouldn't it be funny" is that half the time characters in Sherlock don't remotely talk or act like people even do in real life in present times. Yet I'm sure we'll wind up with people cracking out fake Victorian euphemisms about Holmes being gay or whatever in the Nineteenth Century which will be even more unrealistic and jarring. So that's something to not look forward to.

Another element of course is the writing in general, the enormously laboured "drama" which characterises the writing of Sherlock and most modern "dramas" in general. What I mean is that "drama" these days mostly seems to constitute close-ups of characters staring into the distance while sad music warbles in the background, people giving big speeches full of hyperbole and slow-motion crying. Now as I stated in my review of The Empty Hearse, the Victorian age was an age of propriety. Emotions were to be expressed very privately, or not at all. Somehow I doubt that the writers will be able to manage this because it's not what gets viewers and sells DVDs in the age of the modern "drama." As a result I'll be incredibly curious to see how they handle that. The common argument is that Sherlock is "a show about a detective" and not "a detective show." That would make sense if the show, as I've said numerous times, didn't labour the same two points every single week: "is Sherlock Holmes a good guy?" Yes. "Are Holmes and Watson really friends?" Yes. Are we still going to get this in the special? It's a flawed premise. The concept of "Sherlock Holmes" as originally conceived revolves around the idea not of exploring the character of an eccentric detective, but of extraordinary crimes and mysteries solved by an eccentric detective. One of the reasons Sherlock never really says anything is because its "Sherlock Holmes," the protagonist it explores, is just some guy Moffat and Gatiss made up. He's based on Conan Doyle's character, yes, but he's far from being the same thing. Therefore too much exploration of his character borders on irrelevance. The transposition to a modern setting was presumably meant to shed light on the concept, but anything vaguely relevant to the original written character was thoroughly covered in the first series, and possibly the first episode. Maybe this 'special' is just going to be a "romp."

The third and final part of the unholy trinity of big problems with Sherlock is of course how incredibly smug the show is. As far as shows go, Sherlock has its head so far up its own arse that it's coming back out of its own mouth again. And now that you've digested that fairly disgusting image, consider this: we've already had tonnes of knowing nods to the old books, with puns on original titles, Holmes using the deerstalker as some kind of personal branding, and even awareness of its own fanbase in "The Empty Hearse." So how bad can we expect this to be in a show that fully embraces the smug self-awareness which consistently undermines the show's drama if it's set in the very era it so dearly loves to reference? Coy remarks about things that might happen in the future, perhaps? I dread to think.

I'll say this for starters: I hope to high heaven that the bits where Mister Cumberbatch is clad in the stereotypical Sidney Paget illustration gear (the deerstalker et al, don't you know) are set in the countryside, because as any right-thinking student of Holmes and Victoriana knows it would not have even crossed one's mind to wear such an outfit in the Metropolis. And I hope they tone down the cheekiness, the self-referentiality and the "drama" for the sake of the setting. On the other hand, of course, Victorian Britain had just as many drug addicts, perverts and public urinators as we have today, they just pretended that they didn't. So obviously there is room for Victorian-style Sherlock to be shocking... or, perhaps, Sherlocking? Anyway. It could be good. I'd like it to be good. I don't think it will be good, but maybe the fact that during Series 3 people seemed to wake up to the fact that the Sherlock Emperor was not wearing so many clothes as he first appeared has jolted Moffat and Gatiss out of their torpor. Or maybe they'll just do what this cabal of writers usually do - as recently witnessed in their associate Chris Chibnall's response to criticisms of Broadchurch Series 2 - and declare that all their critics are simply wrong and stupid and that there's nothing they could improve.

I really must make clear, and I know that this is a cliché thing to say, but if you want good, proper adaptations of Holmes stories that are true to the tone, setting and characters then you basically can't go wrong with the 80s and 90s Granada TV series starring Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective. I'd say Brett's Holmes is a little more flippant than the written character, but that's about it. Maybe this Sherlock special will approach that, but people have been making half-arsed Victorian Holmes telemovies for years and they never really seem to fully grasp the situation.

Urgh I just realised their Moriarty might be in it. Can't wait until December...

"No one's forcing you to watch it."

Piss off.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Wellington after the film industry collapses.
After "The Desolation of Smaug" my expectations for the third film in Peter Jackson's adaptation of "The Hobbit" were fairly abysmal, and the trailers, with all their Legolas and weaponised trolls, hadn't made me feel very optimistic. One might be surprised to learn, therefore, that my opinion of the final instalment is more positive than I expected because I actually felt like the first half of the film was reasonably decent. This of course puts me in the awkward halfway house, where I'm neither fully on board with those who think that the film was a non-stop disaster or with those who think that Peter Jackson and his team spew magic rainbows from their fingers as soon as they touch a camera. That's just the way it goes, of course, although it's probably only representative of how modernity's pillaging and misrepresentation of everything from its twentieth century heritage has worn me down, much like the armies in this film, in a war of attrition. My main issue with the film is similar to the one I had with the previous film, really: that there's too much drawn-out action in the second half of the film, in addition to some ongoing problems with narrative focus.
Who's this guy again?
It's recap time. As we all remember, at the end of the previous film Smaug wasn't having any of Thorin and Company's nonsense and as a result inexplicably decided that instead of turning them into Original Recipe Chicken right there he would instead piss off to Lake-Town and exact petty revenge on their allies instead. The depiction of the dragon's destruction of the watery city is fairly brutal and I did find the apocalyptic imagery reasonably confronting. I didn't really manage to comprehend how Bard escaped from his needlessly make-shift looking, tilted, over-the-canal prison, however, nor how Stephen Fry's Master temporarily survived his seemingly fatal squeezing in the rope used for said escape, but the main thing that struck me was the long focus on Tauriel and the plight of Bard's children: all well and good, but it is fairly odd to consider how all these invented characters (and Bain) get the spotlight here. I also must admit that the depiction of the Master of Lake-Town rather lacks Professor Tolkien's subtlety, does it not? He couldn't be more blatantly negligent and corrupt if he tried. In any event, Bard's method of slaying of the dragon is pretty ludicrous. It also ignores the foreshadowing of the ballista weapon depicted in the previous film. I don't know why these films, and action cinema in general at the moment, are so obsessed with weird contrived ways of portraying weapons and other devices. That being said, Smaug's death is pretty horrifying and all in all I thought this sequence was not bad as they go: the dragon's dead, but they're still in hot water, as it were.
"Do you have any bog roll? We're gasping out here."
Bard's unofficial assumption of the leadership of the people of Lake-Town was again portrayed reasonably. We of course have to deal with the issue of the rest of Thorin and company getting to Erebor, so they just grab a boat and piss off without bothering to help the people who sheltered them or anything, which I felt was a telling example of how in these films their efforts to both add to the story and retain the original storyline often mean things happen unnaturally or arbitrarily. We get some Kíli and Tauriel guff but I'll not dwell on that, because in all honesty it just didn't do anything for me. Legolas appears and disappears seemingly at random in these sequences, at first telling Tauriel that they have to go somewhere, then appearing again with the Lake Men later having not gone anywhere except with them. Eventually however they're informed that they need to head for Mount Gundabad although I can't remember how they figure out that it's important. One thing that annoyed me in all these sequences with the Lake Men was the invented character of Alfrid who kept showing up. Who cares? I didn't find him funny, and would have preferred if less screentime had been wasted on him - and by 'less' I mean 'no.' If they couldn't work Imrahil into "The Return of the King" this guy shouldn't get a spot.
"Get the barber, someone's going to think I'm a Dwarf."
The arrival of the remaining Dwarves at the Mountain means that we finally get a bit of time with Bilbo, who has barely appeared so far, although admittedly the book does indeed divert from him to dwell on the fortunes of the Lake Men at this point in the story. Thorin's dragon sickness is a pretty sudden change and I felt like it's another element which would have benefited from greater subtlety. I did appreciate the construction of the bulwark across the door of the mountain, however. Of course our main point of interest at this time is the rescue of Gandalf from Dol Guldur. It's a strange sequence, particularly insofar as Elrond and Saruman's fight with the Nazgûl seems rather pointless. Also, I don't know why the designs of the Ringwraiths were changed from the films of "The Lord of the Rings." Galadriel's confrontation with Sauron is interesting - it's nice to see him described as the "Servant of Morgoth" - but the way it's portrayed is confusing, especially because it seems to involve Galadriel's Elven Ring, and those were never really dealt with in the other films. In the books, of course, we learn that Sauron's departure from Dol Guldur was a ruse, but this just makes matters confusing. Is Sauron actually being driven away here, or leaving of his own volition?
"You can get the lot of us from Games Workshop
for the very reasonable price of £118."
The Lake Men come to Dale and meet up with Thranduil's forces. He's not very pleasant, is he? Nonetheless I liked Bard's failed parley with Thorin and the matter of honour. We see more of our Five Armies gathering as we see Azog's army marching in full armour without any apparent supply train towards the Mountain, and he sends Bolg off to Gundabad to get another army for some reason. Gandalf shows up in Dale, Bilbo gets horrified by Thorin's dragon sickness, has a chat with Balin, and pisses off to hand over the Arkenstone, we see more of the annoying Alfrid character and we get some more conversations about how they might avoid war. I know I'm rushing through this, but in all honesty I didn't find any of this particularly objectionable so really I don't have that much to mention. I liked that Bilbo was allowed to escape by the other Dwarves and the general sense of how irrational their situation was, thirteen of them trying to hold out against armies.
"I... think something just slid up the wrong way."
Then Billy Connolly shows up riding a pig. Here's another army with no supply train or anything just showing up for a fight. It's not very well established how Thorin was able to request Dáin's assistance, but we get distracted from this when Azog sets up a command post and brings forth his armies via... giant tunnelling worms. Uh huh. Right, well, this is the point at which I started to question things a little. Why don't the giant burrowing grubs just burrow straight into the mountain? Why don't they fight the Elves and Men and Dwarves? Who knows. What's more, loads and loads of different weird trolls with odd weapons show up like something out of Harry Potter. Don't get me wrong, I like Harry Potter, but it's a different thing to this. Suddenly we have all these massive, weird, fake-looking CGI trolls running all over the place carrying on and it honestly rather spoiled things for me, because I feel like the more realistic depictions of battlefield tactics (besides Elves jumping on Dwarves' heads) were reasonably interesting and confrontational. Besides, we saw in the first film that Trolls are killed by sunlight. What happened? They don't look much like the Olog-hai from "The Return of the King," so how come they're not all turning to stone?
Elvish Ferrari.
Dale's getting overrun, we get more nonsense with Alfrid, stuff with Bard's kids, all sorts of strange trolls and a general sense of despair as everything goes to hell in a handcart with more and more Orcs showing up, as they are wont to do. Now I was starting to get a bit frustrated. Bilbo of course gets knocked out during the battle and wakes up when it's over, but we see everything here in all its gory detail, albeit sanitised in the sense that apart from a few scrapes there's virtually no blood in the film. Dwalin confronts Thorin, who proceeds to have a strange hallucination about falling into a squashy golden floor which allows him to overcome his dragon-sickness somehow. I honestly preferred the part when he saw the acorn Bilbo was keeping. He discards all his fancy armour and the thirteen of them sally forth to lend their aid, Thorin realising that they ought to kill Azog in order to bring things to a conclusion. I'm not sure how valid that really is, but there you go. Big rams materialise out of nowhere and Thorin, Dwalin, Fíli and Kíli all race off to have their showdown with the Orc leaders atop the icy Ravenhill.
"What conditioner do you use?"
The problem is, it's really an extended sub-battle between Thorin and Azog and Legolas and Bolg. Fíli, who admittedly has been pretty inconsequential, is anticlimactically killed by Azog to piss off the others. The two Elves show up and Kíli too gets killed trying to defend Tauriel. Meanwhile Thorin is fighting Azog and it goes forever, with Azog insisting on using an improvised flail. Simultaneously, Legolas has an extremely set-piece-laden showdown with Bolg, involving riding on bats, knocking over towers and using collapsing towers as staircases in ways which I'm fairly sure don't gel terribly well with the laws of physics. There's also a pointless bit where "Goblin mercenaries" show up for no reason. Dwalin disappears at some point in all this, failing to help anyone. Probably snuck off for a cheeky piss to write his name in the snow. Bilbo arrives with the use of the Ring to reveal that it's a trap, what with the Gundabad army on route, but gets knocked out by Bolg's mace.
"Series 2 of Vicious still isn't done?"
In any event, I thought that Thorin's duel with Azog and Legolas' with Bolg were just way too long and drawn out. The first half of the film had been contemplative, relatively dialogue-heavy and somewhat character and plot driven. This is just an extended action set piece, and I realised that there'd been very little significant dialogue for ages. Legolas finally kills Bolg, while Thorin sacrifices himself to kill Azog, who uses a predictable method of playing dead for a bit of a shock. I found all this stuff pretty boring, although Bilbo's final conversation with Thorin, taken as it was more or less from the book, was reasonable. I was more interested in this than Thranduil's conversation with Tauriel, or the rather naff reference to Aragorn when Legolas inexplicably decides to go journeying.
"You're not even my real father!"
After this, however, there is little to no closure. The Dwarves all rank up in two rows, which they do a couple of times in the film, to farewell Bilbo, who heads home. There's nothing about what happens to Dale or the Lake Men, nothing about the re-establishment of the Kingdom Under the Mountain and really nothing about what the consequences are for the plans of Sauron. All that happens is that we see Gandalf and an obvious small body double for Martin Freeman riding through some fields. Bilbo lies about losing the Ring, Gandalf's final words from the book taken on a sinister aspect, and we get the auction, which was a nice conclusion, although I felt like the shots of Hobbiton make it look barely inhabited. I don't know if that was intentional. Finally, we segue back into the early scenes of "The Fellowship of the Ring," in which Gandalf's lines about Bilbo having not "aged a day" are notably absent, because Martin Freeman quite clearly would have had to have aged a day or two to become Ian Holm. So ends the Hobbit trilogy.
"Hence my nickname: 'Nicey' Ackerman."
I won't dwell on this much longer because I've said my piece as far as the film itself goes. I'm more interested in discussing the deviations from the source material. Before I get to that, my concluding thoughts are that I feel like the one main issue with the film is that the action sequences are overwrought - there's another horrible one I neglected to mention about Bard riding a cart down a narrow street - and the film succeeds when it focuses on characters, conversation and conflict rather than simply on stunt fights and effects shots. As usual, the source material gets pretty mangled, but that's to be expected. Overall, I'd probably come away from this saying that "The Battle of the Five Armies" is the best of the three Hobbit films, but it's still very flawed and inconsistent. The invented characters and plots don't add enough to the story to justify their heavy focus, there are some fairly obvious plot holes, the tone of the film changes too drastically between the first and second halves and it ends, in my opinion, rather anticlimactically. If the character of Alfrid, the Tauriel material and the different silly monsters were extricated it would probably be a stronger product overall, but that wouldn't change the fact that the film is fundamentally undermined by its efforts to hybridise Bilbo's narrative with that of Thorin's, when his isn't inherently important. I note that in an interview for this film Peter Jackson said "The Hobbit is the story of Thorin Oakenshield’s quest for the Lonely Mountain." No it isn't. It's the story of Bilbo's character development. The Mountain is just a plot device. Thorin is a supporting character used to explore the theme of greed. That's why these films don't work: it doesn't matter whether you do or don't alter the source material when you don't fundamentally understand the source material in the first place. Maybe it's just marketing speak and he knows it's not true, because no one could possibly read The Hobbit and think it was about anything other than Bilbo at a fundamental level. My final thoughts are really the same as those for the previous two films: there's some interesting material in here, but like Thorin's kingly armour the true greatness is hidden among material which should have been cast aside.

This is how I felt just before it started.
Story Notes 3 - Some final major changes from the Real Story and the Original Text
1. Fire and Water
Smaug's attack on Lake-Town is reminiscent of the book. In the book, however, Bard slays Smaug alone with his bow and the Black Arrow, an heirloom of his family. Smaug certainly never speaks to Bard. Also, in the book Smaug's weak spot is a place on his underbelly which is not encrusted with gems, not a place where a scale was knocked off long ago. I'm unsure why they cut the element of Smaug being festooned with jewels in this film. Bilbo sees this weak spot and tells the Dwarves. This information is overheard by a Thrush, which relays this information to Bard. As heir of Girion, Bard is surprised to discover that he understands bird-speech and thus learns of Smaug's weakness. As most of the talking animals were cut for the film, the Thrush from the earlier films has no presence here.

2. The Master of Lake-Town
It's worth mentioning that in the book the Master survives the destruction of the town and indeed almost to the end of the story. Balin informs Bilbo much later, at Bag End, that the Master was given gold by Bard to aid in the reconstruction of the town, but absconded with much of it into the wastes, where he was abandoned by his followers and died.
3. Fíli, Kíli, Óin and Bofur
In the book of course these four were with the rest of the company the whole time, so there was no need for them to head for the mountain later. 

4. Bard's children
In the book, nothing is said of Bard's children. We know from The Lord of the Rings that he had a son, Bain, as the son is named in the film, but he's not mentioned in The Hobbit and may not have even been born by that time. Nothing is mentioned regarding daughters. 

5. Alfrid
The character and everything he does is an invention of the filmmakers with nothing very comparable in the book apart from vague mentions of the Master's servants. 

6. Tauriel
Once again, Tauriel is also an invention of the filmmakers with no precedent in the book. There's no romance with Kíli and during these events the only noteworthy Elf is Thranduil, the Elvenking. 

7. Legolas
The character wasn't invented until the writing of The Lord of the Rings. While he may well have been present at the battle, he's never mentioned. He obviously wasn't at Lake-Town fighting Orcs, because that never happened in the book. Needless to say no Elves (Legolas or otherwise) make a scouting expedition to Mount Gundabad in the book either. It's actually more heavily implied that word travels through the communications of birds in the book.

8. Mount Gundabad
This was an ancient sacred site of the Dwarves at the northern end of the Misty Mountains where Durin the Deathless awoke during the First Age. It had been lost to Orcs since the Second Age. In the book, the only Orc army comes from Gundabad, where Bolg was ruler. No army came from Dol Guldur. In the film Gundabad is presented as a sort of gateway to Angmar, the old kingdom ruled by the Lord of the Nazgûl, but it wasn't really. The capital of Angmar was actually a place about which very little is known called Carn Dûm, which lay at the other end of the Mountains of Angmar, a westward branch of the northern end of the Misty Mountains which began near Gundabad. 

9. Azog and Bolg
As everyone probably knows, by the time of the events of The Hobbit Azog had been dead for nearly one hundred and fifty years, killed at the doors of Moria by Dáin Ironfoot at the conclusion of the Battle of Azanulbizar. His son Bolg ruled the Orcs of the Mountains from Gundabad. It is actually Bolg who mortally wounds Thorin in the Battle of the Five Armies, before being himself slain by Beorn in bear's shape. It's worth emphasising as well that while in the film they dance around the issue of Azog and Bolg being family, describing Bolg as the "spawn" of Azog, in the book Bolg is quite literally his son. Of course we've seen in the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings this notion of Orcs being spawned out of amniotic sacs in some strange magical cloning facility. In fact, they quite simply reproduced sexually just like the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves and Men) of which they were corrupted versions. 

10. Dol Guldur, Angmar the Necromancer and the White Council
We know almost nothing about what actually happened when the White Council attacked Dol Guldur: if they came on their own, as happens here, or if they brought an army. Gandalf was not captured, of course - he'd been to Dol Guldur twice before, and came with the rest of the Council on this occasion. Nonetheless, we do know that "It was by the devices of Saruman," not Galadriel, that Sauron was driven from Dol Guldur, which incidentally was not a ruined fortress but rather a thriving stronghold of the Dark Lord. That being said, Sauron's departure from Dol Guldur was actually a ruse to lull the Council into a false sense of security. While Gandalf believed that Sauron wished to recapture the North and regain the lands of Angmar, it was actually his intention to depart for Mordor, which had been prepared for him by the Ringwraiths. As such it's also highly probable that the majority of the Ringwraiths, or perhaps all of them, were not present at Dol Guldur at that time, because they were busy down south at Minas Morgul preparing Mordor for Sauron's return. Later, when Sauron began using Dol Guldur again, at least two Ringwraiths were in charge of Dol Guldur, including Khamûl the Black Easterling. 

11. Gondor
Gondor's mentioned a couple of times in the film, the first being when Elrond states that they will need to be warned. Actually, Gondor had been in a state of limited conflict with Sauron's forces for about five hundred years since the Lord of the Nazgûl sent out an army from Minas Morgul to overrun Ithilien, Eastern Gondor. Minas Morgul itself had been conquered five hundred years before that, so Gondor had actually been dealing with Sauron's servants for a thousand years prior to this. Gandalf in the film claims that Sauron's reconquest of the North would threaten "even Gondor" but that's not terribly realistic. Angmar was very distant from Gondor, and Sauron's return to Mordor was a far more dangerous matter for them. It's also worth noting that from a writing point of view Gondor hadn't been invented when The Hobbit was written. Professor Tolkien at that point had not narrated the affairs of the Dúnedain after the downfall of Númenor, and didn't conceptualise Gondor, originally called 'Ond', until he came to write The Lord of the Rings. 

12. Legolas' mother and the War with Angmar
We know nothing whatsoever about Legolas' mother, and while Elves had been involved with the war against Angmar earlier in the Third Age, the Elves of Mirkwood weren't among them. There's never any indication in the book that Legolas' mother died or anything to that effect. 

13. Dwarves and Animals
In the film we see Dáin riding some kind of war-boar, and at another point Thorin and co take a leaf straight from Blizzard Entertainment and ride on big rams into battle. In actual fact, Dwarves are never described as employing cavalry. Furthermore, it's stated in "Of Dwarves and Men" if I recall correctly (in the final volume of The History of Middle-earth) that Dwarves weren't fond of animals in general, not even keeping pets such as dogs. We know they rode ponies for transport and used horse-drawn wagons but they never used cavalry or rode animals into battle. In any event cavalry in Middle-earth was true to history: people rode horses into battle. Showing people riding things like pigs and goats is a later Fantasy cliché. The only such unusual mounts in Professor Tolkien's narratives are when Orcs ride Wargs or wolves.

14. The Five Armies
While it's correct that three of the armies were Men, Elves and Dwarves, there weren't two armies of Orcs, and the one Orc army came from the Mountains, not from Dol Guldur. Rather, the other two armies were considered to be Orcs and Wolves, although admittedly some of the Wolves were being ridden by Orcs. Some interpretations argue that the Eagles were the fifth army and that the Orcs and Wolves were one. In any event, there was only one Orc army.

15. The Orcs of the Mountains
It's also worth noting that the Orc army, or Goblin army as it's called in the book, had actually come from the Misty Mountains, Mount Gundabad and the Grey Mountains to avenge the death of the Great Goblin and to try to claim the treasure. They weren't on a mission from Sauron. It's useful to explain that all Orcs at the end of the Third Age were, in one form or another, under Sauron's control, but Orc-realms like those in the Mountains still had their own leadership and waged their own wars independently from Sauron's commands. They were distinct from Sauron's personal "trained armies." At the same time, Sauron had united them in hatred of Elves and Men so they could be expected to serve his interests even when he wasn't telling them what to do. As a final note, judging by the Orc-captains seen and fought by the Fellowship in Moria over seventy years later, it appears that eventually Sauron did send Orcs of his own forces to take control of the Mountain Orcs so that they would more effectively serve his agenda.

16. Ravens
So how do Dáin and his Dwarves manage to show up at the mountain at that time? The reason is that in the book Thorin sent messages via talking Ravens to the Iron Hills. The Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain had enjoyed a long friendship with these talking birds. They lived, appropriately enough, on Ravenhill. In the book their leader is Roäc son of Carc, a very old Raven. He also serves as interpreter between the aforementioned talking Thrush (which spoke its own language) and the Dwarves to inform them of Smaug's death. Roäc counselled Thorin against aggression, but aided Thorin anyway because of his loyalty to the Dwarves.

17. Dáin Ironfoot
Dáin was indeed Lord of the Iron Hills and Thorin's cousin, his second cousin to be precise. They had the same great-grandfather, Dáin I. In the films he appears to be older than Thorin, but actually he was over twenty years younger than him. He didn't ride a pig and he wielded an axe in battle, not a hammer. We know this because the axe is mentioned when he kills Azog at the Battle of Azanulbizar. In the film Gandalf claims that he's less reasonable than Thorin, but in actual fact he comes across in the book as a good deal more wise, honourable and indeed heroic than most Dwarves, including Thorin. For instance, he had the wisdom to declare to Thorin's father Thráin after Azanulbizar that they would not re-enter Moria, due to the continuing presence of the Balrog, and after the Battle of the Five Armies he honoured Thorin's agreement with the Lake-Men. After the Battle of the Five Armies he, as next in line of Durin's Folk, became King Under the Mountain. Under his rule the Dwarves and their allies in the re-established Dale prospered again. He fell defending the body of King Brand, grandson of Bard, at the gates of Erebor when the Easterlings attacked Dale in the War of the Ring.

18. The Dwarves of the Iron Hills
The Iron Hills was what might be considered a "colony" of Dwarves a few days' march east of the Lonely Mountain. It was probably one of the easternmost points of "free" Middle-earth at that time. While it had been mined by the Dwarves for a very long time, it had become well-established as a settlement around the time of Thrór's re-founding of Erebor. In the Third Age, the Dwarves of Durin's Folk suffered many disasters. The first and greatest was losing Khazad-dûm, their ancestral city and kingdom in the Misty Mountains, to the Balrog, a demon which had hidden beneath the peaks since the end of the First Age. Afterwards they relocated to the Grey Mountains and the Lonely Mountain, but the original settlement in the Lonely Mountain was short-lived as the Grey Mountains were rich in gold and the Dwarves joined their kinsfolk there. Dragons, however, attacked the Grey Mountains from the North and the Dwarves were forced to flee another home. The dragons had killed King Dáin I and his second son Frór, so his first son and heir Thrór, Thorin's grandfather, led some of the Dwarves back to the Lonely Mountain, while the third son, Grór, Thrór's youngest brother, led the rest to the mines in the Iron Hills.
Eventually of course the Lonely Mountain was lost to Smaug, but the Iron Hills survived. Many Dwarves from Erebor resettled there, and the rest eventually settled far in the west in the Blue Mountains, which had also housed two Dwarf-kingdoms long ago in the First Age. Those had been destroyed at the end of that age. So Thorin was in the Blue Mountains, but the major Dwarf settlement was at the Iron Hills. Dáin Ironfoot became Lord after his grandfather Grór - Dáin's father Náin was killed by Azog in the Battle of Azanulbizar before the death of Grór - and seems to have spent effort in making sure their land was secure. Gandalf observed that before the Lonely Mountain was recovered, the Iron Hills was the only place of serious military strength in Rhovanion which would have been able to resist the forces of Sauron.
We get a description of the Iron Hills Dwarves too in the book which is rather different to their plate-armoured forms in the films. Note that there was no plate-armour in Middle-earth; this would have conflicted with the early medieval flavour of Professor Tolkien's writing, which evoked an age when mail was the best armour available. The Dwarves wore knee-length mail, metal mesh leggings, iron boots and iron caps, and each was equipped with both a two-handed mattock and a broadsword and shield as weaponry. Each also came bearing a heavy pack of supplies, a noteworthy contrast to the armies in the film which all show up from nowhere with no food or logistical equipment. The fact that Dáin was able to assemble an army of five hundred Dwarven soldiers, well-equipped and supplied, many of whom were veterans of the old war against Azog, suggests that he kept the Iron Hills in readiness for such evil days, further evidence towards the apparently extraordinary competence of Dáin.

19. Bilbo in Battle
In the book Bilbo is knocked out early in the battle and misses most of it. Incidentally, he spends it with Gandalf and Thranduil on one of the flanks, not running errands for Gandalf and the Dwarves.

20. The Final Duels
In the book there's no big multifaceted confrontation on Ravenhill. In fact that's where Bilbo and Gandalf were holding out with the Elves. Thorin actually fell to Bolg and his guards in a reckless charge through the valley between the arms of the mountain, after which  Beorn smashed through the Orc ranks, rescued Thorin, and returned to kill Bolg. While Thorin survived the battle and died later of his wounds, Fíli and Kíli were slain by Bolg and his guards while defending Thorin. The entire sequence with Kíli, Tauriel, Legolas, Thorin, Azog and Bolg in the film bears practically no relation to anything that happens in the book apart from the fact that Thorin is mortally wounded in combat with the Orc leader and his two nephews are slain defending him. In the book, of course, that leader is Bolg - Azog was long dead. 

21. Thranduil
In the book Thranduil and his Elves help Bard and the Lake-Men out of charity, not simply to recover some jewels, although he was interested in claiming the treasure.

22. Radagast
Radagast wasn't at the Battle of Five Armies, nor do we ever hear anything about him being involved in the attack on Dol Guldur. As I said in my article for the first film, there's no evidence that he was even a member of the White Council. He might have been, but it can't be proved. Personally I think he was probably a member "on paper," or at least was supposed to be a member, but never showed up to meetings. In any event, he wasn't around.

23. Were-worms
These are mentioned by Bilbo at the party at the beginning of the book, but that's the only time the phrase ever occurs. There's no evidence that they really existed outside of Hobbit legend, and they certainly weren't used by Orcs as a method of tunnelling, in the Battle or anywhere else.

24. The Return Journey
In the book Bilbo and Gandalf travel back to western Wilderland with Beorn and stay at his house before moving on to Rivendell and finally Hobbiton. Gandalf is still with Bilbo when he gets back to Bag End, although the book doesn't mention what he did when Bilbo discovered the auction and the declaration of his death. The book ends not with the events of The Lord of the Rings beginning but rather with Balin and Gandalf visiting Bilbo only a few years later, so that Bilbo, and by extension the reader, can discover what happened afterwards to the various characters.

25. 'The'
In the book it's just "the Battle of Five Armies." Not "The Five Armies." There's probably some lunatic corporate reason for that definite article. 

I think that's pretty much it. If I think of anything in the meantime I'll add it in, but nothing comes to mind. It appears that interest in these films has died down pretty rapidly in the public sphere since this final instalment, outside of the more enthusiastic film-fan forums. The thing I'm left with in hindsight is, I suppose, a vague sense of bafflement: one can only assume that Warner Bros.' interference was so substantial that the filmmakers had no choice, despite the vast resources at their disposal, to produce this ultimately unfulfilled trilogy. I know some people think they're as good as the earlier films (which I still happen to think are very flawed) and it's all a matter of taste but I just don't see it. There are characters ready for development who are never developed, while new characters are invented and given plentiful screentime. Plot threads are introduced that don't serve the interests of the main plot. Themes are contradicted by the manner of their representation. This is a badly fumbled trilogy, in my view, directed by a man who, at the end of the day, didn't really want to do it. As a consequence they're a messy, forgettable series of set pieces severely lacking in focus and conviction. Who knows what way Hollywood is going to repurpose Professor Tolkien's work next, but it wouldn't be a difficult job to learn from the mistakes of this lot.
"...a pit, a window into nothing."

"...I know you didn't like the film, but that's a bit strong."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" by Wes Anderson

I just checked, and I've confirmed that I've never seen a Wes Anderson film before this one, so you'll excuse me if I don't recognise any of his usual schtick. I've been a bit desperate for something interesting to talk about on here for a while; the usual subjects of "New Who isn't much good" and "people on the internet are stupid" haven't seemed worth writing about lately, so I was glad to strike upon a film which captured my interest. I don't intend for this to be a review, per se - more of a reading, but I'll at least say that I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, although I wasn't completely amazed by it. Nonetheless it's a recent film which I'd actually recommend, and they seem to be few and hard to come by lately. The reason The Grand Budapest Hotel fired my imagination in particular was because I've been reasonably interested in Late Modern European history recently, a topic with which I feel the film rather substantially engages. I've particularly been interested in the bits that don't make it into one's school education; I regrettably lacked the space on my university timetable to read History, and in any event was foolishly uninterested in it as an undergraduate to my possible loss. Nonetheless a recent revival of interest on my part has allowed me to pursue subjects of personal curiosity at my own leisure, and particularly the goings-on of Central Europe over the last two hundred years or so. Thus my reading of the film is as follows: that it questions the particular concept and representation of interbellum Europe and the concept of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century, interrogating how reliable and authentic modern culture's image of that place and period in history is. I'm sure this is a subject which other writers have discussed, but I wanted to express my thoughts on my own. For what it's worth, The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me of two texts in particular: the Tintin comics by Hergé, and particularly the instalment "King Ottokar's Sceptre," in regards to the cultural-historical representation of the film, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James in regards to the manner of the narrative.

The narrative itself is one which presents multiple layers of narration: the story is the recollection of youthful experiences by an old man, relayed to a young author, who himself recorded this information as an older man in a piece of writing being read by a young woman in the present day. Thus there are, to my reckoning, four levels of narration: the book being read by the young woman, the older author's recollection of the story, the narrator's recollection of the story to the author as a young man, and the narrator's actual experience of events as a youth. This obviously affects how the story is presented; for instance, the protagonist, one of two, named Zero Moustafa, actively delays discussing his long-dead wife Agatha, and introduces her abruptly. There is a question of reliability. This is just one part of how Anderson, to my mind, evokes the notion that the modern, arguably nostalgic, vision of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century is fundamentally an unreliable one.

Further evidence accumulates in terms of the film's presentation. The heavy use of modelwork on, for instance, mountain cable cars, the hotel's lifts and indeed the hotel itself all convey a sense of artificiality. This is further accentuated by the quasi-historical nature of the setting. It is primarily set in a fictional Central European nation, "Zubrowka," during a Fascist uprising in 1932, one year off from the Nazi's seizure of power in Germany. The Fascists themselves border upon reality without fully duplicating it, evoking the awkward status of German-aligned Nazi imitators in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the like during the Second World War. The names are a complete mish-mash of Germanic, Slavic and Francophone referents, and similarly the characters' accents simply retain those of their actors, combining English, Irish, American and French accents and more besides without any particular consistency. This is particularly embodied in the character of the other protagonist, Zero Moustafa's employer Monseiur Gustave, an English-sounding man with a French name who runs a Central European hotel. Combined with the bright purple hoteliers' uniforms, the Fascist military garb, the really quite Alcatraz-like prison inmates and the mountainous, snowy geography an image emerges of this period as a hazy and chaotic hybridisation of innumerable cultural and historical signifiers which serve to highlight the artificiality of the stereotypical image of this era in Europe. It is of course further emphasised by the state of the hotel in the "1968" era, in which Zubrowka has clearly been subsumed into the Eastern Bloc, and its Soviet-brutalist external architecture is matched by the tacky orange plastic-and-vinyl interior as a contrasting and reflecting historical stereotype. The effect is to throw this cultural picture of "chocolate-box Europe" into stark relief by exploring the idea that completely fictional historical and geographical images are just as capable of signifying a particular time period in the cultural consciousness as real places and events.

Thus the film considers this imaginary construct of a real time and space. It is further referenced in the screenplay by the juxtaposition of the notional setting to the frequent use of modern idiom and colloquialism in the screenplay. The language of several characters in the "1932" era is even more modern than most of the language in the framing "1968" setting. As such the film serves to propose how utterly disconnected from reality artistic representations of the past generally are, such that a moustachioed Ralph Fiennes in a "1932" prison can earnestly inform his visiting partner in crime Zero of his familiarity with the necessity of avoiding being a "candy ass" while claiming that he derived such knowledge from reading Penny Dreadfuls. Thus is established a juxtaposition of the cultural perception of this time in Europe, as a sadly-lost period of fine living crushed by Fascism and Modernity, with the more accurate historical argument of its status as part of the extremely drawn-out death rattle of the Nineteenth Century and the Victorian Era. This is put forward by the older Zero, who claims that Fiennes' Monsieur Gustave "sustained the illusion" of a world which truly perished before Gustave's own time. Gustave's character, whose swearing and seduction of aged noblewomen is juxtaposed to his graciousness, friendliness and public propriety, underscores the notion of the interbellum's supposed glamour and decorum as a facade, albeit not one without its own virtues. This is also on another textual level underscored by Gustave's love of Romantic poetry, which in real literary history had completely fallen from grace by this time in favour of Modernism. Romanticism was in fact viewed as a badly ageing movement before the end of the Nineteenth Century and even blamed in certain quarters for promoting and enabling the kind of careless attitudes which were held responsible for the unprecedented wastefulness and destructiveness of the First World War. Gustave's failure to ever completely recite any of his poems, and the fact that many of them aren't very good, symbolise the concept that Romantic Europe was already dead, but that society had not entirely come to terms with it by that point, and perhaps still hasn't. Dmitri's desperate desire to recover the "Boy with Apple" painting similarly represents a vain wish to cling to the Romantic past: in Dmitri's case the painting symbolises the immense wealth, status and dignity of a bygone age. The fact that it later hangs forgotten behind the counter in the hotel attests to the ultimate futility of this desire to keep that period alive for whatever reason, and Zero's replacement of it in Dmitri's house with a piece of confronting erotica further reinforces the notion that the Romantic age was just as "improper" as any other time and simply pretended that it wasn't. Thus the film also draws attention to this regretful dream that Romantic Europe was killed by Fascism: it wasn't - it had died a decade and a half earlier in the trenches.

In this way The Grand Budapest Hotel also engages with the modern cultural image of the 1930s adventure narrative. It thus evokes not only Tintin, which is actually from the period, but also later representations of cultural significance like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It particularly draws attention to the idea of interbellum Europe as a place of adventure and derring-do, represented by, for instance, Gustave's ridiculous escape from prison and Zero and Gustave's sled-chase of Willem Dafoe's skiing SS-style enforcer Jopling, after which they, as such adventure characters so often do, stand around lightly clothed in the snow unaffected by the freezing conditions. The ultimate encapsulation of this is when Adrien Brody's Dmitri and a crowd of alarmed Fascist soldiers shoot up a hotel balcony in confusion while hitting no one whatsoever, such that Zero is capable of running through the fusillade to attempt to rescue Agatha. This serves to emphasise how unrealistic this perception of the period is, while simultaneously reminding of those virtues and values which can and will survive in the face of mindless violence and persecution. The success of Zero and Gustave's absurd adventure serves to mock Fascism while reminding that it was the ugly truth of the era. The Fascists' intrusions, above all other unwholesome elements presented as lurking beneath the surface of European society at that time, function as a reminder of the ultimate tragedy of the period and its doomed nature, represented by the abrupt, off-screen execution of Gustave, the surly but comical Fascist thugs of the first train confrontation being replaced by a filthy, humourless "death squad" with no interest in discussion or investigation, the fundamental empty ugliness of Fascism emerging through its thin veneer of outward respectability. Yet respectable it nearly is in the early parts of the film. The original uniforms, which partially evoke the more decorative Imperialist garb of the First World War, and the reasonable nature of Inspector Henckels, remind modern culture that the Interbellum and Fascism are one and the same. They are products of the same historical motion which occupy the same historical space, both arguably, and in part, the corrupted vestiges of the mouldering remains of long-dead Romantic Europe. The execution of Gustave as such strikingly declares that Europe at that time was not, really, a nice place to be in many respects. The description of the event is abrupt and darkly comical, however, consoling us with the knowledge that it was brutal but that it is also over.

The final component I wanted to mention is one of equivalent interest to me but one which I hadn't myself previously fully connected with the film's other ideas. That is the concept of what I might describe as, for want of a better phrase, "islands of time." What I mean by this entirely inadequate phrase is the idea of specific, especially short, historical periods which nonetheless genuinely were, or are inaccurately perceived to have been, distinct historical entities with their own peculiarities. The interbellum period is obviously a prime example of this: twenty short years which are nonetheless perceived as sort of "sticking out" rather sharply from the history around them, almost this notion that because of the First and Second World Wars the 1910s didn't really flow organically into the 1920s and 30s, which themselves "jolted" into the late 40s and then the 50s. I think the film manages to somewhat draw attention to this notion as well, without necessarily criticising it. This is particularly represented by the idea of historical inertia in the face of the sudden and unexpected. It is shown, for instance, in the hotel maintaining in a sense its normal operation despite being overrun with Fascist officers who have essentially turned it into a headquarters, or the white-garbed monks in the mountains carrying on their monastic life despite the country being completely revolutionised. Of course the most substantial image of this is the fact that Zero, thirty-six years on, has essentially bribed the local Soviet government to keep the hotel operational as a tribute to his long-lost wife and child: "We were happy here, for a little while." Thus the film conceptualises the innate contradiction of periods of history and periods of life which are structured, routine and substantial, but which are only ever temporary, and sometimes are very brief. Thus Anderson rounds out his exploration of the cultural image of the period, explaining why it is so enduring: because of this personal human tendency to perceive these "islands of time."

To conclude I ought to explain the textual comparisons I made at the beginning. The Grand Budapest Hotel of course evokes "King Ottokar's Sceptre" because both feature intrigue centred around a historical or culturally significant artefact in a fictional Central European nation under threat from fictional Fascists. Hergé's comic is period satire, of course, reflecting the political situation of the time, using fictionalised regions to enable the point he is making. Anderson's presentation of the inaccurate and nebulous modern conception of 30s Europe may therefore be compared to how such representations once had enormous relevance and purpose, but that modern culture has more or less lifted away the surface of the time period and left most of the reality behind. The Grand Budapest Hotel draws attention to this insubstantiality in modern representations and adaptations. An awareness of this very insubstantiality explains  how, for example, Steven Spielberg's 2011 "The Adventures of Tintin" spectacularly misses the point of its source material. To turn to Henry James, the film evokes The Turn of the Screw in two ways: firstly with the use of multiple layers of narration, which also involve the recollection of experiences long past, and secondly in the theme of the tension between Romantic notions and reality. What Anderson achieves in The Grand Budapest Hotel is to question the intersection of layers of history, memory and culture, and speculate upon where reality lies, and where reality intersects with beauty and fairness and happiness. Perhaps all these things are to be found mingled amongst each other, and many worse and better things beside.