Thursday, 19 December 2013

Criticising the Hobbit and Exploring Tolkien's Feminist Credentials

I saw the new Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, yesterday and I, unsurprisingly, have opinions. I’m a huge fan of Tolkien’s books and I think when you’re a fan of a book you can have two responses when that book is then adapted into a film: either you hate it irrespective of quality because no film can ever compare to the film that played out in your head when you were reading OR you love it despite its flaws because you’re just so pleased to return to a world that engrossed you for hours. I suspect that I probably fall into the latter category because I could tell that the film was flawed (so very, very flawed) but I still found myself enjoying it.

The first Hobbit film was infamous for making people sick with its super high definition, frenetic camera work and its frantically paced action scenes. This film is definitely an improvement in this regard but Peter Jackson still makes some odd choices with the shooting of certain scenes.

The constantly moving camera in some sections is disorientating. The camera will sweep, while pivoting, over characters as they move through scenes, making it virtually impossible to follow the characters or the action. I don’t remember this being a problem for the Lord of the Things trilogy but the swooshing, swirling camera is frustratingly persistent here. Why has Peter Jackson suddenly decided that dizzying camera movements are the way forward?

And when did Peter Jackson get so keen on close-ups? There are so many shots of people’s faces really, really up close and I can’t quite figure out what these shots are supposed to show except that Peter Jackson has a really nifty camera.

Cinematographic criticism aside, what about the actual story? After the first Hobbit, I don’t think anyone was really surprised that this second film is not particularly faithful to the book. I personally don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, starring Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller, is such a poor adaptation of Jane Austen's novel that I tend to think of it as ‘inspired by’ the novel rather than an actual adaptation. I can still enjoy it as an Austen-inspired, regency romp, just not as a book adaptation.

I think it’s best to view the Hobbit films in the same way. The original book is pretty short so by making the decision to turn it into three films, it is inevitable that there’s going to be a lot of additional stuff thrown in there. Most obviously, a lot of characters that were not in the original book have been added to the films, like Radagast the Brown, Galadriel and Legolas. But for the Desolution of Smaug they have not only added Tolkein characters where they don’t belong, they’ve invented a whole new character! A lady elf!

The introduction of a new female character was a welcome move to me. As much as I love Tolkien’s books, they are woefully devoid of female characters. I was really surprised while reading an interview with Hobbit screenwriter, Philippa Boyens, when she said that, “Tolkien writes brilliantly for women.” Really?! Has Philippa Boyens actually read Tolkien?

When the Lord of the Rings books were made into a film trilogy, the female characters of the books were all substantially bolstered. This makes sense because modern audiences and critics expect the inclusion of female characters, even if they are often rather shallow. A lot of time and energy is spent dissecting the portrayal of women in films and Swedish cinemas have just introduced a film rating that judges a film on its gender bias. So Peter Jackson wisely took the virtually non-existent female characters from the books and made them into actual characters.

Out of all the female characters, Arwen is the one that is altered the most from books to films. That epic horse chase with Arwen carrying an ailing Frodo away from the Nazgul? Not in the book. Arwen’s internal conflict over whether she should go with her fellow elves to Valinor or stay in Middle Earth? Also no. Arwen is a complete non-entity in the books. Other characters mention her and how beautiful she is but that’s pretty much it. So I have no problem with Peter Jackson plonking her in an action sequence and giving her an internal conflict over her future.

Galadriel’s role is essentially the same in the books and the film. Galadriel is adored because she’s beautiful – that’s pretty much it.

And then of course we have Eowyn. Eowyn is a sword wielding, Witch-King killing badass in both the books and the films, it’s just that her part is obviously bolstered in the films. Eowyn feels stifled by the gender expectations of her society, she’s good with a sword, and she defies her father to go to battle. So you could perhaps argue that Eowyn shows that Tolkein can write feminist characters but you would be wrong. At the end of Return of the King, Eowyn meets Faramir, they fall hastily in love, and Eowyn declares that her days of shield maiden-ing are over. The book makes it sound like being a badass is just a phase that women go through while waiting for the perfect man to turn up.

Peter Jackson made the right choices in the Lord of the Rings films in bolstering the roles of the female characters and I think the introduction of the female elf character, Tauriel, in the Desolation of Smaug was a good idea as well. And they haven’t just added a token female character; she’s actually quite interesting. She’s a competent fighter who can hold her own like any of the male characters and she’s conflicted in her responsibility to her people vs her desire to help the people beyond the borders of her home. Since the Hobbit films have A LOT of characters, she’s about as developed as she could be. I just hope she’s developed through the next film and not just sidelined and forgotten.

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